Whitworth College Fall 2002 Convocation Address
Sept. 4, 2002
One of the most joyous interests of the Robinson family is our love of art. Our three children had made many trips to the Chicago Art Institute before they made their first trip to the zoo. Actually, we never told them about the zoo. They had looked at Monet and Van Gogh before looking at their first orangutan. A couple of days ago I counted 47 books of paintings and sculptures in our living room, and most of them represent the permanent collections from art museums we have visited. We love art.
Particularly during the Renaissance, my favorite period, artists would occasionally choose people of significance to paint or sculpt into their creations. They might have painted in the face of their benefactor appearing as Zeus or Adonis, for example. The famed Medici family of Florence can be found in many of the great works from the late 15th and 16th centuries. Sometimes, a rival would be painted into the picture as some kind of dunce. Even Michelangelo did that. And, as you might expect, artists painted themselves into their pictures. My favorite painting by Raphael, which, by the way, does not include cute little angels, is entitled "The School of Athens." Artistically and historically it is a great work. In the center of this Vatican painting you will find Plato and Aristotle engaged in conversation. Plato is pointing up, and Aristotle is pointing down, as all of you Core 250 veterans would expect. Also occupying the great hall of learning are Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Heraclites, and other celebrated early Greeks. And there, off to the right, stands Raphael himself as if to say, "Learning continues through the ages. Great ideas did not end with these great thinkers."
This morning I would like to urge you students to paint yourselves into the pictures of all that you study. What would you have written from Walden's Pond? How would you have responded as an intellectual during China's Cultural Revolution? What would you have been thinking on the beaches of Normandy? What would you have done on a Detroit bus if you were told to move to the back because of your skin color? We often speak of empathy as a way to improve our interpersonal relations, but I would like to suggest empathy - painting yourselves into the picture -- as a way to learn, and to learn more deeply about yourselves and the events you examine.
In the few minutes remaining of our time at this convocation, I would like to share with you what I discovered when I painted myself into the picture of Nazi Germany that was so much more than a picture for Eva Lassman. I have asked myself two questions. First, how could I have survived the unspeakable oppression suffered by the Jews under Hitler's evil crusade? Second, what would have kept me from joining the German Christians who supported Hitler and even participated in the attempted genocide of an entire people?
Before answering these two questions, I pray that my efforts to paint myself into these pictures will not trivialize the enormity of what faced the Jews or the Christian church. It is very easy for me to recite lessons learned from the safety of this auditorium more than a half century after the fact.
My answer to the question of how I would survive is more emotional than intellectual. Two years ago my family and I walked through the clockmaker's home, just outside of Amsterdam, in which Corrie Ten Boom's family hid Jewish people and sympathizers from their bloodthirsty pursuers. Can you imagine it, literally running for your life, having done absolutely nothing wrong? When Bonnie, the children and I were shown the hiding place, I was at once horrified, moved, inspired and heart-broken. Paint yourself into the picture. You're huddling behind a tiny false wall with five other people for days. What kept these people alive, what kept them silent and motionless, what kept their relatives in Daschau and Auschwitz even wanting to live? I don't really know the answer to this question. Maybe it differed from person to person. But I know what the answer is when I paint myself into the picture. I would not have endured because of a survival instinct, I would not have endured because I am in good physical condition, I would not have endured because of my iron will. If I survived, it is only hope that would have kept me going when every message within me was telling me to give up. The hope of being again with my loved ones and the hope that even in wretched circumstances God cares for me would have been the only way I could have made it.
Isaiah was right when he said, "Without a vision, the people perish..." What is your vision? Do you have hope? What are the dreams that propel you? When everything in your life is telling you to give up, what will keep you going? What is your hope? This fall our theatre department will perform "The Sound of Music." It is a production far more about the power of hope than the sound of music. I challenge you this morning to know your hope and to paint your vision. Rare is the person who exceeds the specifications of his or her vision. And please do one more thing. Paint yourself into the picture of those in despair, the mother whose only hope is to find the next meal for her baby. Consider painting her, and there are millions of her, into the picture of hope you paint for yourself. Is there room in your picture for more than just you?
The other question, "What would have kept me from joining the German Christians who supported Hitler?" is very different from the first one. As far as my physical well-being is concerned, it is a drastically smaller issue than what faced Eva Lassman and the Jews. As far as my soul is concerned, it is a huge issue. This past summer I read Jim Waller's book that asks, "Why do ordinary people commit acts of extraordinary evil?" I agree with Jim's conclusion that in the presence of certain factors, we are all capable of huge evil.
When I paint myself into the picture and ask, "What would have kept me from following Hitler's perverted nationalism?" I know the answer, which, by the way is easier to recite than to live. I am confident that had I been faithful to my world view, I would have protested, along with the Confessing Church of Germany, rather than join those who supported Hitler. Let me tell you the key to a world view that has integrity, one that would have placed me in Martin Niemoeller's Confessing Church. It is this: Never follow a principle, even a noble principle, at the expense of a higher principle. The principle of obeying the government, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, is a good principle. It is a biblical principle. But for many of us here today, obeying God is a higher principle. Your world view is worthless if you allow lesser principles to violate your highest principles. Furthermore, your lesser principles will ultimately overthrow the place of your highest principles, and you'll end up with a new world view, and it will be a perverted one. If, for example, you hold to the very good principle that we should celebrate and enjoy life, but have as a higher principle the fundamental dignity and respect of all people, then you will never allow yourself to gain pleasure at the expense of others. When we are unfaithful to our highest principles, no matter how justifiable our unfaithfulness might be, we become intellectual adulterers. And it is intellectual adultery that silences our conscience, paving the way for moral adultery in ways that go far beyond sexual activity.
Christians who hate…either violate their Christian world view or they have perverted it to the point of it no longer being Christian. This was true of the German Christians who supported acts of genocide. It is true of Christians who hate Muslims today. In a Christian world view, and in an Eva Lassman world view, hating others is always wrong. It is wrong for Jews to hate Palestinians and it is wrong for Palestinians to hate Jews. They may hate the acts of wrong doing, but hating each other is a cancer that will only destroy.
It's a lot easier for me to brag about what my world view would have been than to let it rule me today. Many issues are confusing. I am currently trying to understand how the possibility of attacking Iraq fits my world view. I know it is a very complex issue and I don't want to accommodate my world view by trying to reduce it into something simple. But I do know this, no matter what my government does or does not do, I must be faithful to my highest principles. My temptation will be to let my emotions, rather than my world view, determine my reaction to any decision. On faculty retreat, Leonard Oakland showed a clip of The Godfather. I had not seen the movie since 1972. When the clip started I realized that I remembered only one theme from the movie -- the son who let his environment to overthrow the highest principles in his world view. He needed the strength of Joseph who could have followed the lesser principle of obeying his master's wife and sleeping with her, but instead ran in favor of the higher principle of loyalty to his master and to God.
As you paint yourself into the picture of Nazi Germany or any other picture, I implore you to ask what you would do if you are truly faithful to your highest principles. I hope your answer is faithfulness to God and all of God's creation.
Well, I close today's convocation with two benedictions. Eva, to you, Whitworth is so honored to have honored you. We asked ourselves whether we should alter our convocation today out of respect to you, Rabbi Issakson, and our guests. We answered the question by asking ourselves whether we would want you to make changes at the Synagogue if we were there as your guests, and we surely would not. I hope you feel the love and respect of our community. While you wait for the Messiah and while we wait for His return, may the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph pour out his shalom on our lives together in this community.
And to you students, I pray God's rich blessing on you this semester. May all of you rise to new levels of integrity, may all of you keep before you a vision and hope that inspires you to endure, and may those of you who are Christians allow the love, peace and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to dominate your world view and be at the center of your hope. God be with you all. Amen.
Following is the prayer that Terry McGonigal read for the Invocation:
[Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer]
Prayers for Fellow-Prisoners
O God, early in the morning I cry to
In me there is darkness,
O heavenly Father,
You have granted me many blessings;
Lord Jesus Christ,
O Holy Spirit,
O holy and merciful God,
I remember in you presence all my loved
Restore me to liberty,