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Whitworth University Fall Convocation Address 2007

Sept. 6, 2007
Bill Robinson

So, now we are a university. What does that mean? And more importantly, what does that mean to Whitworth? The word university comes from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning "community of teachers and scholars." Officially, the teachers and scholars would be these folks down here in the robes; but in the best communities, teaching and learning cut across groups and categories. All members of the community learn from each other.

This morning I am going to try to make some kind of statement about our unusual community at Whitworth University. I am not an expert on community, although I tried to act like one last August when I spoke on the subject at the faculty retreats for both Wheaton College and Whitworth. My main point was that if you're going to talk about community on campus, August is the best time. Nobody is around and you haven't had time to start annoying each other.

I would like to comment on three aspects of community life at Whitworth: rules, responsibility and respect. I didn't alliterate these characteristics on purpose, although I can see where you might think that someone coming from a family of Bonnie, Bill, Brenna, Ben and Bailley is into alliterations. Not true. My motto is "Always avoid alliteration." Ha ha, get it?

Rules. Most of this speech is about rules, and for about a million reasons I am certain I will regret that most of this speech is about rules. Rules are necessary and good. We can't live without them. Whether we're talking about the laws of nature or the laws of community, we suffer when we disobey them. However, rules are not as smart as values. For that reason, the most effective organizations and the most satisfying communities are driven by shared values, not by rules. Now, all of you students know we have the Big Three, and we won't be good sports if you break any of them, but the reason we have fewer rules than most Christian schools is that we want you to become wise decision-makers, not just good rule-followers. The reason this is so important is that in almost every area of life, good judgment and faithfulness to our values will lead to better decisions than rules will. For example, Daniel got tossed into a lion's den because King Darius got suckered into substituting a rule for a value. The value was to honor the King. Respecting that value would have been enough. But a rule was implemented that said Darius would be God for 30 days. And another rule said that if you were going to pray, you had to pray to Darius or you were headed for the lion's den. Certainly, Daniel respected the king, but when he prayed to the true God, a rule kicked in and handcuffed the king's response. He had to punish his beloved servant, Daniel. And Darius knew immediately that good judgment would have outperformed the rules.

Most rules find their origin in a value, often an abused value. This past summer I spoke with a man who told me his company's policy handbook is, and I quote, "a history of our company's screw-ups. Behind every policy and rule, I was able to trace disasters big and small. Rather than following up with a training program to improve our decision-making, we followed up with a policy that made the decision for us. Now policies are more responsible for running that business than people."

Again, we need rules, but they should never become more important than our values. In August I read The Summer of 1787, by David Stewart, which chronicled the formation of the United States Constitution. The Constitutional Convention was prompted by the recognition that this fledgling country needed stronger rules, that the Articles of Confederation didn't quite cut it. The union could not survive without rules and laws. But what became crystal clear as I read this book was that the grand battles 230 years ago in Philadelphia were over the values out of which the laws were written. Rules simply codify our values. But the fundamental shortcoming of rules is that they frame the boundaries of our values, rather than expose the heart of our values. And that poses a few problems.

Boundaries, by definition, define a territory. That's what boundaries do. But when a community is defined by its boundaries, or rules, rather than by the heart those rules protect, its identity becomes who it IS NOT rather than who it IS. For example, how do we think of the Amish community? By their rules – nonviolence and no electricity. But after last year's horrifying murder of five little schoolgirls we saw the heart of their values, not their rules. Before they had lowered five handcrafted wooden caskets into the ground, the Amish began the difficult work of forgiving the murderer and starting a fund to aid his widow and three children. The world that knew the Amish only by their rules was shocked by their heart, a heart that revealed them to be more about forgiveness than about candles and horses and buggies. If Amish people defined themselves only by their boundaries, the world would never have seen that the heart of their community is the love and forgiveness of Christ.

Another unintended consequence of rules occurs when they deny access to the values they represent. Last winter Bonnie and I attended a Princeton Seminary board meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, California. Late one evening, our friends wanted Bonnie to play the lobby piano for them. We got in touch with hotel security to have it unlocked. The security people explained that earlier in the month someone had abused the piano, so it was now locked in the evenings. Quite politely, I reminded them that the motto of the Ritz-Carlton is "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." They agreed. I then asked, just slightly less politely, if we looked like ladies and gentlemen. They agreed that we did, especially Bonnie, but they said they had no choice. The rules are the rules. I assume this new rule had been implemented as an expression of their values – they wanted to protect ladies and gentlemen from hearing some Philistine banging on the piano in the middle of the night. But, ironically, the rule ended up blocking ladies and gentlemen from serving ladies and gentlemen. Finally, after a full hour, the security manager's manager recognized that the heart of the hotel's values was being imprisoned by a rule meant to honor those values. So good judgment conquered the rule and the manager unlocked the piano…at which point I just abused the heck out of that piano. No, I didn't.

Rules eliminate any hierarchy of values. A rule is a rule. Indiana University basketball coach Kelvin Sampson was asked what possessed him and his staff, while at Oklahoma University, to think it was okay to make more than 500 phone calls that violated NCAA rules. He's reported to have said, "The other coaches and I sat down and we prioritized the rules." Huh? You don't get to do that with rules. You obey them all.

A final reason that value-driven communities are more satisfying than rule-driven communities is that rules set the bar too low. This is especially true in Christian communities. Christlike values always set higher standards than rules do. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pays high tribute to the law: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come to fulfill them." But he goes on to describe a new kingdom that is driven by the values behind the laws. The law says do not murder, but Jesus says do not hate. The law says do not commit adultery, but Jesus says do not lust. When Whitworth really lives by the heart of its shared values, we will honor God and serve each other far beyond where any rule can take us.

I have one more thing to say about rules. I recognize that sometimes, unwritten rules can be as exacting and intractable as the written ones. I am also aware that when people in authority make value-based judgments, their decisions become the functional equivalent of rules. But in a community that nourishes mutual responsibility and respect, unwritten rules and authoritative judgments will gravitate over time toward the highest values of the community.

And that leads to the area of responsibility. The survival of value-driven communities rests on the extent to which its members act responsibly and take responsibility for their actions. Whitworth may not have as many rules as some schools, but it has enough. When you are presented with the rules of this community, it means in these areas we have taken responsibility for determining the behavior the rules enforce. But when you are presented with the values of this community, you are responsible for determining the behaviors the values represent. If you are reckless with that freedom, it hurts the community and it hurts you. And eventually, your recklessness leads to a rule.

I used to do communication training for the internal audit department of a huge conglomerate. In most organizations, internal auditors are treated like lepers. But these were good people who simply made sure the conglomerate's companies played by the rules. I learned one thing from these folks I will never forget. In their audits, they found that trust is a necessary ingredient of both success and fraud. Most people respond to being trusted by giving their best work; but a few people abuse the trust. I think in that same respect, a community built on trust rather than on rules allows for greater levels of both good judgment and bad judgment. Most people will accept the responsibility of good decision-making and strengthen the community; some people will abuse the freedom, forcing values to be replaced by rules.

Finally, if there is a characteristic without which Whitworth cannot be Whitworth; if there is, for you Latin scholars, a sine qua non of this community, it is respect. The faculty and staff of Whitworth University have joined a very diverse group. We have joined those who stand at the cross of Christ. We stand with the daughters of Jerusalem, with a Roman centurion, with a dying thief, with the John the disciple, with the first- century church, with the 16th-century church, with the church of East Africa, with the orthodox church, with the church of Latin America, with Mary Magdalene, with an African cross-bearer named Simon, and with Mary, the very mother of Christ. We join this diverse group and proclaim with the centurion, "Truly, this is the son of God." We have found that proclamation so powerful, so life-changing, and so redemptive that we have made it our only rule of faith and our principal rule of membership in this community.

As a faculty and staff we do not have specific doctrinal rules for membership; we do not have specific behavioral rules for membership; we do not sign a faith statement; rather, in all of our diversity we make a faith statement, "Truly, Jesus Christ is the son of God." We join in community, believing that the unifying power of the cross is greater than all the ideas that divide us and all the characteristics that differentiate us. That belief also gives enormous value to our students who do not call themselves Christians. These students provide understanding and leadership. When we walk with those who find true north in a different direction, we will explore and understand territory closed off to Christians who surround themselves with those of like minds.

So, here we are – a Christian community that gives freedom to its members to hold very different views on communion, war, politics, worship, homosexuality, baptism, abortion, alcohol, gifts, miracles, and just about everything else. If we do not respect that freedom, and, more important, respect each other, we will end in fight or flight. The late Ruth Graham was asked if she ever thought about divorcing her husband, Billy Graham. "Divorce him? No. Murder him? Yes." Without respect, we'll either agree with each other or murder each other.

I would like to leave you with several thoughts on respect.

  • First, respect carries many meanings. In one sense of the term, we should show respectful behavior to everyone, and that should rise out of our own character. Showing a little disrespect, I once wrote that if Robert Fulgham learned everything he needed to know about life in kindergarten, he either went to a heckuva kindergarten or he doesn't have much of a life. I am now eating my words, because I found the best rules for showing respect in a community in a kindergarten lesson plan. I believe these rules are taken from the Popcorn Park Puppets video: 
    • Treat other people the way you want to be treated. 
    • Be courteous and polite. 
    • Listen to what other people have to say. 
    • Don't insult people, or make fun of them, or call them names. 
    • Don't bully or pick on others. . 
    • Don't judge people before you get to know them. 
  • Second, if we come to the reluctant and painful conclusion that we cannot respect a person, it should be related to a pattern of breached integrity, not because we don't like his or her ideas. 
  • Third, even when we cannot respect a person's integrity or choices, we should treat that person respectfully because… 
  • Fourth, Christians must see every human being as created by Christ, made in the image of God. We need to respect that heritage and recognize that we are all candidates for Christ's redemption. 
  • Fifth, we should respect not only people but positions. I think one of the reasons I have survived this long as a college president is that I hold great respect for professors and students. These positions represent commitments to learning that I respect deeply. And on a personal note, I am very thankful that your respect for the office I hold has allowed me to be a lot less formal than many of my presidential peers are forced to be. 
  • Sixth, the cornerstones of respect in the Whitworth community should be our commitments to grace and truth. Respect rests on truth. We are more likely to respect a person for telling the truth we don't want to hear than for spinning the truth into something we do want to hear. But as I have said many times in this place and on this occasion, truth told without grace will weaken its impact. An angry or sarcastic presentation of the truth offers a perfect excuse to reject it. Grace, on the other hand, communicates respect. In John 4 and John 8 we find Jesus with women guilty of sexual immorality. By the way, absent from these stories were the equally guilty men, whose culture protected them while hanging the women out to dry. In both stories, Jesus showed a level of respect that startled those around him. In both stories Jesus told the truth in love and respect. In neither story did Jesus condemn the offender.

Grace and truth build the bridges of respect. Respect not only opens people's ears and hearts to your ideas, respect opens you. Respect leaves the door open for new truth. Respect animates your intellect. Respect will allow you to accept the possibility that those with whom you sharply disagree might be sources of truth.

We have an amazing community on this campus. And if we are to be the best we can be, our big three won't be THE big three. Our big three will be the shared values of respect, grace and truth. This year may respect, grace and truth be yours, in both giving and taking, as you enjoy the blessings of Christ in the Whitworth community.