Religion and Nonviolence: Past and Present with Cornel West and Sasha Dehghani

Religion and Nonviolence: Past and Present with Cornel West and Sasha Dehghani


[MUSIC PLAYING] Thank you. My name is Sejal
Patel, and I am also on the Alumni/Alumnae Council. And I’ve counted
about 200 smiles that I’ve put in my pocket
over the last two days. I hope you guys have
a similar tally. We have two very, very
exciting presentations to end the intellectual
nourishment of these wonderful
last few days. I have the great privilege of
introducing Professor Cornel West and Sasha Dehghani. Professor West is a
Professor of the practice of public philosophy
here at HDS. He has taught at Yale, Harvard,
the University of Paris, Princeton, and most recently,
the Union Theological Seminary. He graduated magna cum laude
from Harvard in three years, and obtained his master’s in
PhD in philosophy at Princeton. He has authored 20 books, and
is best known for his classics, Race Matters and
Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West:
Living and Loving Out Loud. He appears frequently on the
Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-SPAN, and Tavis Smiley’s PBS show. He is the creator of
three spoken word albums, including Never
Forget, collaborating with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre
3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, and Gerald Levert. His spoken word
interludes were featured on Terence Blanchard’s Choices,
which won the 2009 Grand Prix in France for the best
jazz album of the year. Cornel West’s
Theory’s Second Rome, Raheem Devaughn’s
Grammy-nominated Love & War MasterPeace,
and most recently, Bootsy Collins’ as Funk
Capital of the World. Passionate about keeping alive
the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr in his writing,
in his public discourse, and through the arts– the legacy of truth-telling,
bearing witness to love and justice. We are so proud to
have Professor West here at HDS and with us today. [APPLAUSE] In conversation
with Professor West is Sasha Dehghani, a
visiting scholar at the CSWR. He has his master’s in Islamic
studies, political science, and Protestant theology
and religious studies from the
Fredrich-Schiller-University Jena, and a PhD from the
Freie University Berlin. He has been a research associate
at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research in
Berlin, and has taught courses on Shiite Islam, Islamic
intellectual history, and the Bahá’í faith at the
Free University of Berlin, and the
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, where he was a
visiting assistant professor. He currently works at
the research department of the Bahá’í world
center in Haifa. His research at the
CSWR this year focuses on the classification of
the Bahá’í faith as a world religion, comparing the
classification in the German academy with that of
Anglo-American and the Islamic world. Please, again, let’s
give a warm welcome to our two wonderful speakers. [APPLAUSE] Yeah, you go and do your thing. Dear friends, dear Harvard
alumni, Harvard Divinity School, it’s a pleasure and
a privilege to be here today. Just a few minutes
before I came on stage, I spoke with
Professor Cornel West and I suggested I should
start before everyone came to see him. [LAUGHING] So I was afraid if he
starts, once he’s done, everyone will leave the tent. So it’s much better
to do it that way. In addition, I have– of course
it’s unnecessary to say– the question in your mind
is, who is Sasha Dehghani? So to some extent I will
try to answer this question. And of course, when we want
to achieve things in life, you know there’s a famous
statement that we should sit on the shoulders of the giants. Now today, I will sit
next to such a giant. I might look very small. That’s fine. I don’t think actually,
that my research as such is that important. But I hope that by the end of
the few minutes that I will present to you today,
it will get clear why I think the topic
that I want to speak to you has some significance. And thank you for coming
and listening to that. Just yesterday we had
Professor Danielle Allen, who was speaking about
the question of violence. And some of you
who were here, you might remember that she was
telling a story of her cousin– and she’s writing a book about
this cousin– and the violence that he had endured in his
life, that is her cousin. A few weeks ago,
I had the pleasure to see professor Danielle
Allen in the Harvard conference on inclusion and belonging. And in that conference she
had organized and gathered a number of different academics
from Harvard University, who spoke very privately. They shared their life
stories, very truthful, some of it, at times, tragic. But certainly always enriching. And the Harvard President
Faust, she was there, and they all encouraged
us to tell stories. So I thought– I have
read a lot for today– but at the end, with so many
theories and names in my mind, I gave up and I thought,
actually, what I will do, I will start with a story
that is related to my life. And hopefully this story will
help us to understand what the question of religion
and nonviolence, and also what the topic of the
Bahá’í faith and Bahá’u’lláh is that I’m going to present today. Sometimes in life, there’s a
synchronicity and parallels that come like a mystery, and
it’s difficult to explain. Karl Jaspers spoke
about the Axial Age, people are appearing at
the same time, things happening at the same time. The development of
the Bahá’í religion, which is by now considered as
the youngest world religion as such, has many parallels
to the important steps of the history of
the United States, which I can not go very deep
today because of the time. But I just want
to mention to you three of the parallel things. Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet
founder of the Bahá’í faith, was born in 1817. That is, this year
is the bicentenary of Bahá’u’lláh, which overlaps– fortunately for me– with
the Harvard Divinity School Bicentenary. I think that explains why
I’m standing here today. In 1848– and we have
Professor [INAUDIBLE] here, who is an expert on– and
many others friends of course as well– on the question
of women and Iran. In 1848, Bahá’u’lláh himself
gathered the number of Bábis at the conference of Badasht,
and helped and assisted a young Iranian woman by the
name Táhirih Qurratu l-‘Ayn to remove the veil
publicly as a sign not only for the advent of
a new religion, but also as a sign for the
equality of men and women. And Bahá’u’lláh
was a major force. Now, we know 1848 was Seneca
Falls, a group of women which gathered in the United States– albeit collectively–
whereas in Iran, it was one courageous woman
who tried to do the same. And in 1863, Bahá’u’lláh,
then banished from Tehran to Baghdad– and I might have a
few minutes later on to talk to you about that. And here, where Lincoln, in this
important country of the United States, abolished slavery. And this year actually,
Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed his message to humanity. So now I will come
to this story, which I wanted to tell you. In 1981, I was in the
age of around six years. You can now start to
count how old I am. I have now reached
the age of 40. And 40 is a
dangerous age for you who are familiar with
religious history. Muhammad claimed
to get revelation on the mountain of Hira, Moses
wandered through the wilderness for 40 years. And Bahá’u’lláh himself was 40
years old also in banishment. So the age of 40
is quite dangerous, but I promise I have no
revelation for you today, except the fact that I
will share some story that is related to my childhood. In the age of six years– I was born in Tehran in
Iran and left later on, and went to Germany. Now I live in
Israel, and you can imagine I’m kind of the
horror for any security out there in the world
when I have to get through. And my name is Sasha–
some think my parents might have been Communists. Anyways, when I was
in the age of six, one family member of ours,
one year after the revolution, by the name [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
was imprisoned. Not in Tehran, but in
the city of Shiraz. He was imprisoned with
another friend, Medhi Anvari. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] from my
family, the uncle of my mother, was a pretty
successful businessman. Medhi Anvari was
a medical doctor, as far as I can remember,
I was in the age of six. So you know that after
the revolution in Iran, many things changed. One of the things that happened
is that the Islamic government quickly adopted a constitution. And this Constitution
of Iran, the article 13 says very explicitly
that Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Christian
people are accepted as religious minorities,
and only these. Which means the Bahá’ís, the
biggest religious minority in Iran, with 300,000 people,
are– even by constitution, right from the beginning
of the revolution– excluded from any rights. In very practical terms,
this meant, step-by-step, that Bahá’ís and the leaders
of Bahá’í institutions were not only brought to prison, but
also the Bahá’ís didn’t have the right to higher education,
which is still till nowadays it hasn’t changed. In a way, they go
through strangulation in economy, in professional
life, and many things. But the story I have today is
just like a glimpse of what happened to the Bahá’ís,
representative to a much bigger community that we have in Iran. When [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] and
Medhi Anvari were in prison, the hope at that time and
still nowadays is the same when the Bahá’ís are imprisoned. The leading institution of
the Bahá’ís, seven members of the Bahá’ís
are at the moment, since eight or nine years
in prison in Iran as well. When the Bahá’ís are in
prison, one of the hopes of the government in Iran
is that they would recant their faith. That they would say they
are not Bahá’ís anymore. And when they figure
out after a while that regardless of torture
or what happens to them, that is not going to happen. Then after giving the chance
generously, one has to say, that they can convert to Islam. When they keep believing
in their faith, and they stay
steadfast, then usually the death penalty is
what happens to them. So Medhi Anvari and
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] were both killed in 1980, after it
got clear to the soldiers and to the prison in Shiraz
that they will not recant their faith. What happened is at first,
they staged a mocked execution. So they pretended as if they
were going to soldiers– as if they are going to
shoot them, but they didn’t. They just shoot in the air. And of course, you know,
that might have been the hope that that will trigger such
a terror in their heart that now they will
come to reason, and they will accept
to convert to Islam, which didn’t take place. Then, of course,
the second attempt, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] and Medhi
Anvari, they were both killed. And from Bahá’í perspective,
they are seen as martyrs. Now, why do I tell
this story today, and why did I want us to
start with this story? William Sears, an American
Bahá’í, and a very famous journalist in the United
States, was in contact with many Bahá’ís in Iran. And he wrote a book,
The Cry of the Heart, which was written a few years
after the Islamic Revolution. In this book– in chapter
nine, for those of you who are interested in that– he speaks about what happened to
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] and Medhi Anvari. The interesting thing, which
I learned through that book– I had not heard from my
family, and at the age of six, I was in Iran still– is that he says that Medhi
Anvari had written a testament, a last will. And he asked, in his
last will, his children to go to the soldiers in
prison and to give them sweets and flowers. Now, you can imagine that was
not that easy for the children to do. That wasn’t something that
came very easy to the family as such, but this
was his last will. And I thought, starting
with this story, it’s a good introduction
to the question of religion and nonviolence. And there are several lessons
that I, at least, always found in what happened at that time. First of all, it shows us
that Bahá’ís, if they follow the teachings and principles
of Bahá’u’lláh, are not willing to hate. Indeed, there is
actually not a second to hate for us
friends in this life, but we should struggle for
justice and social change. But in a way of
constructive resilience. We shouldn’t dehumanize those
who think we are their enemies. Because by reacting with
violence to violence, we close the door. We are not able to create enough
space for the other side– who has decided to
become the other– to have this change
in their life. And I think here is a
huge parallel in what I, in my very limited knowledge–
but I’m happy that Professor West is here today– to some extent this overlaps
with some of the principles of Martin Luther King. So very clearly, nonviolence
is the response that the Bahá’ís choose. This story, however, tells us
also something in addition. It shows us that the Bahá’ís,
who are usually asked to be loyal and obedient to any
government in the world, regardless of the oppression
that they witness– which is a principle
of the Bahá’í faith. But when it comes to
the principle of faith, and the principle of conscience,
no temporal power and force in the world has
permission to decide for any individual in this world
what he or she believes in. So I would say here we have
some aspect of disobedience, which is justified from
the Bahá’í perspective. But in many other matters,
the Bahá’í in Iran, the dissolvement of
their institutions, that Bahá’í literature
cannot be published, that only literature
that exists in Iran– more than 30 years by now–
is constantly written against the Bahá’í, that
the Bahá’í accepted. But when it came to
principles of faith, they were not able to
give up what they thought, regardless of what happened. The third point of course,
what the story shows, and I mentioned it briefly. And because of the limited time,
I will also just not to go too deep into this question
is– of course, the Islamic government as such
see the Bahá’ís as a threat. Otherwise they wouldn’t
do what they did. Now I have a few
minutes, but I thank you, I need just a bit longer. So to be clear, is that the
Islamic government as such– and I’m not trying to
present Islamic civilization or religion in any ways
as a dangerous religion. I’m just speaking about the
experience of the Bahá’ís. As a matter of
fact, at the funeral of [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH],,
hundreds of people were gathered, and many
of them were Muslims, because this uncle in my
family was married to a Muslim. It was not a big
question to Bahá’ís. So I’m far away from that. But in the Islamic religion,
as I said in the Constitution number 13, the article, what
Islamic theology permits is the existence of three
Islamic monotheistic religions. That’s why Judaism,
Christianity, or Zoroastrianism are respected. But when it comes to a
monotheistic religion with a prophetic
claim after Muhammad, there is no such space for such
a religion in Islamic theology. And Islamic theologians
and jurisprudence is struggling with
this question. And fortunately,
step-by-step, more people are coming to this
direction to accept that space has to be
created for the existence of a prophetic religion
after Muhammad. Because from the perspective of
the Bahá’ís, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, or Buddha are all
inspired divine messengers sent to humanity at different times. So Bahá’ís believe that for
nowadays, Bahá’u’lláh has come, and what he’s bringing to
humanity is as well inspired. But there is the idea
of progressivity. Prophecy can not stop
from Bahá’í perspective. The prophetic voice
is needed, and this created kind of a clash. So with your permission,
I will just speak– if that’s OK– I will add a few
sentences about the background to 1981, and what
it has to do with Bahá’u’lláh, and the bicentenary
of Bahá’u’lláh, which six, seven million Bahá’ís in
the world this year are, and will be celebrating. In the year 1863, Bahá’u’lláh,
when he was banished from Tehran to Baghdad– shortly before again he
was banished from Baghdad to the Ottoman Period– he gathered a
number of believers in a garden in Baghdad. And in this garden, he actually
pronounced the main principles of the Bahá’í faith. That is, that prophecy
continues, and with him, the promised one of the
Bábi religion has come in of the past. And then to other
principles which he announced, which I think is
important to understand 1981. These two other principles
is that Bahá’u’lláh says that the principle of the sword,
and militant jihad is annulled and abrogated. It is abolished. So Bahá’ís are not permitted
to spread or defend religion by the means of the sword. The second thing that
Bahá’u’lláh announced is a very theological principle, but I
think at the Harvard Divinity School I might be permitted to
speak a bit about the existence of God. So from the Bahá’í perspective,
as in all other monotheistic religions, God shows and
manifests himself to his divine names and attributes. Love, generosity,
knowledge, kindness– they have positive existence. Actually, from
Bahá’í perspective, the negative things and sin is
an absence of the development of the good side. So Bahá’u’lláh says if there
is one source for humanity, if all human beings come
from just one source, the conclusion should be
there is one religion. All religions, at least in
their core teachings, are one. But in addition, because of that
spiritual connection to the one source, everything is merged
into the sea and ocean of purity, says Bahá’u’lláh. So the concept of being
impure that so many religions in the past have
abused, doesn’t exist. And if there’s a chosen people,
all humanity, regardless of race, of religion and
gender, all are chosen people. There is no such
thing as us and them. And Bahá’u’lláh explicitly
writes about the idea of a unification of mankind. But a unity that is not
uniformity, but diversity. Alain Locke, a very
famous PhD in philosophy, an African-American Bahá’í,
wrote about the principle of unity and diversity. And he was a close friend
of WEB Du Bois, who– both were very close
to Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh. And Du Bois actually
met Abdu’l-Bahá while Abdu’l-Bahá was traveling
in the United States. And then Du Bois chose
to publish the picture, the photo of Abdu’l-Bahá
in his journal The Crisis. The reason why he did that
was that Abdu’l-Bahá had given a talk at the NAACP, and the
major content of that talk is regardless of the color,
God looks at the heart. He does not look at our
outer appearance of black, or white, if we are
yellow or green. When we are created
in the image of God, says Abdu’l-Bahá, it’s
the character that counts. And all the characters
in this world, according to Abdu’l-Bahá,
deserve equal rights and equal opportunities in this life. As you can see,
when I get started, it is difficult to stop me. But I know we have a beautiful,
wonderful soul next to me, who I really, I don’t
know how to thank him. Because I wouldn’t
stand here today without his generous offer. So with your permission–
although I really have much more to say– I will stop, and
I will hand over. And I know you will
not run away now. Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE] That was wonderful, brother. That was wonderful. That was wonderful. What a blessing to
be here to celebrate 200 years of a rich legacy
that goes back to 1816/17. With memories, of course, of
the great Ralph Waldo Emerson giving that July 15th 1838
address to the six graduating seniors. There was seven, but
only six showed up. [LAUGHING] And after that address,
Ralph Waldo Emerson was banned from
Harvard for 30 years. [LAUGHING] That’s part of the great
prophetic legacy of the Harvard Divinity School. [APPLAUSE] I want to thank my
dear brother Sasha. He is a magnificent human being. His soul, his heart, his mind
has moved me in our discussions dealing with the wonderful
overlap of the black freedom movement and our precious
Bahá’í, who to this day, continue to be persecuted in
countries all around the world. Let us never forget. I want to thank
brother Mike, who has been just magnificent
in facilitating this event, and all of those who
are working with him. Thank you so much
my sister Patel, the distinguished
esquire and lawyer. I don’t want to take
too much of your time, but I do want to say
something about the fact that we’re living in one of
the most terrifying moments in the history of this nation. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] And we’ve got to
return to the source. Existential sources, who are we? Institutional sources. Who are those who constitute
our synagogues, and our mosques, and our temples,
and our churches, and our civic institutions
in this Trump moment? And the Trump moment can
be characterized roughly as an escalating
spiritual blackout. The relatively quick eclipse
of integrity, honesty, decency, and courage, and the
prevalence of big business, big money, big corporations,
greed, envy, resentment, scapegoating the most
vulnerable, and not enough people confronting
the most powerful. And our challenge is,
how do we constitute prophetic coalitions,
prophetic religious coalitions? Thank God for our secular
Brooklyn-based Jewish brother who lives in Vermont
named Bernie Sanders. [CHEERING] It’s true. He’s keeping alive the best
of a prophetic tradition, and it comes a variety
of different forms. But for each and every one of
us concerned about justice, nonviolence, concerned
about equality, concerned about the
preservation of democracy, small d, in all of
its various forms– our first question
is, who are we? Who am I? And I stand here as not a
graduate of Harvard Divinity School, but one– as a student at
Harvard College– was so deeply, deeply
shaped by students like James Melvin Washington,
and Fred Lucas, and Boykin Sanders. And of course, Professor
Preston Williams, the godfather of so many
of us, and especially we chocolate ones. Because he was the only
one in a vanilla sea, who was chocolate enough. Not because of his
skin pigmentation, but because of
his acknowledgment of being part of a tradition. And his tradition
is my tradition. And that tradition,
of course, has the variety of different
streams and strands. But it’s the tradition
of people who have been so chronically
and systemically hated, and yet still taught the world
so much about how to love. I could just turn on John
Coltrane’s A Love Supreme right now, and sit down. [APPLAUSE] Just sit down. Or read James Baldwin’s
loved-soaked essays, keep track of the love. Witness of Martin Luther King
Jr, and Fannie Lou Hamer– this is not just a matter
of isolated individuals. They’ve been shaped by certain
prophetic, religious soul craft, to use the old language
of the medieval thinkers. And a soul craft is a shaping
of a self, a formation of attention that attends
to the important things, not the superficial things. It’s the maturation
of a soul that allows you to preserve
your capacity to love, and your capacity to
fight for justice. In that wonderful
formulation of Joseph Temple of 1636, one of the grand
pilgrims who arrived and said, we need more charitable
Christian hatred. [LAUGHING] And I love that formulation. And a hatred of the sin,
and a love of the sinner. A hatred of injustice
and unfairness, but keeping track with
the humanity of the other. And so here we are in the
most commodified, marketized, commercialized culture in
the history of the world, buying and selling. Obsession with getting
over by any means, focused on the 11th commandment,
“Thou shalt not get caught.” [LAUGHING] Just turn to any
business page, scandal after scandal after scandal. Many churches, mosques,
synagogues, and temples, scandal after scandal
after scandal. The market model has become
so ubiquitous and hegemonic that it’s hard for us to
conceive with our imaginations an empathy, an
alternative world that is not dictated by
oligarchs and plutocrats who disproportionately shape just– not only of the political
lethargy of our government– but in the culture. And especially the culture
of our precious young people of all colors. And we’re living in a moment of
moral and spiritual awakening. The movement for Black Lives,
the ecological movement, the intensification of the
anti-homophobic movement. Lo and behold, the awakening
of slices of the trade union movement. And most importantly,
the need for, and the increase day-by-day
of an anti-war movement. Because when you talk
about nonviolence, you’re talking about a
critique of militarism. You’re talking about a critique
of the military industrial complex, you’re talking
about a critique. Every dollar, $0.54 goes to the
military industrial complex. We don’t have a language
that permeates the culture to understand that. 26,172 bombs dropped last year
by the Nobel Peace Prize winner president. Oh, we don’t like
to talk about that. Trump commits his own war
crimes, and we go ballistic. 12,000 bombs dropped
on Syria last year before Trump got into office. Where’s our moral consistency? Where is what Jane
Austen called constancy? We’ve got to be willing
to tell the truth, and the condition
of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. And we’ve got to have
an unapologetic love, and we know we
religious folk have no monopoly on unapologetic
love, let alone courage. And I don’t even like to talk
about courage these days. I like to talk about
fortitude, because fortitude is a creative fusion of
courage and magnanimity, of greatness of character. A Nazi soldier can be
courageous, and still be a thug and a
gangster, because they got a thuggish cause. But fortitude is when
you have your courage with spiritual and
moral dimensions to it. And that’s the tradition
that I’m talking about, that Preston Williams
and the others exemplified when
I first arrived. I want to take you back to 1919,
the war committee before the US Senate as Archibald
Stevenson steps to the seat and gives a report. He says I’ve got
16 people who are dangerous American citizens. But the most destructive, the
most dangerous American citizen alive is Jane Addams. Oh, we forget that don’t we? Why? Because she was
committed to nonviolence. Why? Because she was a pacifist. Why? Because she opposed
World War I. And Ed Bemis, her colleague at
University of Chicago, was released immediately when
he marched against World War I. Professors were pushed
out of their job at Columbia University. Charles Beard, the
grand American historian left, they founded
the New School, in part because they wanted
some relative autonomy. Because they thought, my
God, these universities are so obsessed with objectivity
and value-free inquiry, but as soon as the country
goes to war, that drops out. And it’s all mobilization
across the board. How come? Because of catastrophe. We say, oh, wait a minute. What do you think
indigenous peoples been dealing with since 1492? That’s catastrophe. What do you think slavery and
Jim Crow and Jane Crow’s about? That’s catastrophe. What do you think a
working class rule by robber barons unable to
engage in collective bargaining until the 1930s
were dealing with? That’s catastrophe too. But only when it’s catastrophe
in its nationalistic form do the universities
all of a sudden mobilize all of their
resources and go on a crusade. Thank god for William James. Didn’t graduate from
Harvard Divinity School but he learned a lot– [LAUGHING] From Harvard Divinity
School professors. You all know William James
had no AB, he had no MA, he had no PhD. All he had was an
MD, and a whole lot of wisdom and courage. And he wrote an
essay in 1910 called “The Moral Equivalent of War.” How do you find
spiritual analogues, moral analogues so people are on
fire fighting against poverty, fighting for justice, and
motivated by something deeper than justice. That’s all right, to quote
Reinhold Niebuhr at Harvard Divinity School, even though
he’s Union Theological Seminary’s Darling. [LAUGHING] He said, “Any justice
that’s only justice soon degenerates into something
less than justice. Justice must be rescued by
something deeper than justice.” And that’s love,
that’s empathy, that’s a willingness to sacrifice. It’s a self-emptying,
it’s kenosis. And that’s what we need
these days to connect with the best of the exemplars. I’m not talking about
market-driven celebrities. I’m talking about
spiritually-laden exemplars. Never confuse exemplarity
with celebrity. And if you are a celebrity,
or find yourself a celebrity, you better be a
spiritually-informed exemplar or you will betraying the
best of the tradition that’s gone into you. And for me, the
greatest honor I’ve ever received in my life,
trying to be a love warrior. And that’s very different than
being a polished professional. Too many polished
professionals are shot through with conformity. They’re shot through with
complacency, and sometimes just downright
cowardice, in order to preserve their careers
and opportunities. Rather than bear witness,
and bear the costs, and come to terms
with the consequences. But for me, to return to the
source before I sit down, it has everything to do with
being the second son of Irene and Clifton West. Mom and dad and not
just ordinary folk. They’re very much like
that black cafeteria worker that Rabbi Abraham
Joshua Heschel met when he went to Cincinnati,
leaving Jew-hating Europe. And he made close friends with
that black man in Cincinnati. He went to the black
Baptist Church, he was also a deacon in the
black church in Cincinnati. And Heschel would
say in his journals, he would say in his
autobiography, what? I never met a man with
such unbelievable integrity and honesty as that
black brother David. That’s one of the
reasons why it opened my eyes to white supremacy, so
I can march with Martin Luther King Jr and others. It’s just not a matter of the
iconic figures at the top, it’s the concrete
encounter of people who have integrity and
honesty that change your life, and force you to
contest and call into question your
own prejudices and pre-suppositions. And we need context,
multi-racial context, multi-religious context,
where that kind of interaction can affect us at the
existential level. Well you see, if brother
Heschel had met mom and dad, it would have had
the same effect. [LAUGHTER] Same effect. If he had spent some time on
the chocolate side of town at Shiloh Baptist Church
in Sacramento, California, where I come from with
the legendary Willie P Cook and my deacon,
Deacon Henton, they would have had
the same effect. These are persons of
unbelievable integrity. Not pure, they’re flawed. But they represent the best of a
prophetic legacy on the ground. You won’t read about
them in a text book. But the figures in that text
book do not exist without them. It reminds me in some ways
of that black preacher in Philadelphia who knocked on
the door of the Coltrane family when John Coltrane came
up from North Carolina, and the young brother
who was blowing his horn. He had lost his grandfather,
his grandmother, and his father all within a matter of months. He was living all by himself. His mother and cousin Mary
had gone to Philadelphia, and all he did was
blow his horn trying to bring back his parents. When he finally got
to Philadelphia, he kept on blowing and kept on
blowing, all day, all night. And the folks in the
projects on the chocolate side of Philadelphia said, we
got to get rid of his Negro, he’s making too much noise. And they voted to vote
the Coltrane family out. And the day before
they gonna move out, he got a knock on the door. [KNOCKING] And there was a black preacher. He was a Baptist preacher,
John Coltrane was AME Zion– nice ecumenical connection. [LAUGHTER] But he knocked on that door. He said, son, I don’t
know what your name is, but these are the
keys to my church, you can come to my church
and blow any time you want, all day, or all night. And Coltrane would say as
he played A Love Supreme in his own mind and
soul, I’m thinking about that concrete love. I don’t exist without
that black preacher who gave me that key so I could
practice in that church, ’cause I was being booted
out with my mother, working as a domestic maid. That’s the kind of
soul warriorship that we need in
the age of Trump. So that we can generate the
kinds of coming together, with vision, and with witness. And we’ll see
whether we can do it. Thank you all so very much. [APPLAUSE] And we’ll open it up,
we’ll open up to questions. We’ll open it up to questions. We’ve got sister
Ann Marie back here. We’re ready for some questions. With her microphone. Our dear brother on
the right here, too. Anybody have questions? This question is– my
name is Pierre Berastain, I’m a graduate of the
Divinity School from 2014. And this is a question
for both of you. There’s been tremendous fear
in the immigrant community. I myself am an immigrant,
I was undocumented, I’m am now under DACA. And there there’s been a lot of
criticism of Harvard University for not declaring itself a
so-called sanctuary campus. What is your opinion of Harvard,
Harvard Divinity School, as institutions that
can provide safety for the students who go here? Yes, you want to jump in first. No, that’s for you. Well, no, I think– I mean, first you got principal,
then you’ve got practice. And the question
becomes, what are the ways in which we
can ensure that there’s legal defense, moral defense
of the students on the ground. It’s not going to be just a
matter of posing and posturing about how good we are. When they are in crisis, are
you going to come to the rescue? Now, that for me is the
fundamental measure, crucial measure. Now, generally speaking, yes,
in principle indeed, it’s very important that we
make public declarations and so forth. But the crucial thing
would be, the test will be, when our precious students are
being charged, being targeted, will the university then
come to the defense? If the university comes to
the defense of 99 out of 100, and would still
defendant that one– with whatever the
declaration is– that’s a positive thing. Because that’s what you want. That’s what you want. You want to make sure
you as a student, and so many others are defended. And make sure that
you don’t have to worry about being insecure,
anxiety-ridden, targeted, and so forth and so on. The ideal situation
would be of course, for Harvard University to
declare itself a sanctuary. But Harvard University as a
sanctuary for the vulnerable– [LAUGHING] That’s a stretch. That’s a stretch, it really is. And the reason why I say that is
because we live in a community, we live in a society, where
there’s a lot of centrists, there’s a lot of
right wing folks, there’s a lot of
xenophobes, we’re not the only ones in the country. And we push, and we
bring pressure to bear, but we recognize that Harvard
is not the exemplification of the prophetic. Has never been. [APPLAUSE] There’s been prophetic
figures, prophetic individuals, prophetic professors,
prophetic janitors, prophetic all those others– at Harvard. But Harvard in general, if
they ban Ralph Emerson– [LAUGHING] In 1838, and he
hadn’t even got out his abolitionist lectures yet. You see what I’m–
so I’m not putting– I in no way want to
give a pass to Harvard. But most importantly,
we want to keep the focus where
it belongs, which is on the suffering
of the students, and the need to
protect the students. But you, jump right in. Yeah, I mean, thank you so much. I appreciate what
you said, because I’m a fellow at Harvard, so I’m
not part of the faculty. I’m certainly not as
prominent as the gentleman next to my left. But some of the thoughts that
I had related to Harvard, actually, they came to
me in the last month, is maybe less about the
question of sanctuary, but our responsibility
as an institution of higher academic institution. That Harvard is a leading
institution of the world. And the question
of responsibility of the academics
and intellectuals. We all know the famous case
of Samuel Huntington, who is a Harvard professor who
passed away some years ago, who wrote The Clash of
Civilizations, as we know. And I was very astonished
when I read this book how– and now coming from the
perspective of Harvard and leading professors, and the
responsibilities that we have also as intellectuals not to
create division in this world, you see? Huntington to me is a very
fascinating exemplar– for whatever you want to
take him as an exemplar– he combines, to me, truths, and
some things that are not true really. So the things that
really astonished me is– because you spoke about
the question, who are we– you know, he has the
second book after The Clash of Civilization. He wrote Who Are We? And in both books, actually,
his main approach– not only to Harvard, but
the question of the West– is the question of identity. And what he does,
he literally says in The Clash of
Civilizations, we know who we are when
we know who we are not, and against whom we are. So is that really necessary for
a professor in such a leading position at Harvard, or
any other professor at such a university– Harvard, Yale, Princeton,
wherever you want to go– to think about the
identity of human beings in light of us and them. And so, no wonder that after he
says, well, it’s a sad truth, but it is a truth,
so we need the enemy. And then he comes with the
West against the rest, which, I don’t think he meant
Cornel West, he meant really, the West against the rest. [LAUGHING] But it could also have been
you again, I don’t know. And then he speaks about all
of these strange principles. And the enemy that he
finds is Islam and China. And this, of course,
then has impact on students, and the
life of the students, and how we educate
people around us, and our colleagues and
our relationship to them. Now, I wouldn’t be
naive and would say, oh, there is no danger
in Islamic terrorism. I think there is a huge problem,
and it has to be addressed. But I don’t think we
can do it in this way. And so, once he has identified
as a Harvard professor– that’s why I speak about it–
the external enemy, who is the internal
enemy, and who are we? It’s the Mexicans. For those of you who
have read the book, he says that the progress
of the United States is pretty much white nativism,
and the decline of the country is based off Catholic Hispanics. And then he again talks
about the problem of enemies, and the necessity
to have an enemy. And at one point, he
even quotes Goebbels. Now, for those of you who are
familiar with German history, I haven’t seen anyone in the
last years, if I’m not wrong, please– as intelligent audience, you
will go and read yourself, if that’s true what
I’m was saying. But I really remember how he
would find all of these quotes about the necessity
of having enemies. So I think, in a
wider sense, right, this is related to what
we are presenting today. And it is, as I said, less
the question of sanctuary, and practical things. I leave all of these questions
to our wonderful Professor West, because I’m
a visiting fellow. I’m here for a few months, I
learn about the United States. And in less than a
few weeks, I’m gone. Which is not that bad for
you, because then someone else can come and give
another presentation. But as such I think it
is very, very important to come out of the problem,
the irresponsibility of the academics around us. And language that
we use, you know? And even in philosophy,
when you look at Marxism, and we look at Nietzsche. And I come from the German
tradition, I love Germany. I am really proud
of my country that has accepted one million
refugees, personally. I’m speaking as Sasha,
not as a representative. [APPLAUSE] I’m not speaking
as a representative of the Bahá’í world today,
it’s just my humble personal thoughts. And although I love
the Germans, one thing that is very interesting
in the German tradition is the radical
spirit that exists. Whatever someone starts, like
Nietzsche, or Marx, or Freud, they take it to such
an extreme that there is space for nothing else. Now that is great,
because they’re really convinced about
what they’re doing, and the passion and love. Although Nietzsche
wouldn’t accept that the Holy Spirit
went through them. But that’s there. But at the same time
there is some danger in intellectual totalitarianism. And we have to think much
deeper about these questions out there. Now, I stop at this point. There’s my two cents on Harvard. [LAUGHING] Question. I was going to ask,
are we in a bubble, but I’m not going to ask that. I will ask, what do
you feel in your heart, in your head, when people
say, you’re in a bubble. You’re thinking in a bubble. I don’t mean, just
you, I mean us. And I know you, Professor
West, you’re often in a venue where sometimes
you’re butting heads with people who would think
that you’re in a bubble. And when I say bubble, I
think you know what I mean, the political thing. Oh yeah. No, I think we have to proceed
on the notion that all of us have our own version
of learned ignorance. We all have a certain
parochialism and provincialism, and our end and aim
is to shatter it. But it’s endless, it’s
always incomplete, it’s always unfinished. So in that sense, somebody
says, well, you’re in a bubble. You say, well, tell me exactly
the ways in which the bubble operates in my thinking. Because I know
it’s true I’ve got some limitation and blind
spots, point it out to me, because I am deeply
committed to seeing in order to do, and bear witness, and
live, and love, and laugh. So in that sense, that’s what
piety is all about, right? We learn how to die
in order to learn how to live by shattering
our parochialism, letting go certain
assumptions, and end up more compassionate,
more critical, and we hope, more courageous
with more fortitude. But all of us have a
certain kind of bubble. But it’s one thing to be in a
very narrow bubble– you only talk to people who look like
you, you only talk to people who agree with you, you
only read certain things that are an echo chamber
of what you think. That’s a bubble in which
is hard to grow and mature. No doubt about that. But on the other hand,
it’s not as if there’s anybody who is bubble-less. [LAUGHING] They’re in space and time. We all got contexts and horizons
in which we get to locked in. And we need to be
unsettled, we need to be contested in that way. But it’s very important
too that there be movements, and organizing,
and with the people who are willing to
fight and sacrifice. And I wouldn’t
call it a bubble, I would call that a
choice of trying to change the
world in such a way that more love and
justice is manifest. But there’s other
parts of your life. You’re gonna end up reading
poetry of a reactionary called TS Eliot, who you
love, who I love. You see what I mean? I’m going to be listening to
Bruckner, Catholic reactionary, but I like his music. [LAUGHTER] You see what I mean? And at the same time, I’m
gonna read some anarchists, who I love too. [LAUGHING] So there’s a sign that we
have a few more minutes. My thoughts related
to that, if I may, just the question of the bubble. And we were asked what
we think about that when we were asked the question. I mean to try to take it, as the
highest point possible for me, it’s somehow– to live in a bubble– I mean if it’s a
bubble and it takes us upwards, from a
theological perspective, spiritually, that’s nice. We’re going upwards. But to live in a
bubble means to have a very closed understanding
of reality, right? And I think one of the dangers,
and coming from the prophetic voice of Bahá’u’lláh, one
of the dangers that we have in the world nowadays
is certainly this deep, entrenched problem of
we against the other. And the question of partisan
politics, to see everything– and the question of, you know,
forced to see is from the left or from the right. But my feeling is we have
to get out of this in order to achieve unity. And I think the
United States will need that a lot in the
coming years, these voices. You know, a house that is
divided will not stand. This is what your president
in the 19th century said very clearly. And the question of how to
achieve unity, not uniformity– That’s right. Is a very, very deep
and important question. That’s right. I know that Cornel West, in
his theories about democracy, has a very interesting point. He says democracy is less
about election or due process. It is about giving
other people a voice. Isn’t that what he did today by
inviting me to come on stage? And what does the voice do? It creates a conversation. Bahá’ís all around the
world, from children age, to junior youth age, to adults,
are engaged in different activities. It is about spiritual
capacity building. To learn a language that
unites people, and does not separate us. And I think that
is very important to start to teach that
from a very early age, and in a nonsectarian way. To be open to invite
everyone to join this idea, to have a conversation
as part of democracy. A meaningful conversation. Absolutely. And not to speak about
the money, and the fame, and now I’m at Harvard,
and now I have that. You know, violence
can have many forms. It’s not just Islamic or
Christian fundamentalism. It can have many
forms, believe me. And for us to move out of
the question of violence, it needs much more education,
ethical, moral virtues. And one thing which I couldn’t
go into it, and I know they want to stop us, which is fine– which I couldn’t, but I
just want to mention it. This is the question of religion
and nonviolence is not just a phenomenon in
the Bahá’í faith. In my field of theology
I learned that one huge similarity to the Bahá’í
community is early Christianity. The example of Jesus, although
he only had 12 disciples, as Martin Luther King said. But how he was able to
change reality around him. He didn’t bring
just a new theology, he came to bring a
new civilization. And I don’t think
that civilization was inviting people to live in
a bubble what Jesus brought. And for 300 years,
the Christians were willing to suffer. And isn’t suffering
in itself, something that is part of our humanity? And we should embrace it. But whereas in the
materialistic, capitalistic society, we are running
away from suffering. We are afraid of
talking about death. Let’s talk about sex,
we have these songs. But no one wants to talk
about the things in life that are difficult. But if we take
a look at early Christianity, or at Buddhism, and
other traditions. Even early Islam, Muhammad
in the Mecca period, there are beautiful principles
for humanity to be embraced, and step-by-step to create
a new and higher organism. And Adam and Eve, if we want to
take it serious, was a family. In the time of Jesus,
the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle
would write about the polis. The politeia is
centered on the polis– it’s a city-state. And with Muhammad,
and after Muhammad, we had the idea of
Oman, some people translate it as a nation. But nowadays we need an
interdependent global existence– an interdependent
global existence that brings us all together. And I see our dear
friend Michael Goetz is pointing at the time. So I will stop at this point. Thank you so much. Also thank you again,
Professor West. Thank you all very much. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] We’ve got the great Harvey Cox. Harvey Cox is on the way. Harvey Cox is on the way. [MUSIC PLAYING]

4 Replies to “Religion and Nonviolence: Past and Present with Cornel West and Sasha Dehghani”

  1. If Cornel West is for non-violence. why does he align himself with Linda Sarsour who is calling for a Jihad and who praises convicted terrorists as her spiritual leaders.

  2. There are questions about whether Tahireh, unveiled herself in Basasht conference. She had many Babi opponents in the meeting who did not agree with her declaring the Babi movement as a new religion. In fact there are evidences that her story of unveiling was made up by her Babi enemies to contradict her activities and to disrepute her. Edward Browne a renowned scholar on the Babi-Bahai religion asked Subhi Azal the leader of Azali-Babis in Cyprus , who had attended the Badasht conference, if the unveiling of Tahireh was true. He answered that whenever the veil was moving away from her face, she will move it forward to avoid uncovering her face. I believe the history of unveiling of Tahireh has to be researched as some of the poems that were attributed to her are proved belonging to other poets. However, one should not deny her courage, being a single women among so many men in 19th century Persia.

  3. Reading the thread under this video, I know now why professor West is no longer at Harvard. The "spiritual blackout" he mentions in his speeches is very well examplified in the thread and the fact that Harvard chased him out. Such a shame. These are such dark times of history….sigh…

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