I spoke to Van Jones about a month after he got hounded out of his White House job and asked him what he was going to do next. “This is a time for personal reflection,” he told me, “not professional decisions.” Van had no interest in fighting back. In fact, even while his name was still on the curl of the lip of certain cable news types, Van barely betrayed much anger at all. He was too busy planning a prayer pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Van came back into the public spotlight recently. He will be teaching at Princeton, taking up a position as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and he just received the prestigious President’s Award from the NAACP, the venerable civil rights organization.
In an eloquent piece, NAACP president Ben Jealous wrote that Van was both an American treasure and the most misunderstood man in America.
If America watched this video of Van’s acceptance speech, I think we would understand him better.
The video displays the Van Jones I know, not the one caricatured on cable talk shows. He speaks of skilled machinists in Detroit, out of work and down on their luck. “I know there’s a future out there for them,” Van says. “Let them make the wind turbines and the smart batteries and the solar panels to repower this country.” He talks about a woman in Appalachia, at risk of losing her land. “Let her put those wind turbines up, let her grow an energy crop … let’s get everyone involved in repowering America.”
And then he invokes a Biblical image in the national interest: “For a country that beautiful, that prosperous, that innovative, that united, I am willing to walk through fire and brimstone.”
Classic Van, I thought to myself. Van wasn’t hit by an accidental house fire, he was a victim of arson, and yet there was no whiff of ‘woe is me’ in that speech at all. Other people would have used that stage to vindicate themselves, even attack their attackers. But Van was doing what he’d always done – use the platform he was given to lift other people up.
Towards the end of the speech, there is a slight change in Van’s voice, and a turn in his narrative. He invokes the name of his chief hounder, Glenn Beck, and I half thought he was going to say something like, “So look at me now, Mr. Beck.” But not Van. Instead, he says, “To my fellow countryman Glenn Beck, I see you and I love you brother, and you cannot do anything about it … Let’s be one country.”
Did he really say that? I thought to myself. Did he call Glenn Beck “My fellow countryman” and tell him “I love you”? Are you kidding me? I went back in the video and listened again. He really did it. I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, and thanked God for that glimpse of grace.
What Van displayed is what religion is all about to me – to give love in the face of hate, to show mercy to your tormentors, to have a vision of unity that embraces those who violently pushed you out.
There is a story that Sufi Muslims tell of Jesus. One day, Jesus was in the marketplace when those around started abusing him. Jesus turned and blessed them. When the Disciples saw this, they asked incredulously, “How can you bless those who abuse you?” Jesus responded, “I give only what I carry in my purse.”
To offer roses to those who throw stones is a rare and remarkable quality. History is made of the witness of such moments. I think of Nelson Mandela bringing his jailers from Robben Island onto the platform at his Inauguration. I think of the Prophet Muhammad granting amnesty to those in Mecca who for two decades tried to destroy him. I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. staring down the dogs and fire hoses of hate, insisting that he had no anger, that he was too focused on redemption, on reconciliation, on building the beloved community.
In my last post on Van, I called him an American patriot. That is high praise in my book. But watching Van’s speech at the NAACP, I have another title for him, one that I reserve for the true giants of history. Van Jones is a faith hero.