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Whitworth College 2002 Graduate Commencement Address

May 18, 2002
Bill Robinson

One of the terrors of being the person who gives the commencement address for our graduate students is that you have to turn in the title of the speech way before you've had time to think about what you might say. Maybe that's just the terror of being me in a job that is never finished. I'm what you call a procrastinator with a good excuse. Yikes.

Well, the other day someone asked me if I was giving the same speech I gave three years ago. "Not that I know of," I replied. "Why do you ask?" "I see you're speaking on peace. Didn't you speak on peace three years ago?" As a matter of fact, I did. Three years ago, I spoke on having peace, today I will speak on making peace. Three years ago, the stock market was going wild (up, that is), Y2K was making everyone crazy, and I was about to turn 50. For all kinds of reasons, our souls were stirred. Peace seemed in short supply.

Now three years later, peace is again in short supply. But this time it is not inner peace that I'm referring to, it is interpersonal, inter-group and international peace we so desperately need. On Sunday night, September 9, 2001, America's most well known historian, Steven Ambrose, gave a keynote address kicking off a conference on the legacy of World War II. The essence of his remarks was that the sacrifices and victories of World War II had laid the foundation for the 21st century being one of unparalleled peace. The closing speech on Wednesday morning, September 12, was given by Major General Robert Ploger. Ploger had been spent June 6, 1944 under enemy fire at battle on Omaha Beach as a 29 year-old lieutenant colonel. After hearing Ambrose on Sunday night, he may have thought the injury he incurred and the troops killed in that battle were worth the price of peace. But one day earlier, his son and daughter-in-law boarded a plane for their honeymoon in Hawaii and ended up being killed as their plane was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. We find ourselves in a world that cries out for peace. We need people who know how to turn swords into plowshares. We need a world of individuals who live peacemaking lives. In the next few minutes I'm going to offer several suggestions for being a peacemaker. Whether we're talking about classrooms or international boardrooms, blessed are the peacemakers.

I suppose it is a very fair question to ask how making peace in a classroom or even in an international boardroom would have any effect on world peace. Well, you just don't know. I do know that every school, every business, every social agency and every city council in the world needs people who love peace and know how to make it. Further, peacemaking can be infectious, and you never know whom you might be infecting.

When our children were little they spent a week each summer at a place called Camp Mack in Milford, Indiana. This camp was affiliated with one of the four historic peace churches, and they talked a lot about peace and conflict resolution. Last Sunday night our son Ben returned from four months on Whitworth's Central America tour. While there, he touched the scars of war, and there is absolutely no doubt that his agonizing reaction to the conflicts in Central America was influenced by Camp Mack and the peace-making emphases of our church in those years. Whether Ben's longing for peace ever makes a difference in Central America or anywhere else is yet to be seen, but one Camp Mack's campers has made a difference. It was at Camp Mack that a young teenager named Andy made his first commitment to being a peacemaker. Andy went on become a Congressman, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Mayor of Atlanta and always a civil-rights activist. You just don't know when your peacemaking will inspire and instruct someone like Andrew Young.

So, here are some suggestions for being a peacemaker:

  1. If you want to be a peacemaker, let the villain come to you. Peacemakers look for solutions, not for bad guys. Why is it when we encounter any kind of conflict we just can't wait to nail someone with blame? It is often our first response to a problem, and when it is, finger pointing and blaming replace thinking and problem solving. Admittedly, there are times when we must know the source of a conflict if we hope to resolve it. But that's not where we should start. Now and then I get calls from the parents of students - always undergrads, never graduate students - who are upset by something or someone connected to the college. When I first became a college president these calls always brought out the detective in me. I wanted justice and I wanted to bust somebody for adding hassle to my life. Maybe I'm getting old, but I find myself now responding to these parents with sorrow that a problem exists at all and discussing how we can make life better for the student in crisis. What has been very interesting to me is that in this more positive process, facts come to the surface and even villains are exposed.
  2. If you want to be a peacemaker, don't manufacture an enemy if one doesn't exist. We are all construction workers when presenting our ideas or arguments. We build a bad idea in order to make our good idea look better. We have left Hegel's dialectic unfinished in order to sell our point of view. You remember Hegel's triad - a thesis is met with an antithesis and out of that encounter comes a synthesis, a better idea. But so often when we argue, we put forward our thesis, then we create an antithesis that is so exaggerated or weak that only our idea makes sense. This is a dishonest rhetorical device that no peacemaker should ever use. Peacemakers just put forth their ideas without contrasting them with a bad guy's bad idea. Peacemakers spend their time searching for good ideas and good solutions, not manufacturing bad ones.
  3. If you want to be a peacemaker, let someone besides you be president of your fan club. Peacemakers work hard to deflect credit toward others. Their need for recognition is buried deep below their desire to bring reconciliation, harmony and mutual respect to those who find themselves in conflict. One of modern history's great demonstrations of peacemaking demonstrates beautifully the suppression of a peacemaker's ego. Twenty-four years ago President Jimmy Carter somehow managed to convene Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Premier Menachem Begin in an effort to build a peace treaty. The now famous Camp David Accord was the incredible result of that effort. In celebrating the 20th anniversary of the signing, President Carter remarked, "Those were difficult days in the Middle East because in 25 years, four terrible wars had taken place. There was practically no hope that any agreement could possibly be reached," Carter said. "I think we surprised the world at the courage and wisdom of those two great leaders." Carter was steadfast then and is steadfast now in giving all the credit to Begin and Sadat. There is a sense in which Carter is not just being humble but is absolutely right in crediting these two world leaders. In a very real sense, they were the peacemakers. They were the ones who had to recognize that finding solutions is more important than placing blame. They were the ones who had to recognize that any attempt on either of their parts to be the hero would demolish negotiations. They were the ones who realized that achieving peace was more important than getting credit. And through the 13 days of Camp David negotiations, Jimmy Carter never lost sight of the fact that this was not about Jimmy Carter.
  4. If you want to be a peacemaker, don't worry too much about defense.If you hope to wage peace, you have to be willing to take shots that you may or may not deserve. In other words, you won't be a very good peacemaker if you get defensive. Conflict resolution has to be more important to you than explaining why a situation is not your fault. I find that defending myself is often my first response, so it helps if I have a little time for me to chip away at the walls I erect to defend myself. This year I actually experienced the benefit of not letting myself get defensive about a conflict that evolved between the administration and (you MIT grads are not going to believe this) the School of Education faculty. I had put my stamp on a decision that contradicted the judgment of very wise members of our teacher education faculty. When they made an appointment with me to discuss the issue, I suspected they were pretty upset. I may not have been right about anything else, but I was right about that. Before they came in I remember thinking, I can explain why I reached my conclusion. But I might have been hasty, I might not have been thorough enough in doing my homework, I might have made the wrong decision. As you MIT grads would expect, the faculty members were very non-defensive in expressing why they thought I was wrong. At the end of our meeting, I don't think we found ourselves in full agreement, but we had reached a peaceful understanding and had come up with positive ways to improve our processes in working together. Here's why I think we achieved peace: 
    • When one of us was speaking, the rest of us actually listened rather than planned what we would say in defense of ourselves. 
    • Self-improvement was possible because self-defense did not shield us from new self-awareness. 
    • Because we weren't busy protecting ourselves, we were free to focus our concerns on the larger well being of Whitworth College. For peacemakers, big picture solutions are more important than keeping their perfect record of never being wrong. 
  5. If you want to be a peacemaker, see conflict through the eyes of forgiveness. 

I'd like to read a little story written by Lewis Smedes, my favorite author in all the world.

STORY (Forgive and Forget, Harper and Row, pp xiii - x)

It's hard to make peace if we are harboring resentment, anger and blame. It's hard to make peace when we're in prison. When Fouke forgave Hilda, he set two prisoners free, Hilda and himself. When we forgive, we destroy yesterday's power over tomorrow.

When I was a young boy, I memorized the words of Jesus as recorded in John 14:27. "27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

What is this different kind of peace that Jesus gives? I think it's the peace that comes through forgiveness. This year I was an eyewitness to a supernatural peace that comes with forgiveness. I stood in a small room with the family of Cameron Gray, an undergraduate student who was killed walking across the street right in front of our house. Also in the room was the driver of the vehicle that had taken the life of this precious young woman. But the most amazing thing in the room was the forgiveness in the arms of Cameron's family as they held a weeping and sorrowful young man. They were able to forgive, because they had known God's forgiveness. Any hope I have for being a peacemaker is built on the awareness that Christ has forgiven me, and the price of Christ's forgiving me is so much greater than anything I need to forgive in another person.

Maybe that's why Jesus reserved such a special prize for peacemakers, better even than the Nobel Peace Prize. Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

So go forth, graduates. Wage peace. And may the peace of Christ, a peace that passes all understanding by yours, both now and forever. Amen.