President Emeritus Bill Robinson
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Home > President Emeritus Robinson >

Keynote Speech at 2010 Governor's Prayer Breakfast

Feb. 26, 2010
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Governor, public servants, guests,

Greetings from Whitworth, the higher education community and Spokane.

I want to begin by expressing immense appreciation to all of you who have given your lives to public service. Your sacrifices and wisdom have contributed so much to making Washington a great state. I think those of us who are not in some form of government need to stop thinking about our elected officials as "other." They are us. We placed them in their positions. This is the essence of a democracy "of the people." And we need to pray for them more than once a year at breakfast.

I am especially grateful for the lawmakers here today. You can't spend much time in other countries without being impressed with our state and federal codes of law.

Both businesses and governments need good regulations. But I hope we're not asking too much from our laws. They're limited. They can't think. So I hope we can live by our highest values more than by our rules.

Four years ago, I made a statement to this effect in Portland. After I finished speaking, a man approached me and said, "I worked for my Fortune 500 company for 37 years. Toward the end of my time there, I decided to read the policy manual. I had barely started reading when I realized I wasn't reading a policy manual; I was reading a history book, a history of my company's screw-ups. Every time we screwed up, the company made a policy in hopes of not repeating the mistake. Now, the company is run by policies rather than people."

When we make policies, it's so that they will serve the people. But when the people become servants of the policies, it opens the door for the policies to betray the values they were intended to protect. Those of us in higher education have seen this. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a good law. It protects the privacy and safety of our students. But it can't anticipate every situation. It certainly didn't anticipate Virginia Tech. And in the aftermath of that tragedy, we discovered that the application and the misapplication of FERPA restricted the exchange of information in terribly unfortunate ways. So the law was amended, by including a "best judgment" section. But no law will be as effective as wise, well-trained people making smart, appropriate decisions.

So why do we seem so quick to make laws if it is better to live by our values?

First, we do need more laws in an increasingly complex society. But there is another reason known by every parent with more than one child and a back seat. The backseat is a microcosm of rule-making in modern society.

  • "Mom, Timmy is bothering me."
  • "Work it out"
  • "Mom, Timmy touched me."

And the front seat becomes Mt. Sinai; the 10 commandments of backseat behavior get handed down.

Perhaps we, too, have turned to making rules rather than working it out. We seem to be a society where civil discourse is becoming rare. Rather than discuss, we attack. Talk at the water cooler has begun to sound like talk radio.

In the course of 24 hours I heard a talk radio person refer to the president of the United States as a pathetic loser, and I heard a TV broadcaster refer to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown as someone who supports violence against women and people who disagree with him.

I'm beginning to wonder if our legislative branches of government have become the playing fields on which opposing ideologies compete.

What do we make of Evan Bayh leaving the Senate, weary of its polarization? What do we make of The New York Times labeling yesterday's bipartisan health care meeting "mostly for show"? And what if that's true?

The problem with those partisan politicians is...they ARE us.

In my opinion, we are paying the price for allowing cynicism, skepticism and tribalism to take the place of civil discourse. We demonstrate it in our homes and we encourage it in our universities. Cynically, we live by the motto, "When in doubt, assume something bad." Skeptically, we distrust factual information that challenges our points of view. And tribally, we ask not what we can do for our country, but what we can do to support our ideologies.

Unfortunately, this is not new behavior. There is a fascinating story in the New Testament Gospel of John that sounds pretty similar to what's happening in 21st-century American culture.

One day Jesus and his disciples were walking along and spotted a beggar who was blind from birth. The disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be blind from birth?"  You can almost see Jesus shaking his head saying, "C'mon, it's the wrong question. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This is a chance to bring glory to God."

So Jesus spits on the ground, mixes in some dirt, and puts the mud on the man's eyes. (It's a good thing the guy didn't have to see the ingredients.) Jesus tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash off the mud. The blind man does it, and PRESTO, he can see.

So the question, before moving on in the story, is, Why were the disciples so cynical? Why were they looking for a villain behind the man's blindness? Well, nature abhors a vacuum, and so does human nature. When we don't have all the information, we speculate; we fill it in. But why assume something bad? Why not fill in the gaps with goodness? 

We're taught from a young age to be cynics. At least that's how I tried to raise my children. I recall the day our four-year-old son came home with a scratch on his face. I said, "Ben, what happened to your face?"  He said, "Peter scratched me with a stick." To which I replied, "That was a mean thing to do." And Ben's reply, which I still remember 25 years later, was, "Why do you think he did it on purpose?" Because I'm a cynic. I need a villain. We have become so quick to judge the motive behind actions we don't like.

So, back to the story. The man goes home, and some of his neighbors are astonished. But other neighbors say, "This isn't the same man." Except it so obviously was. And the man is saying, "Yeah, it's me. I'm the man!" So this poor man goes from the disciples, who are cynics, to his neighbors, who are skeptics. They just deny the facts. The guy boils it all down for them. He says, "Some guy they called Jesus put mud on my eyes, told me to go to Siloam, I did, I washed off the mud, and now I can see. Period."

But the neighbors are skeptical, and so are we. Sen. Daniel Moynihan once said, "We're all entitled to our own set of opinions, but we're not all entitled to our own set of facts." How can we look at factual information and just deny its truth? Well, it's a learned behavior.

I'm afraid part of our skepticism is a response to all the spin that people use to make their arguments. Whether it's global warming or health care, we argue deceptively. We take facts, we take inferences, and we take opinions. Then we package them all together and call the package truth. This is Rhetorical Deception101. When President James Polk tried to do this in defending the Mexican War of 1846, a freshman congressman from Illinois said, "Let him answer with facts and not with arguments. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and let him answer as Washington would answer."  Abraham Lincoln, 1847.

So, what do we do about cynicism and skepticism? How do we move from these attitudes to civil discourse? 

The blind beggar story is from the 9th chapter of the Gospel of John. In the first chapter, John introduces Jesus. I know many of you here this morning are not Christians. I respect you, and frankly, I love the diversity of this room and of our state and of our country. But in this passage, John is not just introducing a religious figure; he's introducing his leader. And the first two characteristics John chooses to describe Jesus are grace and truth. He says Jesus is filled with grace and truth.

This is interesting, because grace and truth represent the opposite of cynicism and skepticism. Seeing through the eyes of grace is filling in the gaps with goodness and charity. Consistently telling the truth eliminates the basis for skepticism. And when those of us in leadership extend grace and tell the truth, we should not be surprised when we get what we give, when we receive grace and truth from those we lead. You get what you give.

Grace and truth need each other. Grace without truth isn't really grace at all. It is "anything goes" in the name of love. But truth without grace is hard-hearted and usually results in little more than defensiveness and resentment.

My favorite story about truth and grace is found right before the blind beggar story. It's the story of a woman caught in adultery. Her captors drag her to Jesus. "Jesus, we caught her in the act," they say. "The law says to stone her." Jesus writes something in the sand and utters those famous words, "If any of you are without sin, let him cast the first stone." And everyone drifts away. It is now just Jesus and the woman. Jesus asks, "Did they condemn you?"  The woman answers, "No."  Jesus says, "Neither do I" – grace. "Now, don't do this anymore" – truth.

If our leaders were committed to grace and truth, might not civil discourse replace stone-throwing? I have always longed for Whitworth to be a place of grace and truth. Someday I want to walk into a Spokane sports bar and hear one of the regulars say, "How about that basketball team at Gonzaga?" and another guy answer, "How about that grace and truth at Whitworth?"

Well, the rest of the blind man's tale is both entertaining and telling. The man's skeptical neighbors take him to the religious leaders (questionable idea). The Pharisees are both cynical and skeptical about the healing. So the beggar starts trash-talking the Pharisees. He says, "Look, I told you what happened. Why do you keep asking? Are you interested in following him?" So, there's not much in the way of civil discourse at this point, and they throw the man out, saying, basically, "You're not one of us."

This is pretty partisan. Rather than rejoice that a blind beggar found sight, the religious leadership is angered that he was healed by the wrong party – on the wrong day, by the way. Do we rejoice when the other team scores points for the common good?

Earlier this month, I was at a gathering of college presidents in Washington, D.C. Our speaker was Meet the Press host David Gregory. In the Q and A, one of the presidents asked, "What's the biggest change you have seen over the years you've  covered Washington politics?" Gregory's reply was instantaneous. "It is so much more partisan than it used to be." That answer surprised no one.

There is no hope for civil discourse across the aisle if the other side of the aisle is enemy territory. A few years ago, Bonnie and I were at a table of four with two women. One was a federal judge, and the other was a small-business owner. It wasn't long before they started carving up Democrats along with their steak. It was like a tennis match being played with grenades. So, because I am not a smart man, I asked them, "Do you think Democrats are trying to hurt the country, or do you think they're just dumb?" This kind of stumped the judge, but then she replied, "To be honest with you, I absolutely don't understand Democrats." Wouldn't it good to start with "I don't understand..." rather than with full frontal attacks?

Let me contrast this conversation with an interview I heard on Jan. 13. I was on the treadmill, channel-surfing, when I saw former Vice President Dan Quayle being interviewed by Neil Cavuto. I had met Dan a few times when we were in Indiana, so I tuned in. I was so stunned by what I heard, I got the transcript.

The host had been blasting the bailouts:

  • CAVUTO: But who do you blame the bailouts on
  • QUAYLE: Well, I don't think it's whether it's Bush's fault or Obama's fault.
  • CAVUTO: Would you have done it?
  • QUAYLE:, At that particular time, I probably would have. And I say probably.... The question I would have had for Paulson and Bernanke and company is, are we really at on the edge of catastrophe  if we don't do something?...You have to trust the people who have the information. So, I presume they would have looked me right in the eyes and said yes. Under that situation, you have to support it.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,583048,00.html

This kind of response leads to civil discourse and problem-solving. So the question becomes, "How do we overcome the kind of polarization that has us putting me and my group above all else?"

The answer is leadership. We need leaders who unite us. We need leaders whose words and actions can say, "With malice toward none, and charity toward all...let us finish the work."  We need leaders with the courage to put the good of the people above all else. We need leaders like Queen Esther.

The story of Queen Esther is by far the best Hollywood story in the Bible. I wish I had time to tell it, because I take a lot of liberties with it.

Esther was a Jewish orphan, languishing with the children of Israel in Persian captivity. She was adopted by her older cousin, Mordecai. Esther comes into the picture when King Xerxes fires the first queen because she won't parade her beauty in front of him and his drunken buddies. Three cheers for Queen Vashti.  So the king holds what is basically a year-long beauty contest to choose his new queen. Mordecai urges Esther to participate, but not to disclose her Jewish identity. He then camps outside the castle gate, where he sends and receives messages before and after Esther becomes queen. This is a fascinating story that all of you should read. So I'll leave out all the juicy parts and cut to the critical moment. Deviously, one of the nobles has talked King Xerxes into signing a decree that all the Jews will be exterminated on Dec. 13. When Mordecai hears this news, he is terrified. So he sends a message to Esther imploring her to approach the king and stop the annihilation.

She replies that no one, not even the queen, can approach the king without being summoned. If you do, the sentence is death. Mordecai responds, warning Esther that her background could be discovered, and then he asks one of the most famous questions in all of religious history, "Could it be that you have come to this royal position for such a time as this?"

And it is quite possible that there are Jewish people here today because Esther said  yes, "I will go to the king even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."

The story ends well. Brilliantly, Esther engages the king, exposes the evil and saves her people.

Esther put the good of her people above all else. If American society hopes to overcome the kind of polarization that has us fighting each other rather than rescuing the vulnerable, we will need leaders who also put the good of their people above all else, above popularity, above party loyalty and above safety. We need leaders who will say, "If I perish, I perish, but I will lay it on the line for my people.

We will need leaders with the courage and wisdom of Esther. We need leaders who will show us that what unites us as Americans is so much greater than what divides us in partisanship.

So, Governor Gregoire, to you and to all those who lead us, I pledge our prayers. We pray that you will lead with grace and truth and courage, putting the good of your people above all else. As a Christian, I offer my prayers in the name of Jesus, who put the people he came to save above all else, even his life, but I offer these prayers on behalf of all the people, and of all the faiths that make the great state of Washington, the great state of Washington. God bless you.



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