Flights of Faith

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Acceptable and Possible

Jim Wallis from gave a commencement speech a few days ago for Georgetown.

I read it, and I was inspired.
The apathy I was feeling, gone.
I'm printing this out for my room next year and reading this entry whenever I lose hope.

Not so these words can comfort my desire for change.
Not even so I will be motivated to act after reading Wallis' words.
But so I will know why I care about justice: God.
And why I have to act in His name.
If I am...

May it be a blessing for you as it was for me.

Georgetown Commencement Address, May 18, 2007

I feel very honored and excited to be addressing you graduates today; about being a small part of this great occasion in your lives--the day when you are symbolically "set loose" into the world; and I would suggest that all of us have a great stake in what you are going to do.

Let me start with a story, about another occasion when I was invited to speak - not for the commencement of one the nation's premier universities, but for the inmates at Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York. The invitation letter came from the prisoners themselves and it sounded like a good idea. So I wrote back asking when they wanted me to come. In his return letter, the young Sing Sing inmate replied, "Well, we're free most nights! We're kind of a captive audience here." Arrangements were made, and the prison officials were very generous in giving us a room deep in the bowels of that infamous prison facility - just me and about 80 guys for four hours.

I will never forget what one of those young prisoners said to me that night, "Jim, all of us at Sing Sing are from only about five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train when you are about 9 or 10 years old. And the train ends up here at Sing Sing."

Many of these prisoners were students too, studying in a very unique program of the New York Theological Seminary to obtain a Certificate of Theological Studies - behind the walls of the prison. They graduated when their sentences were up (of course, none of you feel that way). Here's what that young man at Sing Sing told me he would do upon his graduation: "When I get out, I'm going to go back and stop that train." Two years later, in NYC I met him again, and he was the youth minister of a local church. Now that is exactly the kind of moral decisions we desperately need today from the graduates of Sing Sing, and from the graduates of Georgetown.

Each new generation has a chance to alter two very basic definitions of realty in our world—what is acceptable and what is possible. And, from a community such as this school is, a third chance--to also shape what we mean by the word "faith."

First, what is acceptable?

There are always great inhumanities that we inflict upon one another in this world, great injustices that cry out to God for redress, and great gaps in our moral recognition of them. When the really big offenses are finally corrected, finally changed, it is always and only because something has happened to change our perception of the moral issues at stake.

That something is this: The moral contradiction we have long lived with is no longer acceptable to us. What we accepted, or ignored, or denied, finally gets our attention and we decide that we just cannot and will not live with it any longer. But until that happens, the injustice and misery continue.

And it often takes a new generation to make that decision—that something that people have long tolerated just won't be tolerated any more.

So the question to you as graduates as ambassadors for a new generation is this: what are you going to no longer accept in our world, what will you refuse to tolerate now that you will be making the decisions that will matter?

Will it be acceptable to you that 3 billion people in our world today--half of God's children--live on less that $2 per day, that more than 1 billion live on less than $1 per day, that the gap between the life expectancy between the rich places and the poor places in the world is now 40 years—meaning that death has become a social disease, and that 30,000 children globally will die today--on the day of your graduation--from needless, senseless, and utterly preventable poverty and disease. It's what Bono calls "stupid poverty."

Many people don't really know that or sort of do but have never really focused on the reality or even given it a second thought.

And that's the way it usually is. We don't know, or we have the easy explanations about why poverty or some other calamity exists or really can't be changed--all of which makes us feel better about ourselves; or we are just more concerned with lots of other things. We really don't have to care. So we tolerate it and keep looking the other way.

But then something changes. Something gets our attention, something goes deeper than it has before and hooks us in the places we call the heart, the soul, the spirit. And once we've crossed over to really seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the injustice we can never really look back again. It is now unacceptable to us.

What we see now offends us, offends our understanding of the sanctity and dignity of life, offends our notions of fairness and justice, offends our most basic values; violates our idea of the common good, and starts to tug at our deepest places. We cross the line of unacceptability. We become intolerant of the injustice.

I see many signs of change from a new generation.

I was in Minneapolis and, after speaking, was signing books. I looked up from the table and saw a very little girl who was next in line." How old are you?" I asked. "I'm eleven," she said. I stopped the line; I wanted to know what she thought of what she had just heard. I asked her what she got from tonight. "Well…I think we are just going to have to change the world!" And, who is going to that I asked her with a smile." I think people like me!" she replied. I told her story the next night in Tacoma, Washington. Sure enough, in the book signing line afterwards was another little girl who grinned at me and said, "Nine!" So I told both their stories the very next night in Seattle. There in line was the littlest girl of all. When she approached the table, she said, "I think I'm the youngest so far. I'm eight." I couldn't help but ask this child what made sense to her tonight. She paused thoughtfully for a moment and then answered, "When you talked about that 'silent tsunami,' that is killing so many children every day because of poverty—children like me…I was just sitting there and started to think, if I'm a Christian, I better do something about that."

Those three little girls really touched me, and I believe there is a great deal of both wisdom and hope in what they have to say to us.

First, the kids believe the world needs to be changed. The truth is that the rest of us do too. We're not happy with things as they are. But all that generally just adds up to both cynicism and apathy—justifying itself by concluding nothing can really be changed. But not with these young girls-- they have decided the world needs to change. And the little children may lead us.

Second, they are specific about what needs to change. Talking with them afterwards it soon became clear that certain facts about the world strike them as just plain wrong. They aren't just complaining; rather, they are learning about things which are unacceptable to them. And that is always how change begins.

Third, they all connect their desire to change the world directly with their faith—"If I am a Christian, (or another faith or just a spiritual person) I better do something about that." Their spirituality, even at this young age, has sensitized them to injustice and given them a sense of responsibility for it. Faith is a motivator and is what inspires them to think they ought to try and make a difference. Maybe their childlike and simple faith might inspire ours.

The two greatest hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality on the one hand, and the hunger for social justice on the other hand. And the connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for—especially a new generation.

But just changing our notion of what is unacceptable isn't enough however; we must also change or perception of what is possible.

I believe that the real battle, the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice; but one which has enormous political consequences.

Hope is not a feeling; it is a decision. And the decision for hope is based upon what you believe at the deepest levels – whatever we call faith. You choose hope, not as a naïve wish, but with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world - just like the cynics who have not made the decision for hope.

I believe it will take a new generation to reach the "tipping point" in the struggle to eliminate the world's most extreme poverty. It will take you.

At the beginning of a new century and millennium, I see a new generation of young activists coming of age and talking about globalization, HIV/AIDS, and reducing global poverty.

I am also convinced that global poverty reduction will not be accomplished without a spiritual engine, and that history is changed by social movements with a spiritual foundation. That's what's always made the difference - abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights. This will be no different.

So let's turn to you, the graduates. You are a bright, gifted, and committed group of students. There are probably many people who tell you about your potential, and they are right.

In that regard, I would encourage each of you to think about your vocation more than just your career. And there is a difference. From the outside, those two tracks may look very much alike, but asking the vocational question rather than just considering the career options will take you much deeper. The key is to ask why you might take one path instead of another - the real reasons you would do something more than just because you can. The key is to ask who you really are; and what you want to become. It is to ask what you believe you are supposed to do.

Religious or not, I would invite you to consider your calling, more than just the many opportunities presented to graduates of Georgetown University. That means connecting your best talents and skills to your best and deepest values; making sure your mind is in sync with your soul as you plot your next steps. Don't just go where you're directed or even invited, but rather where your own moral compass leads you. And don't accept other's notions of what is possible or realistic; dare to dream things and don't be afraid to take risks.

You do have great potential, but that potential will be most fulfilled if you follow the leanings of conscience and the language of the heart more than just the dictates of the market, whether economic or political. They want smart people like you to just manage the systems of the world. But rather than managing or merely fitting into systems, ask how you can change them. You're both smart and talented enough to do that. That's your greatest potential.

Ask where your gifts intersect with the groaning needs of the world--There is your vocation.

The antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action. And action is finally born out of hope. Try to remember that.

At college, you often believe you can think our way into a new way of living, but that's actually not the way it works. Out in the world, it's more likely that you will live your way into a new way of thinking.

The key is to believe that the world can be changed, because it is only that belief that ever changes the world. And if not us, who will believe? If not you, who?

What is really possible? The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews says this: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." And my best paraphrase of that is this: Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.

I want to leave your today with something from Nelson Mandela. In his inaugural speech, the first president of a free South Africa said,

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?' Actually, who are we not to be?
"You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking, so that other people won't feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
"And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear; our presence automatically liberates others."

So my commission to the graduating class of 2007 is

No longer accept the unacceptable.

Change what is believed to be possible.

And always make the choice for hope.

Look out world, here you come!

Congratulations and God Bless You!


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