The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

COMMENCEMENT DAY ADDRESSES

Following the compass

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman

I'd like to speak with you about the one thing that has been my most reliable guide during the course of my life — my own personal moral compass.

Perhaps the biggest challenge my moral compass ever faced occurred literally hours after I was elected governor in 1993.

Two days after the election, our campaign's most prominent strategist went to a breakfast meeting with a roomful of reporters. For reasons that I will never understand, he told those reporters that the key to my victory was his brilliant effort to suppress the voter turnout among urban blacks by, in effect, bribing African American religious leaders in those communities.

Until I draw my last breath, I will remember how the news of this outrageous lie knocked the wind out of me. I knew — for a certainty — that our campaign had done no such thing.

Our strong denials, however, did nothing to extinguish the firestorm that erupted. Understandably, the media, our opponents, and the state's black clergy members wanted a full investigation.

I knew I had to act quickly — not so much to secure my victory but to restore my integrity.

I decided that there was only one honorable course to take. I had to announce that I would delay my inauguration so long as there was any credible evidence that my campaign subverted the electoral process. I could not — and would not — assume office under the cloud that we had somehow stolen the election.

This was one case in which the truth of Harper Lee's observation in To Kill a Mockingbird was literally true. She wrote: “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” The hundreds of thousands of votes I had received would not have been enough to defeat the single vote my conscience had cast.

I am convinced that the reason I was able to follow my moral compass in this case was because I had had lots of practice. And let me be clear, the credit for that belongs, not so much to me as it does to those whose model I have tried to follow — including my parents, friends and even some of my professors.

I sincerely hope that as you make your way in the world, you will never have to confront the type of challenge that faced me three-and-a-half years ago. But there may come a moment when you are confronted with something that will change the course of your life forever — for better or worse.

If you do — or perhaps I should say, when you do — you will be ready to do what's right when it really counts if you've always tried to do what's right when it barely counts.

Whenever you have any question about which path to take, consult your own moral compass. Get practice using it on the small things, and it won't let you down when the big things come up.

Members of the Class of '97, as you embark on your own journey — one that will take you “far from thy valley” which has been your home — I wish you well. May your days be “ever blest” and may your moral compass always point to true north.


Second seeing

The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann,
Columbia Theological Seminary

After his baccalaureate introduction, Rev. Brueggemann told the ancient story of a Syrian king, the war with Israel, a young boy who expects violence, and the prophet Elisha, who prevails through faith.

He prepared a great feast. He fed the enemies of his people in a generous, celebrative context. And they went away and did not come raiding anymore. He broke the vicious cycle of threat. He turned enemies . . . at least provisionally . . . to friends. The narrative ends in a miracle, a doable miracle. It is one done by human will and human agency and human generosity. But it could only be done by great faith and by second sight. Otherwise the beat goes on. It does not wait on an act of God. And then the story is completed. The war is ended.

That story is a long way from us. That innocent boy is a long way from you sophisticated graduates. That wild Elisha is a good distance removed from most of us tenured academics. In fact the story does not have anything to do with us.

Except that it is thick with meaning below the surface. And baccalaureate is that moment in this splendid day when we pause before the thickness of our life, to be reminded that we must not trust the thinness of success and self-sufficiency and autonomy and technology all too much, because there is more.

The story is a bid to you and to us that you allow such stories to break the enchantments of your privilege and power. Stories like this one are always an odd interruption into the life we had planned out. They always come from unexpected, unauthorized sources . . . the surprise of a child, the gesture of a poor person, the utterance of a loser, the verdict of a poet. We are taken up short and our easy grip of control is broken. We permit humanness to surge in odd ways, in ways that are driven by holiness.

Almost all of these kinds of stories and gestures and utterances have common themes:

  • They invite a second seeing, like the boy who was made suddenly aware of resources for life all around, resources given by God. But he had not been able to notice them until he had been prayed for.
  • The plot of the narrative concerns an inversion of power, wherein the weak ones prevail and the strong ones are reduced to hoping and begging;
  • The story explicates the way in which vicious cycles are broken, cycles of death and brutality and indifference and cynicism, just when we thought the cycles could never be broken, and neighborliness is made an option;
  • The action permits new possibilities in the world long thought to be impossible, practical, concrete on the ground . . . miracles done by human agents, making a different life possible.

I bid you attend to such a second seeing, women and men of Colgate, because without the capacity to see a second time, to see allies of life all around the environment, you are only half educated. Our society awaits your second look, a newness given fresh by God's holiness. Our dominant technological explanation of life wants to nullify all of this business of a second sight, and so to leave us in control on our own terms. Our control, however, cannot stop the gift of second sight by which we live. Our humanness depends upon it. We are like the little boy, bumfuzzled and then blessed with new sight. It is a gift!