Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and the Many Voices of Jeremiah

The conflict between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West that erupted into media consciousness this past week or so had been brewing for some time. It is not my place to adjudicate the dispute, but I have some observations about what is happening and why I think it is important, particularly in relation to West’s own claim, taken up by others, including Dyson, that West is a prophet within the line of the biblical Jeremiah.

Much recent study of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible has focused upon the processes that produced the literature now within the biblical canon. This literature is our best connection to the persons who acted as prophets in ancient Israel because it presents them as narrative characters and frames the oracular material as speech by these characters, but there is a great distance between a prophet as a historical figure within a particular social context and a complex piece of literature produced by and for a scribal class and their audiences. Jeremiah is a useful case because no other prophetic figure appears more prominently as a narrative character in the book named for him. Still it is important to distinguish between the person named Jeremiah and the book that shares his name. The person named Jeremiah appears to have been active in and around Jerusalem in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B. C. E. The dominant theme of his prophetic proclamation was the impending invasion of Judah by the neo-Babylonian empire. Jeremiah claimed this invasion was God’s punishment for acts of idolatry and injustice in Judah. His criticisms of the religious leadership in Jerusalem were particularly harsh. To understand Jeremiah from a contemporary American context, imagine a prophet early in our own century telling Americans that the work of terrorists is deserved divine punishment for our sins and we should let them destroy us in order to come out redeemed on the other side. No doubt, such a prophet would have shared Jeremiah’s experience: “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (20:8b).

The book we call Jeremiah was likely produced in Judah during the Persian period of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., a century or two after the death of Jeremiah. This means that the destruction which Jeremiah warned Judah about had happened and the audiences of the book were the descendants of those who had survived and were struggling to rebuild and redefine Judah in the context of the Persian Empire. Some of these survivors descended from those who remained in the land after the invasion and others from those who were exiled to Babylon and later returned. The difficult question for the book of Jeremiah was how to preserve the tradition of the prophet. What could his pronouncements of doom and destruction do for those who had survived it and continued to suffer from its effects? These are the kinds of questions being raised by some of the most adapt readers of Jeremiah, such as Carolyn Sharp, Louis Stulman, and Kathleen O’Connor. The book of Jeremiah documents a process of renegotiation. The cataclysmic event to which its namesake had pointed was complete, and his words needed to be reshaped into a message for survivors.

The black prophetic tradition finds itself in an analogous position right now. The election of the first African-American president in 2008 was a seismic event for this tradition, something which it had been pointing to and yearning for through many years of struggle. During the last couple of decades leading up to the event, no voice had been more profound or influential than Cornel West’s, and the Jeremiah comparisons are apt. West’s explosion onto the scene of American political thought are reflected in his first two books, Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979) and Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), but his public activism, speeches, and other performances are what places him in the line of a prophet like Jeremiah. He also worked with and advised political campaigns of candidates like Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and Al Sharpton. So, it would seem that the election of Barack Obama was a crucial event that West’s prophetic engagement was moving toward. The question that event posed next was what the prophetic message of West would become in the aftermath of such fulfillment. It did not take long for this question to receive an answer, as West’s criticism of President Obama became harsh, a surprising reality documented by Dyson, among others. For those who admire West and Dyson, and others within the black prophetic tradition that West has criticized, the events of recent days have been painful. There is no way to be sure that this kind of personal tension and conflict surrounded the transformation of Jeremiah from a radical prophetic figure to a scroll providing a new way forward to survivors after their world was shaken, but it is not difficult to imagine. The more condensed time-frame in this case means that many who generated the tradition are still alive and involved in it renegotiation. One thing those who admire the figures most central to this modern conflict can do for them is to give as much careful attention to the questions the conflict is identifying as to the conflict itself.

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