On Amanour & Co. Cornel West talked some more about the Hebrew concept of hesed.
He started by talking about the great American novelist Henry James who wrote a letter on January 12, 1901 to Robert Louis Stevenson in which he said, he wanted no theory that is too kind us or that cheats us out of seeing. Every theory has a certain limitedness and narrowness, but the goal is to broaden what we see. We do not want to be short-sighted or myopic. West says the same applies to feeling more deeply. Then we hopefully can avoid indifference.
West quoted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.” The Rabbi said it was more dangerous more universal, and more contagious than evil. Then, according to West, the next step is to act more courageously. It certainly seems like those who are indifferent to suffering are in fact almost numberless. They have no interest in confronting issues of inequity, injustice, poverty, oppression, or the like. They just want to get to their TV shows, or their Facebook feed, or their mindless chatter. I don’t know if it is the most evil thing, but it is surely evil when people are indifferent to suffering. According to West, If they don’t care about the suffering of others they are simply not fully human.
Even when black leaders are the best of who they are, there are limitations, he admitted. That’s why “democracy itself is the proximate solution to insoluble problems.” It’s the best we can do for now. As he added,
“You are never going to get away with the hatred and insecurity and the anxiety that go hand in hand with who we are as human beings, but you can have mechanisms of accountability vis-à-vis the most vulnerable. That’s democracy. That’s why voices from below can merge to try to shape the destiny of a nation.”
When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. As Jeff Sharlet explained, “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.”
I find it interesting how West takes an Old Testament concept and infuses it with modern politics. He uses the idea to advocate for a a society where there is justice—a vast, public, and steadfast lovingkindness—for all. That is where West’s religious quest brought him. It brought him to a good place.