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Whitworth University Spring Convocation Address 2008

Feb. 7, 2008
Bill Robinson

This is the 44th semester in which I have given an opening convocation, but it is the first in which I have stolen from an old convocation speech. Actually, I'm just borrowing part of my spring 2000 address. I am reaching back to that speech for three reasons: First, 2000 was an election year, so the speech relates well to this year's Heritage Week theme; second, I would like to believe that most students who were here in spring 2000 have graduated; third, there is absolutely zero chance that any faculty or staff person will remember what I said. I don't even remember what I said. So here goes:

My story opens on a steamy August night in the summer of 1972, eight months after my college graduation. A 60-year-old man and I sat in the back of an old Lincoln Continental as our driver angled his way through streets of people screaming and gesturing wildly, some of them shaking their fists at us, some of them shaking their fists so hard that one finger shook loose. Suddenly we seemed to break through an invisible shield into utter lifelessness. In alarming contrast to the preceding miles, there was nothing but silence and stillness.

We pulled to a stop in front of a massive building. My thoughts raced: Apocalypse now! Rapture! And Lincoln Continentals got left behind. When I opened the car door, my face let me know immediately why humanity had vanished. It was not the Twilight Zone; it was the tear-gas zone.

We sprinted and squinted toward the entrance of the building. The moment we pushed through the massive doors, a military detail whisked us into the men's room, where we soaped our faces. As we crossed the hall and entered a cavernous, chaotic room, I remember the sheer brightness issuing another assault on my freshly scrubbed eyes. And I remember being overwhelmed. In a matter of moments, we had moved through a thick haze of tear gas from mobs of crazed anti-war protestors to mobs of crazed Republican delegates gathered at the Miami Convention center to hail Richard Milhous Nixon as their nominee for a second term as President of the United States.

That was a strange night in Miami and a strange time of life in America. Were it not for the number 315, I might not have been in America. I could very well have been sweltering in the jungles of Southeast Asia. But on Dec. 1, 1969, I sat with a bunch of other nervous 19-year-olds staring at a radio as a sterile voice attached birth dates to numbers from 1 to 365 during the first draft lottery. My birthday was the 315th date read. I was not going to be drafted.

Having been spared from military service, I took a confused step away from political activism. Being a spectator was unusual for my generation, as Dale Soden's presentation suggests. Incidentally, while I was on the sidelines, Dale and his activist friends attempted to occupy the president's office at Pacific Lutheran University. Very cute, Dale. It took you 30 years, but you finally got in.

Every presidential election year I reflect on 1972, my first year out of college and the year I would cast my first vote for President of the United States. It's hard to explain my political inactivity as a college student. It was not that I didn't care. And it's not that I avoided politics. In fact, Miami was my second experience with a nominating convention. The summer after my freshman year in college, I cruised from my suburban home to downtown Chicago for the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention. There had never been a party convention quite like this one. Listen to one Chicago newspaper's account of what happened there 40 years ago:

Heads were cracked, tear gas billowed, police lines advanced through demonstrators – and television cameras captured some of the graphic scenes. The eyes of the nation focused on Chicago, and we decided who we were, what side we were on, and what we would fight for. Chicago changed minds, Chicago changed politics, Chicago changed the Left, Chicago changed the media, Chicago changed those who were here and those who watched from far away.

But Chicago didn't change me, and I was there. Well, I was sort of there. On the famed "Wednesday Night Battle on Michigan Avenue." my friend and I hiked up on a pillar at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street for a bird's-eye view of the chaos. A few weeks ago I got an email from my fellow spectator. I hadn't heard from her in years. She wrote, "Wow! 40 years since the Democratic National Convention! I'm so glad we went. I remember worrying about your asthma if we got gassed and those kids in the military trucks holding their guns and flashing us the peace symbol. Impressions of sadness, fear, chaos, exhilaration, fascination, disconnect, unreality. What a weird night. And then I remember us baking a cherry pie at your house, and we ate the whole thing. Back safe in our suburban 'hood.'"

While the nation raged, I watched from a perch, I hid in the suburbs, and I ate cherry pie...evidently a lot of it.

But the 1972 presidential election, the first one in which I could vote, jolted me out of complacency. It changed the way I would think about politics, faith and all of life. That fall, the Watergate break-in deepened my mistrust of President Nixon. He either didn't know what was going on or he approved what was going on; I didn't want either from my president. And I didn't think George McGovern knew how to run a country. So I was asking myself all kinds of questions: Which of these guys is worse; are we being lied to about Vietnam; are the radicals screwing up America or saving it? I prayed to God for the answers to my questions, and the answer God gave me in the fall of 1972 forever changed the epistemology of my life. God's answer? "Ask a better question." In today's New Testament text, the disciples asked, "Whose fault is the beggar's blindness?" Jesus' response seems to say, "You're asking the wrong question; a better question is 'What can we do in this situation to glorify God?'"

In an academic environment of tests, quizzes and papers, we can become very answer-oriented, so much so that we fail to examine our questions. We gravitate toward questions with answers we like, answers we can reach. But there is probably more to be gained from searching for answers to good questions than from finding answers to lousy questions. Students, this election season will change the world. I hope you are asking good questions. I would like to leave you with a few suggestions for improving your election questions.

  1. Try turning your question upside down: A lot has been made of the faith traditions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Many Christians have asked the question, "What do these guys have to say about God"? That's a fair question. But is there a better question? What happens to the question of "What do these guys think about God?" when you turn it upside down and ask, "What does God have to say about these guys?" What does God have to say about the theology of those who lead us? What does God have to say about the role of faith in government leaders? What does God have to say about people whose theology differs from our theology? That leads to my second suggestion.
  2. Try changing the beneficiary of your questions: When you ask the question, "What does Obama have to say about Christianity," you are asking, "Will he support me and what I believe?" But when you ask the question, "What does Christianity have to say about Obama?" you are asking, "Can I support him?" Both questions are important, but in my opinion you have enriched the faith question by asking if we as Christians can support a candidate rather than asking if a candidate can pass our test and support us. The first question is "If you become oresident, what can you do?" The second question is "If you become president, what can I do?" Changing the beneficiary is exactly what President Kennedy did in the first inaugural speech I ever heard: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what can you do for your country." Changing the beneficiary will always give us a new question, and often it will be a better question.
  3. Make sure your question is sufficiently differentiated and that it hasn't been simplified by a prior answer. In the course of my doctoral work, I was involved in research on the extent to which humans differentiate their perspectives. Research out of the University of Kansas in the mid-1960s indicated that most people seem to bundle their impressions of people. For example, suppose you are extremely pro-choice or extremely pro-life. You probably like the stance of either Mike Huckabee or Hillary Clinton, depending on which "pro" you are. If your energy on the abortion question dominates your perception, your tendency will be to see a candidate's views on everything through the lens of this one issue. That would be an undifferentiated perspective, and if that's your approach, you run the risk of idealizing or demonizing candidates on the basis of a single point of view. Six weeks ago I found myself and a few friends having dinner with Bob Knight, the famed basketball coach whose retirement dominated the sports news earlier this week. His yarns during dinner reminded me of our days in Indiana, when many Coach Knight fans excused horrible behaviors because, "Well, he's just a great coach." It is this kind of thinking that makes labels so dangerous. I find it odd that right now some people are spending more energy on determining whether John McCain is a bona fide "conservative" than on examining his particular points of view.
  4. Make sure your questions aren't too differentiated. It is important to look for candidates' worldviews. What philosophy gives their ideas and behaviors integrity or consistency? Jesus cautioned us against a "dis-integrated" life when he asked the rhetorical question, "Can good and bad fruit come from the same tree?" Excessive differentiation suggests the answer is yes, good and bad fruit can come from the same tree. In my opinion, you overly differentiate the question if you separate the way a person would function as President from every other aspect of his or her life. To claim that President Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with how he executed his duties as President attempts to isolate his behaviors as if he were two different people. By the way, while we're asking better questions of our candidates, we might ask, "Is there integrity in my behavior, or am I affording myself the "dis-integration" luxury that I refused President Clinton?" I admit it is hard to find the sweet spot between too much and too little differentiation, but doing so is essential to making good political choices.
  5. Make sure your questions represent the common good as much as they represent the "you-good." Many people feel what is best for them is what's best for America. But good citizenship requires a commitment to the greater good. I got an email two weeks ago from a very wealthy, well-known Spokane business leader. He was commenting on a closing line in our family Christmas letter in which I wrote, "I hope our next President takes good care of the poor, the earth, and the businesses that fuel the economy." He wrote, "Our country and business leadership seems to care about the rich, while healthcare, homelessness, poverty, and education give way to those who have it all. It is such a shame that people like me pay such a small portion of our income, while those I employ often are taxed 50 percent more than our rate." Whether I agree with my friend or not, I admire him for asking the common-good question, even if it costs him personally. 

My last suggestion for your questions came to me yesterday, Ash Wednesday. I cannot approach Christ's table without clinging to one hope – mercy. Only Christ's mercy can deliver me from me. Fifteen Ash Wednesdays ago I knelt at St. John's Episcopal Church on the South Hill the morning after I met with Whitworth's search committee. I had made an early morning stealth visit to see this campus and spotted the church as I drove south on Division for my early afternoon return flight to Indiana. I prayed to know God's will and to receive God's mercy. As I considered Whitworth's presidency, I worried more about my spiritual fitness than about the challenges of the job. As I thought about that yesterday, as I recalled a letter written by G. K. Chesterton. About 100 years ago, a British paper invited many writers to answer the same question, "What's wrong with the world? " Chesterton replied this way:

Dear sirs;

I am.

G.K. Chesterton

My final suggestion for your election questions is this, "Are you asking the next president to do your work?" Are you asking the president to overcome the health crisis in our nation? Are you asking the president to reverse the moral decline of our culture? Are you asking the president to take care of the poor and the widows? My best answer to the question, "Who can change what's wrong with the world?" is "I can." I can, but I won't. And I won't because I'm curved in the wrong direction. St. Augustine observed that we are curved in on ourselves. For me to change what's wrong with the world will be assisted by a good president, but it will be empowered only by the curvature of Christ. It was Christ who curved away from grasping at equality with God and curved toward sinful humanity. It was Christ who curved away from the pleasures of this world and curved toward the poor and the afflicted. It was Christ who curved away from the privilege of his throne and curved toward the Jerusalem cross. And it is Christ alone who can bend me away from myself.

Today I pay tribute to questions. Questions are great. In the third century, Origen implied that the purpose of mystery in God's revelation is to keep us asking questions about God. We see through a glass darkly, so we must have faith; we must ask questions. But we need to ask good questions. If the British newspaper had asked Jesus the same question they asked Chesterton, "What's wrong with the world today?," I think Jesus would have responded to the paper the same way he did to the disciples: "Dear sirs: You're asking the wrong question. A better question is, 'What can we do in this world to bring glory to God?'" May that be the question we never stop asking. Have a great semester.