[Baccalaureate Sermon] Ever Eastward: Dr. Rick Axtell

Rick Axtell[VIDEO] View the Baccalaureate sermon here.

Rick Axtell, professor of religion and college chaplain, delivered the baccalaureate sermon on Sunday, May 24, 2015, in Newlin Hall at the Norton Center for the Arts. This was his ninth baccalaureate sermon at Centre College.

“Ever Eastward”

Baccalaureate Sermon
Centre College
May 24, 2015
Rick Axtell
Professor of Religion and College Chaplain
Texts: Genesis 4: 1-16; Jeremiah 31: 15-17, 21; Psalm 46
Every day women and men become legends
Sins that go against our skin become blessings
The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
These words from this year’s Oscar-winning song, Glory, capture the spirit of the marchers at Selma, Ala., 50 years ago. I won’t attempt the rest of Common’s lyrics, since I’m not known for my skills as a rapper. But you know the story he’s celebrating:
Lined up at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, advocates of civil rights in the Jim Crow south began a march eastward to Montgomery to petition for the right to vote. But this trek was only one step in a journey toward a civilization built on the proposition that all of us are created equal.
On that Bloody Sunday, what they faced on that bridge was a barrage of police brutality that shocked the nation. Amid clouds of tear gas, troopers on horseback rushed the peaceful demonstrators, fracturing skulls and ribs with their billy clubs, while others chased and beat the injured.
The iconic photo of Mrs. Amelia Boynton lying unconscious on the ground stirred the conscience of America.2
And that spring, Lyndon Johnson presented a bill to Congress that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Now, 50 years later, John Legend and Common remind us in their song:
“Selma’s now, for every man woman and child.”
Selma’s now.
This year, we’ve witnessed the deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, and Staten Island, and Cleveland, and Madison, and Charleston, and Baltimore — men whose deaths expose a national pattern that Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow.3
Does the turmoil of your senior year signal another step in this journey toward a more perfect union?
The answer to that question may be up to us. This is a bridge we still have to cross.
Today’s reading from the ancient story of Cain and Abel presents an archetypal image of the human condition that may provide some insight into the events that shook us this year.
And perhaps it can give us insight into your own journey as well. For, barring any atrocious misbehavior between now and 3:00, your four-year journey will end with a trip across this stage. And what a journey it’s been. It began with parents who set you on the bridge to a bright future and dreamed this day would come, and will annoy you with incessant picture-taking all day. Humor them. It’s their journey, too.
You remember those first steps — that acceptance letter from Admissions or Posse or Bonner, or that call from a recruiter that made you one of the athletes who’d lead Centre to 37 Conference Championships, including this year’s historic 10-0 football season and our women’s soccer team in the Elite 8.
Your Centre journey has taken you to the temples of India, and the ruins of Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Chichen Itza; to the glaciers of New Zealand and the volcanoes of Guatemala; to the Parthenon in Athens and the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. You’ve explored the great cities of Strasbourg and London, Shanghai and Barcelona, Prague and Jerusalem, Havana and Vienna, Bangkok and Lima, and the villages of Cameroon and Chiapas, Uganda and Barbados. So many bridges crossed.
This class has circled the globe, and you’ve circled the flame (some of you in the last few days, apparently). We’re glad you showed up today, fully robed.
Today is the end of a great journey, but also the bridge to your future. So with Cain and Abel as our guides, I want to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
In the Bible, Cain and Abel are the first human brothers. The text tells us nothing of their boyhood friendship. We read only that Abel becomes a shepherd and Cain a farmer. Already in this first human family, this primal brotherhood, there is difference. And this differentiation, this unexpected reality of division in human relations, takes on the dimension of tragedy.
The brothers bring offerings to their God — Abel from his flock, and Cain from his harvest. This inscrutable Deity accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. We don’t know why.4 Cain does not know why.
But it’s not hard to imagine the agony of this rejection, the arbitrariness of this preferential judgment from the authority one hopes to please, this blow to one’s self-worth. Has Abel earned this favor? What have I done to be eclipsed by this chosen one?
The story of this primal conflict seems inescapable:5
It’s also the story of Jacob, his mom’s favorite, supplanting Esau.
It’s Rachel’s golden boy, Joseph, superseding his older brothers.
It’s the treachery of Claudius against his brother Hamlet.6
It’s the “C” at the top of your seminar paper, the fruit of months of work, and the “A” your fellow student received for the inexplicably brilliant product of an Adderall-infused all-nighter.7
We know this story.8
Cain is grieved by God’s partiality toward Abel. The God who rejected his offering now warns him that sin is crouching like a predatory animal outside the tent. God assures Cain he has the power to master this beast. But you can feel it lurking when Cain calls his brother out to the field…9
“And there, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”10
His “brother” Abel, the text reminds us.
And we are left with the iconic image of Abel lying unconscious on the ground.
So God puts Cain on trial: “Where is Abel, your brother?”
And Cain’s response is as chilling as it is ethically significant: “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”
The divine response is as powerful as any line in the Bible:
“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”
Six times, the text repeats the word “brother.” This brother who never speaks in the text has not lost his voice. It cries out from the very soil that produced Cain’s offering, soil now satiated by the sacrifice of the innocent.
God decrees that the soil will no longer yield its harvest for this first farmer, Cain. Instead, he is sentenced to wander on the earth. But to ease Cain’s fear of blood vengeance, God puts a mark of protection on him.11 The vicious cycle of bloodshed must be stopped before it starts.
And so Cain travels further eastward, to dwell in the land of Nod — the land of wandering — east of Eden.
Cain’s story then becomes a tale of cultural development. It is Cain who establishes the first city, and his descendants are history’s first metalworkers and musicians.12 But the cycle of killing persists in this city east of Eden. A descendant of Cain boasts that he has killed a mere boy in return for not so much as a wound.13 Such is life in the city.
And this is all we hear of Cain. Cain has set civilization in motion. The city, with all its cultural advances, has been founded. And somewhere in the distance, a faint but persistent voice cries out from the ground.
We are left with the question of whether we can find a way to cross the bridges that divide us — the great ethical challenge for every age.
This morning, it’s worth exploring what this foundational narrative might mean for us as you graduate.
For you are about to be cast out of this Edenic Paradise you’ve so affectionately known as Centre, wanderers for a time in the “Land of Nod,” which would be a great name for the late-night café where you’ll wait on tables to pay for grad school.
Or perhaps the Land of Nod is that familiar bedroom waiting for you back home until you figure out how glassblowing, Cormac McCarthy, and existentialism can be parlayed into a career. (Perhaps you shouldn’t have nodded off in those economics classes).
From here you’ll journey into a world of unprecedented cultural change. And on one level, cultural change is what the story of Cain and Abel is about — this archetypal story of the ruptures at the heart of every advance in human development.
You see, the death of Abel, the herder, at the hands of Cain, the planter, is the triumph of agriculture over the nomadic ways that preceded it. It pictures the cultural transition during the Iron Age era from which these stories arose. The foundation of urban civilization is not far behind, and foundation stories like this one picture the terrible sacrifice on which each new cultural shift is grounded.14
Now, we, too, are undergoing an historic cultural transition — a change as momentous as the evolution from nomadic herding to agriculture and cities — Cain’s story. For us, it’s an unparalleled information technology revolution, in a globalizing marketplace with integrating power that is all-encompassing.
When I came to Centre 20 years ago, we didn’t have email. We’d never heard of PowerPoint or Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, or, thankfully, Yik Yak. To “like” something was to have positive internal feelings about it. In those days, students spent long unplugged hours reading from books! This is what we meant by texts.
We now carry devices in our pockets with processing power thousands of times more sophisticated than the systems that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon. (I know this because I found it on the internet). Every movement we make is tracked by satellites; every call, purchase, and keystroke recorded in powerful databases.
Our story is one of cultural transition no less significant than the farmer’s displacement of the nomadic herder.
The Internet’s “ecosystem of interruption technologies,”15 may even be changing our brains, affecting our neurological capacity to concentrate, creating multitasking habits that can make us skillful at the superficial and suckers for the irrelevant.16 The modern challenge is not how well we program our computers, but how thoroughly our computers and phones program us, seizing our attention only to scatter it, creating a perpetual state of distractedness.
This is our brave new world. So far east of Eden — the new culture replacing the old, just as Cain’s way was burying Abel’s.
In this new culture of connectedness, we may be as disconnected from one another as we’ve ever been, unable to see the brother beside us. We’ve all witnessed that group in a restaurant staring at phones rather than interacting with companions, that carload of family members so tied to electronics they’re no longer talking with one another, that moment when class is dismissed and every student reaches for a phone.
And so I wonder: In this diverse global culture, so full of opportunities to encounter the other, to cross the bridge of difference that can restore a shattered brotherhood, is our fixation with gadgets affecting our ability to see one another? Erecting walls instead of bridges?
Here, of course, our story takes on the dimensions of Abel’s tragedy.
At what price have we created this world? Who has been sacrificed?
We know, as a faint but nagging voice in the back of our minds, that the Chinese workers assembling our iPhones work 10-hour days, six days a week, making $2.50 an hour.17 Living in crowded dorms that warehouse millions of migrating laborers who produce for U.S. consumers, they’re fenced into factory complexes, often standing all day until their legs swell, working excessive overtime, sometimes with toxic chemicals.18
Few of us likely know the name of 22-year-old Lai Xiaodong. He was one of the workers killed in the metal dust explosion at the iPad factory in Chengdu, China.19
…Lai Xiaodong lying unconscious on the ground — one of the foundation sacrifices of the new city into which we have wandered. The modern voice of Abel…
And so the divine question thunders forth across the ages:
“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”
There are other sacrifices:
As corporations move ever eastward for the cheapest labor on the planet, jobs in places like Ferguson and Baltimore have disappeared. In the 70s, Baltimore was home to Bethlehem Steel, a General Motors plant, and Martin Marietta. A third of its labor force worked in manufacturing. By 2000, only 7 percent of Baltimore’s residents had manufacturing jobs.20 Several African American areas of the city have had poverty rates higher than 32 percent for 40 years!21
You see, as the cheap labor hubs of the Far East are industrializing, the de-industrialization of our cities has left an urban core of mostly minority residents, in deteriorating neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and joblessness, beset with a hopelessness that routinely boils into anger.
And so, we’ve found ways to control them, with a penal system that locks two million of our brothers and sisters behind bars, many for nonviolent crimes — millions of Americans with criminal records that guarantee diminished prospects for the rest of their lives.22 The faint voice of Abel, unheard
In 1992, I was living and working in a Louisville shelter across from Clarksdale public housing project. When the officers who beat up Rodney King were acquitted that year, cities across America exploded in anger. So our church conducted a listening session with black youth in the neighborhood.
And I was stunned that every young man in that room had a story of arbitrary and frightening encounters with the police. One told of an officer putting a gun to his head outside his mom’s apartment when he was 13. One group was stopped by police on their way to the church to watch the Final Four, and sent home when they couldn’t produce IDs. Young black teenagers simply walking to see a basketball game in their own neighborhood… Voices from an America seldom heard…23
What have we done?
You see, whatever details we may learn about the individual cases now on the national conscience, this year’s events unmask the conditions of the abandoned neighborhoods where our brothers and sisters cry out to be heard. Selma’s now. It’s time for a new generation to cross this bridge.24
Martin Luther King said that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” The citizen movements that brought about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act required focused, long-term attention, beginning with face-to-face connections with those our culture predisposes us to see as “other” — or not to see at all, in our era of distractedness.
So on one level, this sermon is a call to a contemplative life — a plea for balance; a call to unplug and “be still;” to be present; to listen…
…To return to the quiet places of the spirit where silent reflection can cultivate the awareness that leads to empathy and compassion. In the silence, where life displays its depth, we can nurture the wisdom that can choose well what we pay attention to.
For we cannot, we must not nod off, wandering in the techno-wonder world of irrelevancy — distracted by the bread and circuses offered for our endless diversion — where we know more about “Deflate-gate” than Syria’s trauma, more about the Kardashians than about the migrant families languishing in our detention centers.
Of course, our technologies are full of promise:
They inform us and they distract us. They connect us and they isolate us.
They create exciting new conversations and they can accentuate our differences in destructive ways.
They mobilize us and they disengage us.
The challenge of our age is to offer the harvest of human creativity in the service of restored community.
Your experience of community at Centre may provide a model. College life pushed you into encounters with someone different from yourself and presented you with choices to distance, to label, or to cross a bridge of understanding. A civil community like Centre is a training ground for bridge-building.
And beyond Centre, face-to-face civic engagement is where real change takes root. Your challenge is to find the bridges that will lead you back to those who are your brothers and sisters, and to walk with them into a city that is more humane and more free. Selma’s eastward march…
The story of Cain reminds us that voices are crying out from the ground, voices more distant and faint the further we wander in the Land of Nod.
Fortunately, this class has shown what it means to listen. “What have you done?”
*Because the children of families working in Guatemala City’s dump are your brothers, you raised thousands of dollars to send them to school.
*Because the victims of war in Rwanda are your sisters, you raised $10,000 to support their work of healing.
*Because Michael Brown and Eric Garner are our brothers, a hundred of you marched on the streets of Danville in solidarity with movements for change.
*And for years, dozens of you faithfully gave your afternoons tutoring immigrant children in Centre’s Afterschool program, investing in the lives of your brothers and sisters — crossing bridges.
Am I my brother’s keeper? The whole thrust of the biblical narrative is that we are. The whole thrust of your Centre experience is that you are. You see, the call of the other is a demand on my life — a call to bridge the deep divide at the heart of our historical existence.
This morning, we challenge you to find one person to mentor — and invest your life. We challenge you to find one pressing systemic issue — whether poverty, or prisons, or racism, or labor rights, or immigration — and focus on it until it’s transformed. This is the work that replants the soil of human history with seeds of justice, and it’s the secret to cultivating your own humanity.
Class of 2015, as you graduate, Cain’s question is the most important question you can ask.
Am I my brother’s keeper? How you answer that question will make all the difference.
And so today you line up. You have a bridge to cross, a journey ahead, a city to build.
That voice… Can you hear it?
delivered by Rick Axtell, professor of religion and college chaplain
May 24, 2015

1Glory. Written and Performed by John Legend (John Stephens) and Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn). Selma: Music from the Motion Picture, ARTium/Def Jam Recordings, a division of UMG Recordings & Getting Out Our Dreams/Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment. Check out the inspirational performance of this winning song at the Oscars and the moving speech by the two winners when the award was announced.
2A few days before the march, Jimmie Lee Jackson had been killed by an Alabama state trooper during a voter registration campaign—an event that summoned new levels of courage in the movement for freedom.
3Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Rev. Ed.) (NY: The New Press, 2012).
4Gil Bailie writes, “The real issue — of which the ancients were necessarily more aware than we — is that blood sacrifices ‘worked’ whereas those that involved no ritual slaughter often did not… a bloodless sacrifice failed to resolve the rivalry between the two brothers… The purpose of the sacrifice is to prevent what happens when it fails.” Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995), 139. Similarly, Rene Girard sees ritual violence as the scapegoating that limits violence in society, arguing that this is the origin of archaic religion and the genesis of culture.
5The conflict between siblings is a recurring motif in Genesis — Abel and Cain, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, with a younger sibling displacing the firstborn. In Genesis both Esau and Joseph forgive and embrace the offending brothers, indicating that reconciliation and reintegration are possible.
6Claudius declares: “O my offence is rank it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t, a brother’s murder.”
Artistic examples abound: One thinks of Claggart’s hatred for the innocent goodness of Billy Budd in Melville’s novella, or Salieri’s envy of the effortless virtuosity of Amadeus, as portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s 1984 film, Amadeus. Mozart’s middle name means “loved of God” — precisely Salieri’s complaint.
7Steinbeck’s East of Eden (Gen. 4:16), is also a nod to the Cain and Abel story, with every major character’s name beginning with either “C” or “A.” Cyrus favors the gift of his son Adam over that of his brother Charles. In the next generation Adam rejects Caleb’s gift in favor of Aron’s. Can the rupturing of fraternal unity resolve itself in reintegration?
8East of Eden, we’re “trapped in the gears of history” — a phrase in Ricardo Quinones’ brilliant work, The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 158.
9It is intriguing that the Hebrew Masoretic Text does not include what Cain says to Abel in v. 8.
10“Abel” is related to the Hebrew word for a wisp of nothingness like a fleeting puff of air or vapor, perhaps indicating his brief life span.
11The mark of Cain is clearly a mark of protection in the text, but it has a fascinating history of interpretation including both marks of protection and marks of stigma that signify condemnation, such as trembling limbs and head, cultic tattoos, beardlessness, leprosy and warts, horns, circumcision (often coupled with Christian denigration of Jews as prototypes of those who sacrificed the innocent — Abel/Christ), and, yes, even blackness. In modern literature that rehabilitates Cain as the archetype of human orientation toward the future, the mark of Cain is identity, awareness, individuality. See Ruth Mellinkoff, The Mark of Cain (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 1981) for a brief review. That Cain carries a history of both guilt and grace may be the source of his creative capacity.
12This may reflect the meaning of Cain’s name in the Hebrew pun in v. 2 — to get, create, or produce. Ironically, Cain may represent the human capacity for creativity. Yet, that creativity requires that we live with the contradictions of historical existence, mired in the sacrifices of the other that history seems to demand. In that context, Cain’s question is the key to the ethical response that fosters both communal and psychological reintegration.
13See Genesis 4:17-24 for the twin developments of cultural advance and excessive blood vengeance. That the first murderer is the founder of the city is a reflection of a persistent anti-urban bias in the Hebrew literature. Cain’s founding of the earthly city figures famously in Augustine’s City of God.
14In one version of the Roman foundation myth, divinely-fathered twin brothers Romulus and Remus cannot agree on where to found the city and seek the will of the gods in augury, which they interpret differently. Their conflict ends with Romulus killing his brother and then founding Rome.
15Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (NY: WW Norton & Co, 2011), 91.
16Carr, 141. See (ironically) blazepress.com/2015/05/27-powerful-images-that-sum-up-how-smartphones-are-ruining-our-lives/. We’ve all experienced that almost-Pavlovian psychic conditioning that makes it hard to resist the ping of a new message, the lure of a new post, the endless updating of yaks and tweets, the draw to what’s “trending.”
17Economix Editors, “The iEconomy: How much do Foxconn workers make?” New York Times, 1/24/12. With 36 hours of overtime, they can send home about $400 a month.
18Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, “In China, Human Costs are Built into an iPad,” New York Times, 1/25/12. Workers report swollen legs from standing, injuries from toxic chemicals, excessive overtime, overcrowded dorms, and pay withheld as punishment. One former Apple executive told the New York Times: “We’re trying really hard to make things better, but most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”
The article details Apple’s efforts to make improvements, and also names Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lenovo, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba. Foxconn Technology employs over 1.2 million Chinese workers, supplying 40% of the world’s consumer electronics.
The FairPhone movement is dedicated to conflict-free minerals; fair labor conditions; and environmentally sustainable procurement, recycling, reuse and waste stream practices.
19Duhigg and Barboza. Chengdu, a city of 12 million, is now one of the most important manufacturing hubs in the world.
20E.J. Dionne, “The roots of anguish,” in the Courier-Journal, 5/1/15. William J. Wilson’s When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (NY: Knopf, 1996) is essential for understanding what is happening in urban America.
21Andre Simo Stone Guess, “Rioting, destruction in Baltimore — why?” in the Courier-Journal, 4/29/15.
22Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. The prison population has quintupled from 350,000 in 1972 to more than two million today. In her crucial work on this “stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control,” Alexander discusses the drug war, the school-to-prison pipeline, evolving search procedures that have weakened “reasonable suspicion” guarantees, a plea bargaining system fueled by harsh mandatory sentences, and racially discriminatory sentencing. Alexander (p. 9) notes that “One in three young African Americans will serve time in prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole.” For a searing look at Kentucky’s system, see the PBS Frontline documentary, “Prison State.”
23For 22 years, I’ve asked my students at Bellarmine and Centre whether they’ve ever had such experiences, and to this day not one white student has shared a similar story. In seminary, I also rode an eight-hour shift with Louisville police, and witnessed the dedication in the face of daunting challenges that characterizes most officers — honorable men and women who function admirably in a broken system. Just last year, 126 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
24Common and John Legend put it this way: “Now the war is not over/victory isn’t won/And we’ll fight on to the finish/then when it’s all done/We’ll cry glory.
By |2015-05-27T09:07:46+00:00May 27th, 2015|News|