According to Brother Cornell West, “even atheists like Karl Marx can be a secular prophet”. Remember West identifies as a Christian. Marx was deeply secular, but in his concern for working people and in what West refers as “his call for accountability of capital, and the bosses, and elites at the top including oligarchs and plutocrats there is a prophetic element to his critique.” West denied that Mao, or Stalin, or even Lenin are prophets. They have become “gangsters” said West. They were not on the side of the oppressed. They are not prophets at all. They manipulated working people for their own advantage. They did not care about the poor.
The presence of gangsters who claim to be followers of Marx does not detract from the fact that Marx’s critique was an act of secular prophesy. When Marx said that capitalism would generate a system in which there would be more and more autocrats and plutocrats at the top who will not be accountable and will instead try to buy off politicians in such a way that working people become “secondary and tertiary” he was prophetic. That does not mean that Marx correctly predicted the future. It means that he was correct in his analysis of the present (at that time) workings of the capitalist system. And the present is the the mother of the future. That is what pragmatic prophecy is all about. Like the Old Testament Prophets, West does not advocate trying to predict the future. That is false prophecy. The real Prophet tries to look closely and fearlessly at the present, analyze it, and tell us what he or she thinks is wrong with it. Often that entails telling the powerful what they don’t want to hear. That is a Prophet.
As a result, West accepts Marx as a secular prophet even though as a Christian he disagrees with him on the God question. He does not agree with Marx that all forms of religion are opiates. Some certainly are. Not all. At the same time he rejects some of the forms of Communism that flowed from Marx’s work.
What is important is a basic empathy for humanity. That is a big part of pragmatic prophecy as West sees it. We must, he suggests, must ask “how do we get out of our tribalism, our clannishness, our narrow groupism, let alone our egos, our narcissism, our hedonism and our rapacious individualism that renders us callous to the suffering of others?” That is the type of question the prophet asks, whether secular or religious. I think that is a very important approach. I even think it could be an important part of a religious quest in the modern age which is what I am looking at.
That is a perennial problem that every generation must face. As West said at his talk at the University of Winnipeg, “We have to learn to support not just those who look like us, that have the same colour of our skin, that attend the same churches or mosques as us, and support the larger humanity.”
Taking up a notion I got from the American philosopher Peter Singer, what we must do, is expand our fellow feeling is how I would put it. I think that is what Brother West was saying. And I think that is profound. Again, since my view is that fellow feeling or empathy is the fundamental core of religions—virtually all religions—that is the what it means to be engaged in a religious quest in the modern age. If you are not expanding the circle of compassion you have fallen off the trail and it’s time to get back.