Transgression and Convergence, Infectious Chemistry and Serious Urgency:
Reflections on REVOLUTION AND RELIGION: The Fight For Emancipation and the Role of Religion—A Dialogue Between Cornel West and Bob Avakian
by Andy Zee | November 30, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
3:00 p.m., Saturday November 15, brilliant sunshine barely warms the coldest day of Autumn 2014. A double line of people stretches around the block in front of Riverside Church in New York City. The main floor of Riverside’s enormous chapel fills and two balconies are opened up to seat the capacity crowd. Sunlight streams through the stained glass windows and the place crackles with anticipation. An announcement is made that we are waiting for a bus from Chicago that includes people from Ferguson, Missouri who have been on the front lines in the struggle for justice for Michael Brown.
Cornel West and Bob Avakian are backstage making their last minute plans for their dialogue, when all of a sudden the air is broken with loud rhythmic voices coming from the chapel. Cornel and Bob ask: What’s happening? The whole place is on its feet chanting “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” as Ferguson enters the room.
The spirit of revolution and resistance and of serious purpose is in the house and in the air—looking forward to a deep engagement with the life-and-death questions about humanity’s future. People came excited and curious for the rare chance to see and hear Bob Avakian live and in person and in dialogue with Cornel West, at a moment when people around the country were tense awaiting the Ferguson verdict and were coming alive after a summer of struggle with a new determination put a stop to the epidemic of police murder of Black and Latino youth. In the weeks leading up to the event, the Dialogue organizers had stressed that believers and non-believers were welcome—that the dialogue was not just about one’s personal beliefs but about a question—the fight for emancipation and the role of religion—that matters deeply to billions of people at this moment in history.
1,600 people are ready as REVOLUTION AND RELIGION: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion—A Dialogue Between Cornel West and Bob Avakian is about to begin. A full-page ad for the dialogue appeared in the New York Times two days before, fueling the understanding that this was an event of great import. Before the hour is out, 1,900 people will fill almost every seat in Riverside. The turnout evidenced a broad hunger to hear these two people speak on this topic.
It was a rare electrifying mix of people—scores of people from the projects around New York and from Chicago and cities across the country. Front-line fighters from Ferguson, people of all nationalities, ages and genders. Public high school students, university students from Columbia, Rutgers, and CUNY intermixed with distinguished professors and high school teachers. Prominent musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers, religious leaders and activists from different churches and denominations fill and are abuzz in the pews. People were watching on Livestream on the West Coast and in other countries.
The program was on. After brief introduction, Cornel West and Bob Avakian each spoke with passion and depth to the need to stand up to the outrageous suffering of the billions of this planet. Giving voice to what has been all too absent from political discourse for decades—they both unsparingly criticized excuses to accept, to become indifferent to, to acquiesce and/or be complicit with the horrors that this system rains down on the people and the planet. Together they struggled with the audience for a morality and a moral courage that these times demand. And, they fought for people to see the need for radical, revolutionary change—each in their own way and coming from different philosophical frameworks. They modeled and challenged the audience to think and to act on their convictions and to do so with courage.
Before the dialogue Cornel West recorded a PSA that promised that there would be “transgression and convergence.” Indeed. Their differences with each other and their struggle with the audience were palpably undergirded with a respect and love that arises from the potential for people to rise up to change themselves and the world. One woman from the suburbs commented that she hadn’t heard anything like this for decades—it was so rare and inspiring to listen to and be in the presence of such impassioned, knowledgeable speakers who weren’t attempting to trade platitudes or promises for votes or other favor, but who have and continue to put themselves on the line for their convictions.
This was a dialogue—two substantive presentations followed by a profound discussion between Cornel West and Bob Avakian bouncing off of incredibly thought-provoking written questions from the audience. It repays repeated listening and watching the whole thing, which you can do on line at www.revcom.us. The poet and writer Alice Walker posted the video on her website, writing: “Thank you, brothers West and Avakian, for this ray of light.”
In this report we are but trying to convey the experience and import of the Dialogue. We will touch on just a few of the themes and the content that Bob Avakian and Cornel West discussed—hopefully enough so that readers go to the video and dig into it themselves and together with others.
Bob Avakian (BA) spoke first with a sweeping and in-depth talk that began with a dedication to Clyde Young, a friend and a member of the RCP,USA’s Central Committee who recently died. Clyde Young, also known as Wayne Webb, grew up hard, as one of those who the system treats as the “worst of the worst.” In prison for most of his early life, Clyde became a revolutionary and dedicated his life to the emancipation of all of humanity. He was courageous; a deep thinker, and friend to masses of people all over the country. In his visceral and personal dedication to Clyde Young, BA brought alive how those who are despised and demonized by this system can come to understand the causes of this and the solution through revolution; and in so doing lead lives and lead the people to transform themselves and the world.
BA challenged people’s thinking, at times taking them out of their comfort zones. Many were inspired and exhilarated to be confronted with a moral and methodological framework that unsparingly took on all the political and ideological assumptions that this society rests on. How rare for thousands to experience Bob Avakian give a full-out presentation of revolution to overcome and rid the world of all forms of exploitation and oppression. This was not talk that invoked the word revolution to offer some changes at the edges of the brutality of the current system. BA made a profoundly radical—which means getting to the root—call for real revolution and the morality and the methodology that humanity needs to emancipate itself.
Most people had never heard such a talk before. People with experience from the 1960s, or who had studied the period, reached back for comparisons. But this was different and new, as Avakian began with, and returned to, a discussion of morality—a morality rooted in a scientific method of understanding the world as it actually is and how it could be transformed through revolution. He broke down the scientific method through example and humor so that all could understand. From this perspective—a materialist understanding that another world is possible through revolution, BA posed and spoke to big questions such as: “Can we do without god?” “Can we be good without god?” “And, if there is no god, what can our guide be in struggle for a more just world?”
BA began his discussion of religion by sharply exposing the horrific social relations that run through the New and Old Testaments—the patriarchy, the vengeance, the endorsement of slavery and brutality. He then posed how all but the most fanatic religious fundamentalists take a pick-and-choose, “salad bar” approach to scripture—discarding what is abhorrent today and resting their faith and their actions on those portions of the Bible they believe to be morally good. He said that if this is what you are doing, say so, posing this as a contradiction to grapple with. At the same time, he embraced those whose religious convictions lead them to stand with the oppressed in their struggle to end oppression, and encouraged them to continue to do so, putting forth the understanding of why it is that ultimately relying on “faith” will straitjacket the ability of humanity to liberate itself. Later, in his presentation and in the dialogue between them, Cornel West would sharply challenge this perspective with the experiential impetus and foundation that faith plays in his ability—and in the ability of Black people in America—to live, love and to struggle. Yet Cornel too, from this perspective, stressed the import and basis for people to stand together against oppression and repression and that this must guide what we do, and who we stand with.
In a passage that stirred the audience, Bob Avakian posed a compelling vision of the possibility of a radically different and better world that made the horrors of this world stand out as so outrageously unnecessary and out of sync with what is possible. He posed: “What if the world doesn’t have to be this way? What if we could live in a world where never again will a parent have to fear for the life of their child just because of the color of their skin?” He went on to pose horror after horror up against what could be. The two “what if's” that brought down the house with cries of recognition were: “What if there were no such things as immigrants, what if we lived in a world community of human beings without borders and tanks and guns and planes to enforce that.” And, “What if women could walk down the street and look every man they encounter straight in the eye and fear nothing?”
Avakian gave no quarter to the reality of what the U.S. is and does. He exposed the lies and cohering myths that blind people to this—including the tremendous crimes against humanity committed by the Democrats—and he challenged the audience to confront just what it is they endorse when voting for those who are, in fact, war criminals. At the same time, BA spoke to what was the imminent grand jury verdict in Ferguson and the profound need to act. This section of the speech merits revisiting right now.
After Avakian’s speech Cornel West gave an impassioned, strong exposition of the revolutionary Christian approach to changing the world. He began by saying, "My brother Bob Avakian can sustain the revolutionary fire for a long time"—speaking to the scope, length, and revolutionary fire of BA’s talk, and locating this in BA never giving up over decades, never selling his soul for some “pottage.”
Cornel began and rooted his talk in the need to be faithful to the oppressed. His talk was framed by four questions posed by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1957: “How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult?" And, "What does virtue do in the face of brute force?” He forcefully applied these moral benchmarks to the current moment, his point of departure being the cross.
He brought forth that for him personally, Jesus is not an abstraction but stems from deep experience: the wellspring of his grandmother’s tears and his understanding of the struggle of Black people. He spoke of the need to struggle and the moral compass of a faith grounded in love. He railed against Empire and the profound need for critical analysis of capitalism which is one of the things he values in Bob Avakian and the Party he leads.
Cornel sharply posed his theological and philosophical differences with communism and atheism for not recognizing the meaning of the cross in the story of Jesus and especially in Black people’s lives, while doing so in the context of a passionate call for and unity based on integrity, honesty, and commitment to struggle that stems from a deep love for “the least of these” and a deep calling to end injustice. He expressed appreciation for the fact that BA and the RCP have and promote a vision for a way to move beyond this society. He concluded with a sharp point that “historically black rage has always been the central threat to the status quo,”...“not because Black people have a monopoly on truth, goodness or beauty..." but because when “Black people wake up, all the people who are subordinated and dominated can get in and wake up.” Ending with: “This is what we understand together; this is why we’re here.”
Here we have but touched on the scope and depth of Bob Avakian's and Cornel West's presentations. Once again, go to the video and take it all in.
The chemistry between Cornel West and Bob Avakian was infectious. They were humorous and serious, relaxed and charged with great urgency, sharply political and then spinning into discussions of music, morality and epistemology. Most of all it was totally ingenuous—straight talk between two people with a shared passion for engaging and struggling over ideas as integral to how people can unite to struggle together to fight to end oppression.
This just sings in the hour and half dialogue between them. It must be watched to appreciate. To try and capture the urgency and the richness of their discourse is beyond the scope of this article.
Some of the audience questions: How do religious people square faith with a revolutionary mindset? What do we do about police brutality and murder? What is god? What is the role of art in revolution? What are the sins of religion and of communism? How do we overcome the oppressors’ massive brutal force? You could feel the development of BA's and CW's thinking in their responses to these questions and through the back and forth with each other.
There was something people felt in their chemistry—a comradery that modeled a different kind of movement. The audience could sense the process unfolding as principled differences over substance were engaged, not soft-pedaled or put aside. Through this, as differences clarified, their unity deepened, rooted in standing with those on the bottom of society who need to be affirmed and empowered not just for themselves alone but to fight against all forms of exploitation, oppression and injustice. Together they set an example and called on people to not be satisfied with doing a little good and resting on and accumulating laurels while nothing fundamental has changed for the people of the world. This was a process of forging a unity that didn’t take differences lightly, cognizant that these differences matter while recognizing the fiber, the strength, and the love that comes from standing on principle and working together to enable others to do so as well.
The chemistry also flowed from a shared sense that the struggle is not about me or my group, not just about ending some of the oppression of some of the people, but ending all exploitation and oppression. Even as they come from different perspectives—revolutionary Christianity rooted in the cross and revolutionary communism rooted in the scientific approach of dialectical materialism—they met and spoke and inspired and modeled a movement with radically new and different social relations.
There was something else that many have commented on in the warmth and the challenge between the speakers and the audience. If you were in the room, or if you watch the simulcast online, you can sense the collective spirit of traveling together to change the world. There was no sugarcoating of this. Both Cornel and BA struggled with the audience—to discard the mental traps, boxes, and lures with which this society ensnares people's thinking, and to stand up and ACT. One person said after the event that she thought perhaps the headline for the event should be something BA said a couple of times: “This is not a game, we are very serious about this.” This seriousness of purpose, the struggle with people to get up off of thinking that limits their horizons and their actions, came from a profound recognition of people's potential to change.
The event was not without controversy. Not surprisingly, different people were made uncomfortable by different parts of the radical content of Bob Avakian’s speech. BA spoke longer than Cornel West, and for some people who had an issue with the length of BA’s talk, this became a vehicle to express disagreement with the content. There were challenges to different cherished beliefs that took some people out of their comfort zones. These included not only religious faith per se, but included such articles of faith as America and democracy; the role of elections and voting for the Democratic Party; restricting one’s vision of change to getting a more equitable arrangement between contending groups within the current social order and system; and really applying a scientific methodology to changing the world—critiquing not only religion, but the religious way all too many communists and progressive forces have treated communism as inevitable, and the oppressed as innately possessing a special purchase on the truth. Others understood and appreciated what they just experienced. A 20-year-old Caribbean poet expressed it like this:
Bob Avakian really, really impressed me. I was annoyed with people asking him to stop. It was a bit long. I must admit that, but I was really impressed with his radical, militant, “I don’t care, I will tell you” perspective. I think we need more of that. This nation is, in fact, fucking imperialist...
To get a fuller sense of the incredible response to the Dialogue, read through the comments posted on www.revcom.us. And send in your own thoughts.
The Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian was an amazing event with profound and historic significance. The full house... who was in the room—concentrating decades of experience in fighting for freedom, to young people fresh from the front lines, to those grappling with big questions. Artists and teachers and religious leaders of different faiths, revolutionaries and people struggling for justice. It was an event charged with the theme of Revolution and Religion: the Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion. And at the heart of this were Cornel West and Bob Avakian, what they each said, the Dialogue and the chemistry between them and with the audience.
What was opened up on November 15, 2014 must continue. People should see the Dialogue as a jumping off point to get deeply into their work. To get a full and living sense of BA and the work he has done, after watching this Dialogue, get a copy of the film BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! Let's continue digging into the substance, the questions, the divergence and the unity so that together we forge the unity to ACT together to fight against all forms of oppression and to do so aiming for a world fit for human beings.
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