‘We begin with a critical self-inventory. If there’s white supremacy in me, then my hunch is that you’ve got some work to do.”
Dr. Cornel West brought thousands of Unitarian Universalists repeatedly to their feet at the 2015 General Assembly Ware Lecture Saturday night. West, a Beacon Press author known internationally for his oratorical flourish, challenged the audience to “sacrifice something precious in the name of integrity.” He took “timid” megachurch leaders, politicians, Wall Street figures, and others to task, suggesting that present times require “moral resolve.”
“There are four questions every generation has to wrestle with,” said West, channeling twentieth-century intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. “How shall integrity face oppression? . . . What does honesty do in the face of deception? . . . What does decency do in the face of insult? . . . How does virtue meet brute force?”
West implored the assembly—and the nation—to “aspire to integrity” and truth-telling. For West, more courage is required to face the problems of our time. Invoking the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he praised current protesters and freedom fighters in Ferguson and across the country, but suggested he wished leaders and entertainers alike had more courage to challenge the myriad “diseases” that “are plaguing” the United States.
“The civil rights movement was not a political movement,” he said. “It was a struggle about integrity, and what it means to be human.” Lifting up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi’s words—“cowardice is more evil than violence”—West asked Unitarian Universalists to choose courage and bravery. “We are all afraid,” he declared. He said we fear losing our jobs, losing popularity, and our standing in the world—and that those fears get in the way of using our deep wisdom and moral knowledge.
West concluded by urging people of faith—and the nation—to listen to “blues people,” or people who know suffering and its uses. “Learn from blues people in your midst, or you'll lose your democracy. Trauma is not new to some of us,” he said.
“Let the phones be smart—we have to be wise and aspire to integrity. This movement is about integrity first.”