I had heard of Cornel West, walked by him at conferences, was intrigued by him, but I had never heard him speak. Last summer I had the opportunity to do so at the Hispanic Summer Program. HSP, started by Justo Gonzalez, provides Latina and Latino seminary students the opportunity to take a two-week course from a Hispanic professor in a setting in which they are not a minority in the classroom. Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary became one of the thirty-plus sponsoring seminaries in 2013 so that our students could participate. I was at HSP for a shorter program, called Through Hispanic Eyes, for non-Hispanic seminary faculty and administrators. Cornel West gave an evening lecture to HSP students on black-brown relationships—participants in my program, as well as people from the community, were invited to sit in on the lecture.
I expected West to be radical. His passionate critique of the status quo did not surprise me; it did surprise me when he started talking about the cross. Numerous times he called the audience to look through the lens of the cross. He declared, “and what is seen through the lens of the cross is not a proposition.”
Too often it seems that the more academic the setting the less Jesus talk there is. And that had been true of the sessions I had been in with other seminary professors talking about how to better recruit and serve Latina and Latino students. We started each day with a devotional led by one of the participants. The devotionals were good—clearly people in the group had deep faith commitments, but Jesus was not mentioned again the rest of the day. We, myself included, never said, “let’s look through the lens of the cross. How might that shape how we approach this?” We did not talk about how following Jesus related to the topic of our training.
West did not just mention Jesus, he proclaimed him!
This was not a sermon. It was a lecture and he spoke about many things, but he also preached—and without hesitation. He asked us “Do you have the nerve to follow Jesus? Are you willing to cut against the grain?” He stated, “You can call Alexander great if you want, but he is not great through the lens of the cross. Through the lens of the cross love and serving others is what is great.” “The way of the cross is the way of unconditional love and truth.” He exhorted us to put the cross first, not the flag of our nation.
If West, a former Princeton University Philosopher professor and current Union Seminary philosophy professor, had not mentioned Jesus or the cross in this speech on black-brown relations, I would not have left saying, “Can you believe that? He never talked about Jesus!” Similarly, I had not ended the first day of our sessions by calling home and telling my wife, “Lynn, I can’t believe it—hours together with seminary deans, professors, and admission directors, but no talk about Jesus in relation to our topic.” It is telling that what caught my attention, what surprised me, in those days was not the lack of Jesus talk in our session, but the presence of Jesus talk in West’s lecture.
A number of things West said challenged me, left me pondering. But what most challenged me was the fact that he so explicitly brought Jesus into his talk. Why do I not more often do what he did? He integrated talk of Jesus and the cross into a topic that did not demand it—that many people would talk about without mentioning Jesus. My question is not: why don’t I talk about Jesus? I actually talk about Jesus quite a bit in classes and Bible studies. I even have a book titled Centrado en Jesus (Centered on Jesus). But it is one thing to talk with passion and conviction about Jesus when leading a Bible study, another thing to do so when talking about other topics. For instance, I frequently have conversations with people about the themes of this website without any Cornel West-like lines about the cross or Jesus. Why?
One answer could be that I have not looked at these topics enough through the lens of the cross to be able to integrate Jesus comments into my conversations. I do not think that is the case. I have thought of two other possible reasons. First, when in conversation with other Christians I think I and others assume the Jesus factor—sort of a “Well of course Jesus influences how we think about this, we are Christians.” So we do not bring Jesus into the conversation. Second, I think it is a reaction against some Christians overusing Jesus talk in clichéd ways. Not for the first time, I have reacted to some people’s negative version of a practice by abandoning the practice rather than reforming the practice. Cornel West’s example challenges me to do otherwise. It is not a call to sprinkle in Jesus talk just so I sound more Christian. Instead it is a call to bring more Jesus talk into conversation to acknowledge the reality that the point being made is influenced by Jesus and the cross, or as way of inviting reflection on how the conversation could be more profoundly Christian.
I can imagine some of you getting nervous now, perhaps thinking, “But wait a minute Mark, there are situations in which explicit Jesus language could be counterproductive—might end a conversation.” I acknowledge that. For instance I recently read Just Mercy. The Christian author writes a book in line with Cornel West’s observations and critiques. I believe the author, Bryan Stevenson, looks at the criminal justice system through the lens of the cross, yet he does not mention Jesus or the cross in the book. I imagine that was an intentional decision. He did not want to limit his audience by using explicitly Christian language. I do not critique Stevenson’s decision. I also, however, do not think it is always the best decision. I hope that the challenge of West’s lecture will lead to me bringing Jesus up more often in conversations with non-Christians on themes like consumerism or technique. Yet, I want to point out that the events described in this blog, HSP sessions and lecture, were Christian settings. It is Christian settings I have most in mind as I write this. Let us start there in increasing our Jesus talk.
After hearing Cornel West I added this line to my daily prayer guide: “Be like Cornel West -- let my Jesus commitments and convictions be more explicitly evident.” What has happened? There have been a number of times that this Cornel West-nudge has led me to explicitly bring Jesus into informal conversations, presentations and things I have written (including a couple of these blogs)--places where I probably would not have before. It has not, however, been as much as I thought it would be or as I would like it to be--plenty of room for growth here. Just last week after a lunch-time discussion with a few students about money/Mammon I realized that although I had used a few Christian words like “faith” and “trust in God,” I had not brought Jesus and the cross into the discussion in ways I could have. This is, however, progress. Pre Cornel West I would not have even had the evaluative thought, would not have recognized the missed opportunity.
Does this really matter? Is it that big of a deal? Certainly there is value at the level of witness—speaking of Jesus in this way makes public my allegiance to him. Yet it is more than that. Hopefully it is true that much of what I think and say is shaped by Jesus, and I am not calling us to label every thought. For instance, returning to the seminar I was in at HSP, I am not saying that the things we discussed were not influenced by our faith commitments, nor that we should have begun every paragraph by saying “Through the lens of the cross…” Yet, I have found that bringing Jesus into conversations has changed things. It is not just window dressing. It has led me to think and say things that I would not have had I not brought Jesus explicitly into the conversation or presentation.
I wish in the midst of that seminar I would have asked, “how as followers of Jesus do we approach the issues of recruiting and serving Latino and Latina students differently than others?” This question would have brought new insights, new emotions, new convictions and new challenges into the discussion.
I invite you to join me in expressing your Jesus commitments and convictions more explicitly in areas you currently do not do so.