The Nihilism of which Cornel West wrote in Race Matters describes American culture across all lines of division.
Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational ground for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, a lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and [most important of all) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.Cornel West, Race Matters, p. 22-23
A Lived Experience
Years before meeting Cornel West, Professor Paul Lehmann, spoke of him as a brilliant rising star, and advised me to keep my eyes open for him as a source of wisdom worthy of attention.
A decade later, Cornel was the guest speaker of the Westminster Town Hall Forum at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis.
Shunning the Limelight
Of all the Forum speakers, Cornel West made the most lasting impression. It wasn’t what he said. It’s what he did. He wanted to meet the rest of the church staff, and he did. He eagerly greeted each and every one as if that person were the apple of God’s eye. With Al in the basement boiler room office, members of Al Cooper’s custodial staff, administrative support staff, associate pastors, he greeted them eagerly, as though they, not he, were the honored guest.
That was then. This is now. Some things are different; other things have not changed. For both good and ill, the present moment springs from our roots. To turn a blind eye to the past is to become blind to the present.
American history is a tinderbox of unresolved contradictions. We inherit a legacy of both neighborliness and violence, compassion and cruelty, wisdom and folly, love and hate, aspirations toward a more equitable society and persistence of the pecking order. Underneath every contradiction lies the fear of our mortality, the denial of death that spills the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood still cries out from the ground where kidnapped Africans lived and died as property of White slave owners deluded by the same presumption of racial, religious, and cultural superiority that committed mass murder of America’s indigenous peoples after coming here to practice religious freedom and build the biblical “city set upon a hill.”
The Politics of the Limelight
No nation is exceptional. Every nation that imagines itself to be the city set upon a hill rises by, and falls on, its own sword. The rise and fall of the myth of national exceptionalism has turned Ukraine into a killing field. Once the strongmen had been Stalin and Hitler. Now, their protégé continues the propaganda of lies and fears to establish himself and Russia as exceptions to the tides of history.
We cannot point to Vladimir Putin as unusual. He’s not. While Putin seeks to rescue Russia from the ashes of history, the defeated president who gathered the wood and lit the match on January 6, 2022, continues his campaign of arson that will Make America Great Again, free of criminal indictment and prosecution to stop him. In the meantime, the people he has seduced into conflating America and himself feed the “rule of law” and the Constitution through the paper shredder.
The Politics of Cultural Conversion
People like Al in the boiler room, and administrative assistants like Eloise, Mary, and Sharon quietly stand guard over the boiler and the paper shredder, remembering the moment when Cornel West shined a light on them. With no need for recognition, they practice “the politics of [cultural] ]conversion that shuns the limelight — a limelight that solicits status seekers and ingratiates egomaniacs.” (West, p. 31)
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, December 14, 2022.