The following is the commencement address I gave for the graduation ceremony at the school I teach at. I wanted to share it with everyone because I believe firmly in its central message: we are all part of a single human family and love will overcome hate.
Distinguished guests, faculty, colleagues, friends, families, and of course, the graduating class of 2019, welcome. I’d also like to acknowledge those who could not be with us today. You are in our thoughts and occupy a special place in our hearts.
You’re a special class: there’s a world ranked racquetball player in there somewhere; a budding poet, essayist, teacher and engineer or two; there are artists, athletes, musicians, mechanics, thinkers and builders; a provincial hockey champion; a soccer player turned slam dunk artist; the host of a popular hunting channel on YouTube; and of course, a sleepy and bespectacled would-be theoretical physicist whom we’ll call Stephen. I see you’re organized into rows: have you figured out which rows contain the smartest students yet?
All kidding aside, you’re a fun, quirky, insightful, frequently feisty and intelligent group of young people. I look forward to working with and challenging you every day. I’ve particularly enjoyed our time spent in English together: there’s something about this particular class—likely the philosophical and theological aspects—making me feel what we were doing is meaningful and important (even necessary).
Over the last 20 years I’ve taught at a variety of schools; and in that time I’ve come to appreciate schools are a lot like people: each one has a unique personality. Some you like more than others. Some you look forward to seeing every day while others you’d just as soon avoid. This school is one of those places a person looks forward to seeing; and I take a lot of pride in what we do here, and what God accomplishes through us. Despite teaching here so long though, I’ve found it nearly impossible to explain why this place means so much to me. I’ve always felt I loved it here but for one reason or another failed articulating exactly why (like when you fall in love—it just sort of happens, no conscious explanation is necessary).
At the end of the second semester back in 2014, I gave my senior English students an opportunity to write an exit essay. The essay’s question was “What does this school mean to me?” There was no minimum or maximum length. The essay wasn’t for marks. I just wanted to give students an opportunity to reflect on their time here knowing that, at least in my experience, it can be difficult for many to say goodbye. In the process there were a number of wonderfully written and heartfelt responses. One such response, in particular, has stood out for me over the years. Kayden Johnson wrote a single word: family.
In a single word KJ captured perfectly what makes our school so special. Whether you identify as Christian or not, whether you practice a religion or not, we are part of the same family, you and I; as the Apostle Paul observes in First Corinthians we are brothers and sisters belonging to a single family brought together by Christ Jesus; and that family is built on faith, hope, and above all, love.
With that said, and based on how big of a weirdo some of y’all can be at times, there’s something else about this school making me feel particularly at home and at ease. Martin Luther observed we are free because we are fully forgiven children of God. We are no longer compelled to keep God’s Law out of fear in order to obtain salvation. Paul tells us we cannot earn salvation anyways; it’s an underserved gift given freely to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross by the grace of God. “A Christian,” Luther wrote, “is perfectly free, subject to none.” Yet, Luther presents us with a caveat: although we are “subject to none” we still have a responsibility to look after and care for one another.
The freedom of being Christian comes with responsibility. Thus, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to share some of my thoughts relating to that responsibility to love one another as members of a single human family.
Several years ago someone in Pakistan placed an ad in a newspaper offering a reward to anyone who killed a Canadian—any Canadian. The ad was likely a response to then Canada’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan. Interestingly, an Australian dentist published an editorial responding to the strange request. He wanted to define what a Canadian was so non-Canadians would recognize them whenever they encountered one. I’d like to share part of that response with you today:
A Canadian [the Australian writes] can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, [Nigerian, Congolese, Cameroonian, Kenyan, or South African]. They can be Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean…Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan. A Canadian may also be an [Inuit], Cree, Metis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, Dakota, or a member of one of the many other peoples known collectively as First Nations.
A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous [countries] in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can [in part] be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognizes the right of each person to [pursue their individual happiness in a society governed and secured under the rule of law].
A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking [anything] in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the least—the oppressed, the outcast and the rejected.
These are the people who built Canada.
You can try to kill a Canadian if you must…but in so doing you could [well] just be killing a relative or a neighbor. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. [Canada is an idea.] Canadians are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, [is] a Canadian.
Now to my reckoning being Canadian means becoming a citizen of the world. Also, I think, as this short article implies, to be Canadian is to try and make a positive difference in that world. For example, in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Canada accepted over 50,000 Vietnamese escaping communism. In 1956 Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to push out the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks ruthlessly crushed the uprising displacing tens of thousands. Canada provided a haven for 50,000 Hungarians fleeing the subsequent reprisals and political repression.
During the middle of 20th century hundreds of thousands of people from every continent immigrated to Canada in the hope of making a new life for themselves and their families. Between 1890 and 1914 approximately two million people from countries like China, Japan, India, Ireland, Scotland, England, America, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Ukraine immigrated to Canada; they helped build Canada while contributing to the evolution of a new kind of country—one not founded upon the Old World model of “blood and soil” but one constructed upon the New World principles of freedom and liberty.
It’s vitally important to possess an understanding of our history, like the process followed by our ancestors who made Canada their home, in order to appreciate what’s happening in the present. However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic and to quote Hegel, if there is one lesson history teaches us it is we do not learn from our history.
In 2011 a civil war broke out in Syria displacing millions. Between 2016 and 2017 Canada welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing an absolutely brutal conflict. Many Canadians felt a combination of compassion and unease in the wake of this particular wave of immigration. I’m not naive. I understand current events well enough appreciating the risks, actual and perceived, associated with Canada opening its borders in this way. Some Canadians, ones calling themselves nationalists, cautioned we shouldn’t accept so many Muslims. Nonetheless, the idealist in me, the Jesus in me, believes we did the right thing (despite the fear mongering).
And do not underestimate how thankful these men, women and children are to Canada for giving them a home. In May of 2016 a wildfire devastated the City of Fort McMurray. Rita Khanchet Kallas, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her husband and son in December of 2015 wrote a message in Arabic on a Facebook page for a Calgary-based Syrian refugee group. “Canadians,” she wrote,”have provided us with everything and now we have a duty. We must help the people who lost their homes and everything in a fire in Oil City. Get ready, it’s time to fulfill.”
Within hours of posting the group was mobilized assembling food hampers, toys, clothes, and furniture to aid the families of Fort McMurray. This act was particularly gracious. You have to understand, the small Syrian community in Calgary had very little themselves. But they understood first hand what it meant for an entire city to lose their home. That’s something they could easily relate to because they went through the exact same thing themselves.
History teaches us is we do not learn from our history.
Social media is definitely new, but xenophobia (or hatred of the foreigner or the alien) is not.
I’ve watched, dismayed, as some Canadians with European sounding last names post fear-based stories to their social media timelines while complaining about how people with Syrian sounding last names were going to ruin the country.
We’ve been here before: many of the same Canadians complaining about Syrian refugees today are themselves the descendants of immigrants who were likewise labelled dangerous, strange, people who were going to wreck the country. The irony of this should not be lost on anyone possessing either a modicum of compassion or a basic knowledge of their own history; and just so we’re clear I’m not trying to be provocative or mean or single out how either this or that person is bad. I am just observing which, I suppose, is something of a resident hazard of being a historian.
And so we forget our history (particularly when times are difficult); and a country without a sense of its history is doomed to repeat its past mistakes.
There has been an unmistakable rise in the forces of nationalism and tribalism in the Western World over the last ten years; and it appears democracy and pluralism is in retreat everywhere. Populist governments are gaining more and more support because people can’t seem to come together to solve their problems. I find it troubling so many of us seem to be coming increasingly more tolerant of things a decade ago would’ve seemed impossible. I worry most in this moment for my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. I wonder what the future holds for them if hatred and hate speech is ever again allowed to go mainstream or become “normal”.
A friend of mine was working at a fruit stand when a lady came up and asked if any of the cherries were grown by Muslims. She was asking because she didn’t want to support Muslim businesses. This is how you destroy the democratic spirit: unlike dictatorships which end with the death of a single tyrant, democracy dies the death of a 1,000 such wounds.
This Muslim cherry episode reminds me of how Roman emperors once persecuted Christians whenever Rome’s economic or political situation wasn’t favourable. If Romans were focused on hating Christians they’d spend less time worrying about the emperor’s ineptitude.
Does that sound eerily familiar? History doesn’t necessarily repeat but it seems to rhyme.
Since the American presidential election in 2016 Canada has seen a 30% increase in the number of hate groups in the country (six of which are right here in Saskatchewan); and hate crime rates are correspondingly increasing–jumping a staggering 47% in 2017 alone, according to Stats Canada, and there’s no indication of this trend reversing any time soon.
Homo homini lupus. This Latin phrase first appeared in the Third Century BCE but could just as well have been written in 2019; translated into English it means “man is a wolf to man.”
Whether we’re talking about the ancient or the modern world, societies continue reverting to the politics of division; they do this so complex social issues like immigration or identity can be boiled down into simple solitudes and simple hatreds. The two recent attacks on synagogues in the United States, and the mosque attack in Quebec last year, point disturbingly to the reality the West has a long way to go after all when it comes to justice.
To the Graduands: St. Augustine once observed “hope has two daughters whose names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”
Therefore, do not be apathetic when hatred shows its cowardly face; do not allow yourselves to become accustomed to or accept hate speech or meanness as normal; what and how we say what we say matters; and I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m appealing to common decency and Jesus’ commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
Do not turn a blind eye to injustice: evil only succeeds when men and women of good conscience sit back and do nothing; be willing to think in nuances, not platitudes; do not dismiss out of hand those who disagree with you. Too many of us are too easily offended; understand disagreement doesn’t make us enemies, it makes us human. So don’t argue to win, argue to learn. Be willing to change your mind…
It occurred to me there’s another reason why I love this place: Jesus. Jesus taught me, more than anyone else, to include the excluded; to fight for the underdog; to defend those incapable of defending themselves; to show compassion, patience and understanding; to delight in the success of others; to encourage because I’ve been encouraged; forgive because I’ve been forgiven; and to love because I am loved. Be fearless then, and courageous, in the face of prejudice and discrimination wherever you encounter it; and if you remember only one thing from our time together this afternoon, and it is implied by the quote written so boldly on the wall behind me, remember this: love wins.
“Let us realize”, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thus, if you’re ever unsure what to do when confronted with any of the situations I’ve talked about the right answer is always to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Before closing I have one favor I’d like to ask of everyone gathered here this afternoon: whether you know them or not could you take the hand of the person or persons sitting next to you?
[Promote a figurative “crossing of the aisle” between the rows separated by the center aisle.]
One of my favorite moments in A. A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner is when Piglet is trying to catch up to his friend, Winnie the Pooh.
“Pooh?” Piglet whispers.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Building a better world means, at least in part, removing the barriers to our understanding and accepting one another. The awkwardness you’re possibly experiencing right now, holding the hand maybe of a complete stranger, captures perfectly the nature of that barrier towards building a better world: it is a mental and psychological one. Change our thinking and we can change the world. My challenge to you, right now, is to weaken that wall by turning a potential stranger into a friend. So gently squeeze the hand of your neighbors and reassure them, “I am sure of you.”
The transcendental quality of love—through even the simplest of gestures—fills me with hope because, even if you try to improve the world in some measure and fail, you can still take some consolation you’ve allied yourself with Something greater. I suspect love, in a certain sense, even survives the Cosmos’ end: hugs transcending time; joy outliving the joyful; gentleness and acceptance persisting past the end of all things; and the gravity of a deep upwelling of feeling flows even past the bounds of a finite physical universe.
And so here we are, at the end: grads do you recall back in September when I told you today would come faster than you thought? I told you not to be in too much of a hurry to finish the year because endings, when it comes to this place, are particularly emotional experiences. I know this because I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of colleagues and students who I miss, love, and who occupy my thoughts whenever the sentimental impulse takes me. Thus, “I will not say do not weep,” J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf explains to his friends while preparing to leave Middle Earth forever for the Gray Havens, “for not all tears are an evil.”
Be thankful we’ve had this time together understanding that when one one door closes so opens another.