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The Table Video

Cornel West

Love Is a Form of Death

Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice, Union Theological Seminary / Professor Emeritus, Princeton University
June 12, 2017

“Love is a form of death. And you have to learn how to die in order to learn how to love,” says Cornel West. We live in a society that avoids death and yet love is an action that ultimately leads to death. In order to love we must die to ourselves, and this is the exact opposite message we get from culture every day.

He adds: in “disagreement” we’re not talking about something merely political or civil, but something spiritual.


And I think one of the saddest features of our day is American culture is more and more beginning to look like a Hamlet like condition. Now Hamlet as you know is the most sophisticated philosophical protagonist in all of modern literature. Written by the greatest bard in the language that many of us dream in, Shakespeare.

I know we’ve got some Spanish brother’s and sister’s so I don’t want to be culturally imperialist about this. If you’re dreaming in the language of Cervantes that’s a beautiful thing too. That’s beautiful too. The language of Gerda in German, or whatever. But the important thing is Hamlet suffers from the inability to love. Dostoevsky in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ says “Hell is defined by those who suffer from the inability to love.”

Well American culture, more and more becomes a joyless quest for pleasure. Insatiable pleasure, never get enough of it. Endless. Bottomless. And the inability to really be committed to love. Because love is a form of death. And you have to learn how to die, in order to learn how to love. That’s why the New Testament says what? “Christians must die daily.” Die daily. Die daily. Well a cultures joyless quest for pleasure is a denial of death. That’s why we can easily deny those locked in the social death. We can deny those locked into civic death.

Those wrestling with psychic death. Spiritual death. We were talking before about wrestling with the issue of mental illness and you and K have been magnificent in your courage. I’ve been praying. Magnificent in your courage. But the ways in which it’s so easy to lose sight of the precious humanity of those wrestling with mental illness. I mean I’ve been to jail so many times and at least 1 out of 3 of the brother’s and sister’s in my cell are wrestling with mental illness. And unable to get medication.

And they tend to stay in there longer than me and I stay in there long enough. I’m ready to go, I’m ready to get out. But in talking about disagreement, we’re not just talking about something political, we’re not just talking about even something civil, we’re talking about something spiritual. Something profoundly spiritual and for Christians it is inescapably spiritual. And in the end of course, it’s an acknowledgement of having a hermeneutical humility. And an intellectual humility, acknowledging that you could be wrong. And there’s a good chance that you are at times wrong. But you’re still willing to stand in your truth.

And try to speak your truth and opt for a deep integrity rather than a cheap popularity. Because so often times in America to be popular is to be well adjusted to injustice. See that’s not the kind of popularity Christians ought to be interested in. To be popular, being well adapted to indifference, that’s not the kind of popularity Christians ought to be interested in. The benchmark of the Christian way of life, of the way of the cross is; there go some of those strange folk who look like they’re fools in the eyes of the world who are still trying to love against the grain knowing that justice is what love looks like in public.

Just like tenderness is what love feels like in private. And you say “Oh, those are those strange ones.” That’s the way it was in the early church, wasn’t it? Those are those strange ones still talking about love. Obsessed with that Palestinian Jew named Jesus, who was enacting, embodying that love. You say “Yeah, that’s right. You go it right. That’s right.

You go it right, that’s what we’re about.” So in that sense I do want to begin on that priortistic note and a spiritual note. Because in the end I think Reinhold Neibuhr put it so well when he said; “Any justice that’s only justice, soon degenerates into something less than justice.”

Good point.

Justice must be rescued by something much more deeper than justice, which is love. Love of truth, love of neighbor and for me love of enemy. We won’t get into that now but I think that’s very, very important. ‘Cause it means then even your foe is part of the human family. And in some ways an extension of your own humanity. Because for most of us, I know in my case that I was a gangster before I met Jesus and now I’m a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivity.

Yeah, that’s it.

Pray for me, pray for me.

Yeah, that’s it.