If I were to have a conversation with Cornel West

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"To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak."

- Dr. Cornel West

West’s words pierced my heart the other night as a panelist quoted his words. I was at a pre-screening event in San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre with 1,399 other social activists working to dismantle structural racism and racialized violence. We watched HBO’s "3 1/2 minutes, Ten Bullets" about the murder of a 17-year-old Floridian black man named Jordan Davis and the trial of his killer, Michael Dunn. We listened to a panel of family members and activists including Davis' parents, Lucia and Ron, Patrisse Cullors of #BlackLivesMatter, and Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson (uncle of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black father whose 2009 killing in Oakland, Calif., was the subject of the highly acclaimed documentary, "Fruitvale Station").

When Johnson quoted Cornel West, he reminded me of a dear friend online whose theological reflection and social analysis of our reality not only resonates with me, but also inspires me and gives me the courage to face injustice in the proverbial eye.

If I just had a moment to sit with West, what would I say? What would he say? How would he challenge me? Could I even challenge him or be a decent conversation partner?

Acclaimed theologian, democratic philosopher, author and spoken word activist, West embodies, articulates and celebrates the Paschal Mystery with a depth of clarity, provocative insight, and distressing certainty:

"The aim is not for me to be right. The aim is to make sure that we keep the focus on the people who are suffering. That's what we're here for."

If I had to choose one from his almost 20 books, Race Matters offers much truth-telling for me. Reading it, I felt invited to see the world as it really is, not as I would like it to be, but as it really is. This experience brought immeasurable recognition of the lives and dignity of so many for whom our society ignores, pushes to the margins, or sets aside all together. Along with feminist theologian, bell hooks, I felt held in a ring of compassion, empathy, solidarity and an active, relevant spirituality budding with new demands on my active personal and communal experiences of prayer and practice. In her work, hooks invites us to re-frame and re-fashion what "center" and what "margins" could look like, a classic turn to what Catholics would call the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.

As I come to reflect on the most vulnerable in my midst, I wonder if my life, my habits, my character, my values, my actions, my faith can be dignified by the title Intellectual.

I just returned from Washington D.C., where I and about 1,699 of my closest friends will gather to sharpen our ability to analyze our society and our attempts at equity, name our own experience and listen to others, and advocate for better laws and systems that would encourage and cultivate a fuller, abundant life.

I’ve been going to the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice since 1999. I suppose you can say I've "found my tribe." I go to reunite with old friends, meet new ones, and become transformed in the ministry of building the kin-dom of God. We have now grown to be the largest annual Catholic social justice conference in the nation. We are deeply committed to the intersection of Catholic social teaching that both values the life and dignity of the human person as well as holds fast to the preferential option for the poor. We privilege consideration to end the death penalty, to create lasting humane immigration reform, to dismantle American militarization policies in Central America, to cultivate more just, fair, inclusive, healthy environments and communities for all people, not just some.

You can listen to one of our network speakers, high school senior, Brendan Underwood as he explore solutions to his community’s experience of racial injustice.

And I got a chance to introduce Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin, who spoke about the concept and the practice of pilgrimage as it relates to our own vocation as people of faith and justice. That speech is streamed here.

Our story collectively began when we realized that the deaths of so many Salvadorans could no longer be funded by U.S. tax dollars. We would join the tens of thousands of activists at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., to peacefully protest American military spending and our foreign policy. The death of the Jesuit martyrs and their companions at the University of Central America gave birth to our gathering. We are indebted to them and the many others whose suffering captures our imagination and compels us to act.

We remember:

Ignacio Ellacuría, university rector and an internationally known philosopher, tireless in his efforts to promote peace through his writings, conferences and travels abroad;

Segundo Montes, dean of the sociology department and director of the University Institute of Human Rights which tried to help the families and relatives of those who had been assassinated, disappeared or imprisoned;

Ignacio Martín Baró, a pioneering social psychologist who headed the psychology department;

Theology professors, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López;

Joaquin López y López, the only native Salvadoran of the group and founding head of the Fe y Alegría network of schools for the poor;

Julia Elba Ramos, wife of the caretaker at the UCA, and her daughter, Celina, who were sleeping that night at the UCA since they felt it would be safer than their cottage on the edge of the campus.

I don't draw any distinctions between forms of bigotry or forms of ideology that lose sight of the humanity of people. I can't stand white supremacy. I can't stand male supremacy. I can't stand imperial subjugation. I can't stand homophobia.

- Cornel West

The more I go, the more I realize that working for justice especially means working to actively resist, stop, interrupt violence and the temptation to believe that others are nothing but human. I can't get too comfortable thinking about the right thing to do or the better idea to have; I must stand in the discomfort and disdain that the status quo will lure me to believe that this or she or he is not worth the hassle. I must intervene in creation as God has created me to do.

As the allegorical story of creation invites us deeper into understanding theological truths for us today, I am reminded that I am created as one (special and unique as I am), good, distinct being in an integral relationship with others. I have the ability to create and the command to multiply the fruits of my labor. As a co-creator, I, too, must name, distinguish, nurture all of God's magnificent creation.

The love of wisdom is a way of life; that is to say, it's a set of practices that have to do with mustering the courage to think critically about ourselves, society, and the world; mustering the courage to empathize; the courage, I would say, to love; the courage to have compassion with others, especially the widow and the orphan, the fatherless and the motherless, poor and working peoples, gays and lesbians, and so forth -- and the courage to hope.

- Cornel West

Would I want to be remembered as loving or as not "rocking the boat?" Would I want to be inspiring as a prophet who builds up communities or as one who destroys creativity and stifles life?

The courage to hope today means not only remembering the Salvadoran martyrs but also our most recent martyrs whose lives and deaths are symptomatic of a broken, decaying, fearful society whose control on the status quo means ritualizing violence and fear.

Let us also remember:

Trayvon Martin, born in Florida on February 5, 1995. His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, divorced four years later. Trayvon Martin attended public schools in Florida, including the Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami Gardens. He was 17-year-old killed by George Zimmerman for looking suspicious.

Jordan Davis, a student at Wolfson High School described as kind, hospitable, generous, and silly by his parents Lucia and Ron. He was a 17-year-old killed over loud music at a gas station by Michael David Dunn.

Eric Garner, a horticulturist at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, who had quit for health reasons. Garner, who was married to Esaw Garner, had been described by his friends as a "neighborhood peacemaker" and as a generous, congenial person. He was the father of six children and three grandchildren, and at the time of his death had a 3-month-old child. He was a 43-year-old whose death while in police custody incited national outrage.

Michael Brown, graduated from Normandy High School in St. Louis eight days before his death. His teachers said he was "a student who loomed large and didn't cause trouble," referring to him as a "gentle giant." He was an 18-year-old shot and killed by Officer Darren* Wilson.

Freddie Gray, a west Baltimore native and "very loving, caring and respectful young man who always had a smile on his face. He was a 25-year-old who, while in police custody, suffered a mysterious spinal trauma and subsequently died.

Sandra Bland, a civil rights activist in Chicago. She was 28-year-old found hung while in police custody in Texas after a traffic stop.

Tamir Rice, a popular child who liked to draw, play basketball and perform in the school's drum line. He was a 12-year-old killed by rookie Officer Timothy Loehmann.

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, two friends living in Cleveland without their own homes; Timothy struggled with violence in his life as Malissa lived with a mental illness. They were 43- and 30-year-olds both killed by excessive police action (137 gunshots fired at their car when they were unarmed).

Let us end with these real, hopeful words of Intellectual, Cornel West:

The country is in deep trouble. We've forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that's the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.

Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.

-Cornel West

*An earlier version of this post included the incorrect first name for Darren Wilson.

[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at contemplativecompanions.org. Her email address is jocelyn@ingoodcompany.net.co.]

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