Justice: Prophetic Pragmatism and the Quest for God


Brother Cornell West has been called a “prophetic pragmatist.” He likes that label. It is part of his desire for the Socratic life. Decide what sort of life you will lead, “what virtue you will enact in your short journey from womb to tomb.” That is the deeply Socratic life. West said, “That is William James and John Dewey the indigenous philosophy of pragmatism that I have been a part of.” But he also says, “it is prophetic because I remain a Christian.”

This is what West said in May of 2015 at the University of Winnipeg:


This is the prophetic Jewish tradition that was continued by a Palestinian by the name of Jesus. He said that we have to spread and love and kindness to the orphans and widows, fatherless, poor. Just like the Bible he means that in a broad sense of those who need help. He wants to spread kindness to the human particularly those who are weak and vulnerable and that includes gay brothers and sisters, workers, the colonized, the physically challenged, indigenous people, black, red, brown, white, poor working class whites.


Prophetic pragmatism is just establishing a fundamental tilt toward the weak and vulnerable. That includes the elderly and children.  In the US 40% of our children of color live in poverty. 22% of all children live in poverty! And that is in the richest nation in the history of the world. “That is a moral abomination.”

Even here in Manitoba, 25% of the children live in poverty. That is just not right. That is a state of emergency for them and their parents.”


We should be treating it like an emergency.  That’s what prophets do. They don’t just go to the pub with their friends. Or to the golf course with their buddies.  Not that there is anything wrong with such activities. After all I have done them many times. But, prophets do more than that.

That is what I liked about West. It is the same thing I liked about the Prophets of the Old Testament which I blogged about earlier.

The Prophets refuse to allow the powerful to stand in the way of helping the needy. That is fused throughout the Old Testament. Jesus inherited and even transformed this tradition. That is all for the good. West wants to  do that too for modern society. That is why he is a prophetic pragmatist.

In my language that is why I think Brother West, as he likes to be known,  is on a religious quest and can help us all learn something of value. Who knows, maybe even we can go on such a quest.


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