By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 04, 2022
We must never forget that there is something within human nature that can respond to goodness, that man is not totally depraved; to put it in theological terms, the image of God is never totally gone.
—Martin Luther King, Jr, A Testament of Hope
Reading (or the explication of texts) is not so easy as many people believe it to be. A theologian goes to theology school to learn how to interpret theological texts (we call it exegesis). The lawyer goes to law school to learn how to read legal texts (whether the original intention or from a contemporary setting). Literary scholars go to graduate school to learn the most fortuitous way to examine literary texts.
Some theologians even use the literary techniques of the academic scholars to interpret biblical texts as we see in Edward Schillebeeckx’s masterful work, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, which he wrote “to resolve the sometimes very subtle problems that interest the academic theologian. Derrick Bell, a civil rights activist and legal scholar, used allegories in Faces at the Bottom of the Well to demonstrate that racism is integral to the American struggle for justice.
In commenting on the first part of my column, one of our outstanding thinkers (s/he prefers to remain anonymous) writes: “What I find particularly intriguing for a man who seems to keep his fingers on the pulse and current events in T&T, is how easily you could “overlook” the many other doubtful situations in which Mr Cummings seems to have found himself… Clearly, Foster Cummings is no Fr Charles.
As a teacher and lecturer at prestigious colleges and universities, how could you possibly overlook these serious allegations directed to one who is expected to be an exemplar to youth?”
I never meant to suggest that Cummings was or is equal to Father Charles in intellectual ability or ethical stature. I only said that they were both accused of plagiarism. While Charles was forthright in confessing his transgressions, Foster preferred to quibble about his guilt. As I noted: “Cummings would have been better off admitting his error and apologising for his breach unequivocally. Charles apologised unreservedly for his transgression and thereby redeemed himself in the eyes of fair-minded people.”
In making such a comparison, I only wanted to focus on the transgression of plagiarism and nothing else. I also wanted to emphasise that although Charles had achieved lofty academic credentials and remains ethically impeccable in my eyes, the life trajectory of Foster, another black man, is different. While there are other factors to be considered when talking about Cummings’ life, I was only concerned with the charge of plagiarism that was made against him. I wondered then, as I wonder now, are there any other redeeming factors in Cummings’ life that could mitigate the error of plagiarism?
My anonymous colleague might really be on to an important moral distinction, but I continue to believe that one is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore I prefer not to judge Cummings until the pending charges are confirmed in a court of law, unreliable as our courts of law are.
Wasn’t it Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, who reminded us: “Good name in man and woman…, / Is the immediate jewel of their souls. / Who steals my purse steals trash;… / But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him, / And makes me poor indeed.”
In my column, I wasn’t thinking so much of the preservation of Cummings’ good name, but the possibility of “redemptive suffering” as Martin Luther King Jr used the term. In doing so, I was looking at something much more fundamental about human nature that would allow us to put in perspective what ails so many of our young men today and what Cummings’ predicament could teach them,
In trying to do this, I was reminded of King, who wrote: “It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimised by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races… The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between forces of light and the forces of darkness…
“At the centre of non-violence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world.”
That is why I concluded by saying, “Looking at Cummings’ transgression I wonder if it holds any redemptive possibilities for him, a young black man who lifted himself out of a difficult beginning to make himself somebody in our society.”
Cummings’ predicament brought to my mind the plight of so many black men and women who may have transgressed. Yet all they see in the headlines all day long is the depravity of their souls rather than the redeeming possibilities of human love, the chance to improve their lives and become someone even though they came from unfortunate circumstances.
Another treasured friend reminded me: “Henry also wrote an excellent little book titled Forgiveness Considered that was before his “fall”. We are reminded that when we transgress, as we all do, there must first be acknowledgement, confession, then forgiveness and reconciliation.”
This is where I wanted to go with the second part of my column. This will be my focus next week.