An address delivered at the commencement ceremony of Centre College, May 20, 2018.
Greetings to President Roush with appreciation for your distinguished leadership here. To the trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends of Centre College. And, to the esteemed class of 2018. You are the reason that we gather today.
It is an enormous honor to join you on this grand occasion.
Centre College is one of America’s treasures. You are preparing the women and men who will make the world better than you found it. The Class of 2018 has contributed approximately 23,000 hours of community service to both the local community, as well as to other communities in our nation and the world. Volunteer work is so much a part of the fabric at Centre that you were named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll two of the years this class was on campus at Centre. That qualifies you as friends of the Republic.
George Bernard Shaw once told a speaker to speak for 15 minutes. The speaker bristled, ‘how will I tell them everything I know in 15 minutes? Shaw replied, ‘I suggest you speak very slowly.’
Mark Twain said that the “two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Theologian Howard Thurman said, “do not ask what the world needs just go out and do what makes you come alive. What the world is people who have come alive.”
Most people agree that we are living in polarized and contentious times, times when careful speech and deep listening are essential if problems are to be resolved. America has always thrived because good citizens, patriots and moral leaders emerged to help us heal the divides, discover common ground and subsume our selfish interests beneath the larger common good.
This is the legacy of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King even urged people never to refer to others as enemies but rather as opponents. We must never dehumanize those with whom we disagree vehemently. King taught us that whenever we protest should always balance confrontation with negotiation. That is an intellectual and moral discipline that prevents self-righteousness.
In 1835, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Repairing the faults of a great nation may be one of the highest callings available to us as patriots, good citizens and friends of the Republic.
We need today’s graduates to cultivate and claim your inner ability, your willingness, and your disposition to love the best of our Republic and to repair what is lacking. You are smart, and attractive and winning. You will succeed. But, you can do more than achieving, conquering and owning lots of stuff. That’ll be easy. It’s when you choose to befriend America’s highest ideals; to make the pursuit of truth, goodness, justice, community and opportunity your own ideals, you will become a larger person, maybe even magnificent.
So, I’m using this unusual idea that the best citizens, real patriots are friends of the Republic. Most of the wisest people of human history had important things to say about friendship.
Aristotle wrote an entire book on ethics with two of its ten chapters on friendship. He reminds us that friendship has a place in moral theory. He describes three types of friendship: friendships of pleasure, of utility and of virtue. Some people select friends because they make us feel good. Some select friends primarily who are useful, who can deliver certain desired goods (like backstage passes for your favorite artist). But, the highest expression of friendship is when people actively seek the good of the other because they care about them and their potential.
Good friendships help us to become our best selves. The hold us accountable. They know our secrets; they inspire us to be moral. They cause us to remember whom we are and where we need to go. They create value in us even when we do not see it.
Friendship can also be controversial. It takes courage to befriend those who may be nonconformists. Here I think of the white college students, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who went to Mississippi fifty-four years ago to help register Americans to vote, Americans who were threatened for exercising their constitutional rights. Who were not always popular, but they were friends of the Republic and of those who needed moral allies. I was ten years old when they, along with James Chaney, a local black student, were abducted and murdered. I wondered why these students so far from home would risk so much for strangers. They were friends to something larger than themselves. And, they are all remembered at the Peace and Justice Memorial and museum that just opened in Montgomery, AL.
Jesus knew friendship could be risky and subversive.
He was criticized for being a “friend to tax collectors and a friend to sinners. (Matt. 11:19). The gospel stories report that Jesus said to his followers: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you, (John 15:13-15).
Mary Ann Evans who was known by her pen name, George Elliot, captured its essence as she said, “A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
Some of you have made friends that will be a part of your lives until the end. That is the beauty of those who gather in reunion classes each year here. My best friends today are those who spent time with me in college. In the old days, like 15 years ago, friendship was labor intensive and friending required lots of time and shared experience to foster trust and intimacy. I admit that I am old enough to remember that ancient process. This reminds me of comedian George Burns who said, “I’m so old I remember when the Dead Sea was just sick.”
Now for those of us on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, we may have a few thousand friends. My strangest social experience these days occurs when I’m in public and someone comes up and says, “You don’t know me but I’m your friend… on Facebook.” I can feel Aristotle cringing.
No matter what your chosen vocation in life may be. We need you to be a friend of democracy. Love what it makes possible. Be an opponent to anything that crushes human flourishing.
The virtues of a good friend in the personal arena are also essential for being friends of our democracy. Let me mention a couple:
Friendship with the republic requires honesty and a commitment to truth. President John Adams reminds us, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Honesty.
Friendship requires respect. The eminent Mormon leader, Thomas Monson said, “When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be.” Honesty and Respect.
Friendship requires humility. Rick Warren says, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But, I love former Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir’s comment to her defense minister Moshe Dayan. “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.”
Today you are surrounded by the people who knew you and saw your potential and encouraged that potential before you were able to recognize it. Through thick and thin, they have been there for you and, no matter what they will always love you.
In fact that’s a great toast to propose to your graduate later today: “To those who have seen you at your best and seen you at your worst, and cannot tell the difference.”
Friendship requires forgiveness. When our politics becomes so raw, we will need to learn the power of forgiveness. That’s why South African Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” And, Alice Walker in her wonderfully titled book of poems, “Hard Times Require Furious Dancing,” wrote: “Watching you hold your hatred for such a long time I wonder: Isn’t it slippery? Might you not someday drop it on yourself? I wonder: Where does it sleep if ever? And where do you deposit it while you feed your children or sit in the lap of the one who cherishes you? There is no graceful way to carry hatred. While hidden it is everywhere.” But, my favorite words on forgiveness—good counsel for liberals and conservatives—comes from Oscar Wilde who observed, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.
Friendship with the republic requires courage. That’s the courage we see in John McCain, soldier and senator, as he battles cancer and challenges our Republic to be good and decent. That’s the courage we saw in John Lewis, activist and congressman, when he walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and was attacked by law enforcement agents. C.S. Lewis said that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Here on the cusp of a new season in your life, we will need many best practices or virtues—honesty, respect, humility, forgiveness, courage, action and others.
It was my pleasure to serve as president of Morehouse College, the alma mater of young Martin Luther King, Jr. I am both an alumnus and the president of that small liberal arts college. Morehouse is a school much like Centre College, a small school that makes a big impact. A school with a strong culture. In his final book titled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
In the last short chapter titled, “The World House,” he wrote, “…a novelist died and among his papers were suggestions for future stories. One of the most prominently highlighted suggestions was the following: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together…’ He continues, “This is the great new problem of humankind. We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Then, in my favorite quote, he writes: “All people are interdependent… (W)hether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world… All life is interrelated. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. King’s vision of interdependence has been creatively reformulated for our digital age. Perhaps you have encountered some version of this internet thought exercise known as the “Village of 100” or “100 People, A World Portrait” produced by University of Wisconsin faculty. I think this will be of interest because,
Eighty-five percent of the members of the Class of 2018 have studied abroad at least once, and 35 percent have studied abroad two or more times. Your global study has led the Institute of International Education to name Centre the #1 school for study abroad in the country for two of the past six years and currently #3 in the nation.
It reads: “If we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following.
There would be:
60 Asians, 11 Europeans, 14 from the Americas,
15 Africans, 51 would be female, 49 would be male
73 would be non-white, 27 would be white
67 would be non-Christian, 33 would be Christian
22 Muslims, 14 Hindus, 7 Buddhists, 12 would practice other religions,
12 would be none’s or nonaligned with a religion,
12 would speak Chinese,
5 would speak Spanish, 5 would speak English,
3 would speak Arabic, 3 would speak Hindi,
3 would speak Bengali, 3 would speak Portuguese,
2 would speak Russian, 2 would speak Japanese,
62 would speak other languages,
92 would be heterosexual, 8 would be homosexual
5 people would possess 23% of the entire world’s wealth and all 5 would be from the United States.
33 would live in substandard housing
17 would be unable to read
1 would be dying of starvation, 15 would suffer from malnutrition, and 21 would be overweight,
1 would be near death; 1 would be near birth
7 (yes, only 7) would have a college education
78 would not be able to read this message because only 22 would own or share a computer.
It concludes. “When you consider our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for cooperation and understanding becomes compelling and clear.”
I believe that schools like Centre College must continue to produce moral leaders defined as women and men who live with integrity, courage and imagination to serve the common good. Centre College, you are one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges. This republic needs you now.
So, let us remember the words of Rabbi Hillel: “the world is equally balanced between good and evil. Your next act will tip the scale.”