Interfaith Baccalaureate Service Remarks

May 16, 2008

Good afternoon. I would like to thank Nicole Capp for so kindly inviting me, on behalf of the Student Association, to participate in this important tradition and to share my thoughts with you on the eve of Commencement weekend.

This is a rare opportunity to pause for a moment, in the life of a very busy university, to reflect together on how far we have come and where we are going. It’s a chance to step back and to see our lives in a much broader perspective, a perspective made possible by the tradition of faith or of life philosophy that each of us carries but that is hard to keep in mind as we dive into our studies, prepare to teach our classes, or take on the challenging problems of functioning as a complex institution in a vital urban setting.

As I thought about what to say this afternoon, my mind kept returning to the image of a person whose every action is pervaded by faith – faith of an unusually powerful but, for many of us, unfamiliar kind. It was my privilege to spend an entire evening at dinner with this person. Actually, it’s a bit misleading to say that I spent the evening with him, because that implies a somewhat intimate setting. Although I did sit next to him – the kind of thing you get to do as a university president -- we were in the company of more than 600 other people in a very large room, the atrium of the National Building Museum. The occasion was the fifth annual gala for the GW Cancer Institute, and my friend for the evening was there to receive a well-deserved honor, the Cancer Compassion Award, which goes each year to someone “who has exemplified devotion to improving access to and quality of care among medically underserved communities.” The honoree, my dinner companion, was South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Bishop Tutu was no stranger to GW; in fact, in 1999 he received an honorary degree and gave the speech at that year’s Commencement. I had met him once before, more than 20 years ago, when he visited California during his ultimately successful campaign to end the South African system of racial segregation known as “apartheid,” and I was leading a coalition of churches and synagogues responding to the needs of refugees from the terrible wars that were then underway in Central America.

Desmond Tutu, who will be 77 this October and is currently battling his second recurrence of prostate cancer, has led a remarkable life. He began his life in 1931, in a black ghetto in the South African town of Klerksdorp, where his father was a schoolmaster and where his brothers all died in childhood, although two sisters survived. When he was 12 years old, his family moved to the deeply segregated city of Johannesburg. His passion for education, and in particular his love of Shakespeare, was ignited by a black high school teacher English teacher whose name he still recalls, Geoff Mamabulu. He also recalls being inspired by the achievements of African Americans who were just beginning to receive international notice – people like the athletes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis and the musicians Fats Waller and Lena Horne. At the age of 12, he contracted tuberculosis, but somehow survived. He studied to be a teacher, taught for awhile at his old high school, then quit when the South Government passed new legislation designed to enforce a permanent state of inferiority for what was called “Bantu,” meaning black, education. It was at that point that he entered the priesthood of the Anglican Church, studying theology in South Africa and England, and eventually rising to position of Bishop of Lesotho and later Archbishop of Capetown, which made him the first black African to become the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa.

In 1984, Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a non-violent leader of the movement to end apartheid, although everyone at the time, including him, knew that the prize was really intended for the movement as a whole. He responded with a moving and gracious speech that called not for reconciliation and peace. When apartheid finally did come to an end, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, asked the Archbishop to lead a truly amazing process of collective confession and forgiveness as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His work has been credited with helping South Africa avoid the bloody revenge and that could easily have followed so many decades of violent oppression by a white minority that was only 20% of the population and was now at the mercy of the vastly larger black majority. For three years, victims of apartheid were given an opportunity to recount their experiences; at the same time, perpetrators of torture, assassination, and other atrocities who came forward to confess their crimes were granted amnesty.

Here is what Desmond Tutu said, in a 2004 interview, about what he learned from his role as head of the Commission:

I have come to realize the extraordinary capacity for evil that all of us have because we have now heard the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there have been revelations of horrendous atrocities that people have committed. Any and every one of us could have perpetrated those atrocities. The people who were perpetrators of the most gruesome things didn’t have horns, didn’t have tails. They were ordinary human beings like you and me. That’s the one thing. Devastating! But the other, more exhilarating than anything that I have ever experienced – and something I hadn’t expected – to discover that we have an extraordinary capacity for good. People who suffered untold misery, people who should have been riddled with bitterness, resentment and anger come to the Commission and exhibit an extraordinary magnanimity and nobility of spirit in their willingness to forgive, and to say, “Hah! Human beings actually are fundamentally good.” The aberration, in fact, is the evil one, for God created us ultimately for God, for goodness, for laughter, for joy, for compassion, for caring. [i]

Many, and for all I know most, of those gathered here today do not share Desmond Tutu’s Christian faith, or perhaps any kind of specifically religious faith at all. Many of you might not agree with all his other opinions; in fact, he has been in many ways a controversial figure, regarded by some, despite his nonviolence, as too extreme in his support of black African liberation, by others as not extreme enough. His views on world issues outside South Africa have also been criticized as often as they have been praised. It is not my aim this afternoon to convert you, either to his faith or to his politics. But there is something about him that I would like you at least to think about, something that, in my experience, is characteristic of many people of deep faith, no matter what tradition they belong to.

If you ask Desmond Tutu today what he thinks about his country, whether he thinks his nonviolent revolution really succeeded – and it may be impolite to do so in a dinner conversation, but I asked him nonetheless – he becomes very quiet, very thoughtful, and then answers that the outcome has been a mixture of good and bad. Legal segregation is gone, democracy has arrived, and the country is no longer ruled by a tiny minority. But the country has been terribly devastated by HIV/AIDS, costing many, many lives that never should have ended so tragically early. He has often disagreed with the position his government has taken – most publicly, in recent years, its toleration of the abuses of human rights in the neighboring country of Zimbabwe. He looks at all these flaws with complete and sober realism.

And yet you have already heard, in what I quoted from the interview, his message of irrepressible optimism and hope. In my experience, it is generally those with the deepest faith who can manage such a combination of realism, such a full appreciation of the depth of human evil, with so frank and unembarrassed attitudes of optimism and hope.

But even more than hope, even more than optimism: what radiates when you meet him from every inch of this small, aging, and seemingly rather frail human being is something harder to describe, something I recognized, in fact, from a meeting several years ago with the Dalai Lama. I may be an English teacher, but I have still found myself struggling to find the right word to describe his quality. It’s a word you don’t hear much nowadays, probably because the quality it describes is hard to capture in soundbites or video clips, although you feel it instantly when you’re in its presence. Archbishop Tutu pointed to it indirectly when, in the interview I just quoted, he included “laughter” and “joy” among the things for which, he says, God created us.

The quality I’m trying to isolate, I think, is mirth. It’s related to happiness, and also to that familiar talent what we call a “sense of humor.” But it’s something rarer, something you prize when you meet it, something that gives you, whether you’re religious or not, a sense of awe at the sheer vitality, the deep inner resources, of certain very special human beings.

Here are some ways to recognize it. A person of mirth takes pleasure, or more exactly takes joy, in the sheer presence of other human beings. A person of mirth regards other persons as objects of wonder, fascinating mysteries, and seems to enjoy the mere thought of their existence. But such a person also takes joy, also rejoices, in the sheer presence and mystery of him or herself.

In fact, the surest sign that you are in the presence of a person of mirth like Desmond Tutu is the strangely infectious way he has of laughing at his own jokes. That’s supposed to be annoying, a sign of bad taste or insecurity, and generally it is annoying and embarrassing when someone laughs too loudly or too long at his or her own jokes. But the self-directed laughter of a mirthful person is not annoying; it’s endearing, infectious, and it has a lingering effect. It conveys an impression of overflowing life, life in abundance; and more than almost any effect I can think of that one human being can have upon others, it engenders those feelings of hope and optimism that make it bearable, for people of every faith, to live in a world of so much violence, so much injustice, so much atrocity.

So let me pray, on this occasion of interfaith prayer and reflection, that each of you, as you go out into the world, will have many opportunities to meet, and to be moved and changed by meeting, those special people who seek justice and peace and wholeness for all humankind; who do so even while knowing and never forgetting the depth of human evil: people who know how to laugh at their own jokes, and who can do so because their very souls are overflowing with an inexhaustible inner life that shows itself forth as mirth. Amen.