Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and author Cornel West opened the Trinity Institute’s “Creating Common Good: A Practical Conference on Economic Inequality” that took place in Manhattan from Jan. 22 to 25 in two very different styles of address. But in their messages about what Christians are called to do in the face of inequality and injustice, there was a remarkable convergence.
Welby held up the example of the way a Roman Catholic archbishop and an Anglican bishop in Liverpool worked together in the 1980s to help rebuild the city that had been torn apart by sectarianism, poverty and political dysfunction. “We are called to action. Seek the welfare of the city,” Welby said, in a homily at the opening worship service.
“We are to get involved. We are to get our hands dirty, to speak of policy and of implementation, not merely to deal with the macro but also with the micro,” he later told the crowd of about 300 gathered for the annual conference at Trinity Church, Wall Street. “The common good truly interpreted in the light of scripture, its horizons opened up by the radicality of the gospel, demands from us our own radicality that can only come from the overflowing of the spirit of God within us.”
Jesus’s words in Luke’s gospel, Welby added, promise the gift of that spirit, which will “make possible the impossible revolution, the impossible revolution that is to be achieved without violence, to be achieved without hatred, to be achieved through blessing and loving and serving, and transforming the society in which we live.”
And in a keynote address that seemed to be part whirlwind and part jazz symphony, Cornel West, author of The Rich and the Rest of Us, held up Martin Luther King, Jr., John Coltrane, B.B. King, Malcolm X and dozens of writers from Socrates to Toni Morrison to W.H. Auden to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for wisdom when facing injustice.
He began quoting from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: “Any justice that is only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice. Justice must be rescued by something deeper than justice, and yes, it is love.”
Later in his address, West said the fundamental question is, “Will your righteous indignation be channelled through the venues of love and justice or hatred and revenge?” He added: “That’s the question right now in Paris, isn’t it? The question in Nigeria, the question in Sri Lanka.”
West spoke about black children in America growing up with fears of walking down the street and being harassed, stopped, frisked or shot. “I know the president said the union is strong. I said, ‘My dear brother president, you need to get off the symbolic crack pipe.’ ” He mentioned that he went to Ferguson, not “to give a speech. I went there to go to jail. And that’s where I ended up with a smile on my face in the name of Jesus.”
West said his faith sometimes pushes him in the direction of “revolutionary Christianity,” or what some call the far left. “I don’t mind talking about Wall Street crimes, when they commit crimes…The same is true with drones dropping bombs on innocent children in Yemen and Somalia.” Following the cross, he said, is “a quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love, which means keeping track of the suffering.”
He questioned why one per cent of the population in America owns 43 per cent of the wealth, when over 22 per cent of the country’s children of colour live in poverty.
Christians are called to speak out against wrongs and injustice on all sides, always being concerned “with the least of these,” as Jesus said in Matthew 25, he said. “Any time we talk about creating common good, we are not talking about abstractions. We are talking about existential choices, concrete commitments that must be embodied and enacted in our fallen, finite, fallible lives.”
And though Christians cannot be indifferent to suffering and are called to speak and act against it, he also noted that the results are in God’s hands. “Any time we talk about creating common good, we’re not talking about predetermining where we end up,” he said. “It’s more like a jazz orchestra under Duke Ellington or Count Basie or Mary Lou Williams or the inimitable John Coltrane with his Love Supreme—we don’t know exactly where we end up. Be free enough to allow your soul and mind and heart and body to participate in the process.”
What is required is “global vision, local practice, subtle analysis,” he said, “but without love at the centre, it is sounding brass and tinkling symbol.”
Webcasts of the conference are available here.