Lexington, Virginia (May 23, 2018) – Harlan Beckley, SHECP Founding Director, delivered remarks at the Baccalaureate Ceremony at Washington and Lee University. The text of his remarks are here:
Judgment Mediating Grace
President Dudley, Members of the W&L Administration and the Board of Trustees, fellow Faculty and Staff, Students (especially Seniors and their family and other guests), I am honored to offer this baccalaureate address.
When President Dudley called to invite me to speak at baccalaureate, I had a quick response: “You know that I spoke at baccalaureate just four years ago.” His retort was equally rapid: “We thought you could probably think of something new to say by now.” I know when I have been outfoxed, so I quipped: “I will do my best.” I spoke four years ago about how the experience of grace, for which we owe gratitude to others, informs a sense of obligation. Today, I will talk about the importance of judging behavior, policies, ideas, values, institutions, and even persons, including ourselves. Judgment may seem antithetical to grace, but before I finish, I hope to persuade you that judgment, properly executed, mediates grace, even divine grace.
Why encourage judgment, especially judgment that may be critical of behavior, institutions, and values others hold dearly? My answer is threefold.
First, events of the past year have vividly called us to make judgments. It has been a year of persons, especially women, speaking publicly and forcefully about the injustice of sexual harassment and assault. Events, especially in Charlottesville, have raised questions about how we remember our past and how the remembering has consequences for just relations in the present. In this case, the call to judgment has been especially acute for those of us bound by respect for this community. (I encourage you to read and offer comments on the report of the Commission on Institutional History posted on the W&L website.) Events have nearly forced us to make judgments about our nation’s immigration, environmental, drug, gun, and foreign policies. We have been challenged by law enforcement and incarceration practices, and how trade, taxes, labor practices, healthcare and public health, and government investments affect economic justice for those who are poor. Science has been questioned from different points of view. What is good science, and what does it contribute to regulatory policy regarding the environment, climate change, food safety, health policy, and gun safety? We have been compelled to consider the relationship between sexual behavior, respect for persons, families and family structure, poverty, and opportunities for children. Even our art galleries and museums have been forced to judge the relationship between aesthetics and these values and behaviors. If we have any commitment whatsoever to the common good and justice, we must make judgments about behavior, institutions, and values.
Second, we have unfortunately been tempted to retreat from public judgments and discussions about these matters in order to avoid controversy. I remember my grandfather telling me not to talk about religion or politics because it might offend others. Clearly, as a professor of religious ethics and poverty studies, I did not heed his advice, but I don’t recall a time since my grandfather’s admonition when so many have warned us to avoid public judgments in order to preserve relationships. We have been advised to steer away from controversial topics around holiday dinner tables and at social occasions. Our daughter is a Nurse Practitioner with Planned Parenthood. She holds reasonably nuanced and evolving judgments about women’s health, sexual practices, and abortion, but she is frequently cautioned against discussing her work or views with others. I am an ordained United Methodist minister. Many of my fellow clergy advance the view that Jesus of Nazareth expressed love in his unwillingness to judge others, a view that ignores Jesus’s harsh judgments against those who did not feed the hungry, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, or tend to the imprisoned. Sometimes it seems that the only religious or moral judgment permitted is to condemn those who judge other values, behavior, or persons. Although our circumstances compel us to make personal judgments about multiple momentous matters, we are simultaneously encouraged to keep our judgments private, to live and let live. In addition to being logically impossible, attempts to sustain this tension in our lives is unhealthy for us and for society.
Third, if this tension between necessarily making judgments and being encouraged to keep our judgments private seems ironic, the greater irony is that those who make public judgments often seek to destroy those with whom they disagree. Devastating our opponents is raised above achieving agreement or redeeming them and ourselves. We recently experienced a campaign for President of the United States in which one candidate and many of his cohorts fell into the rhetoric of “locking up” his opponent, and the other candidate called many supporters of her opponent irredeemable deplorables. This destructive rhetoric persists. Some opponents on both sides of the abortion debate wrongly perceive that only absolutist positions are acceptable. The debate about criminal and police justice easily falls into a binary power contest between supposed SOBs who hate America and men and women in uniform and police conspirators intending only harm to persons of other races or economic classes. Learning to make beneficial public judgments is not only a matter of speaking forcefully; it requires judgments intended to redeem others and sometimes ourselves. Judgments sometimes need to be harsh, but the goal should never be to destroy others.
Sacred writings in theistic traditions are replete with accounts of the redemptive purpose of judgment, but this realization has rarely been accentuated to me so boldly as when I co-officiated at my daughter’s wedding last summer. I was assigned a text from the prophet Hosea about God’s relationship to Israel. Sacred writings rarely display harsh judgements more vividly. I was jarred and disconsolate by the portrayal of Israel as an unfaithful bride whose punishment was to be made “bare as the wilderness, parched as the desert, [and left] to die of thirst.” Harsh judgment indeed! However, the denouement of this judgment was for God to go “with [Israel] into the wilderness” and make her his “husband” (his partner) and his “people.” The metaphor of Israel as a bride to a vengeful but merciful and redemptive God is misguided, but there can be no mistake that here and elsewhere in scripture, judgment, harsh as it may be, has a redemptive purpose. Note also that redemption is not sheer forgiveness, but a restoration, perhaps even a remaking, into something new. Appropriately in the “me too” movement, the harsh judgment typically targets violent males more than unfaithful brides. Nevertheless, the hope should be to enter into a new and lasting covenant in which new behavior, values, and policies are both just and uniting, described as love in the most religious writings.
If judgment can redeem the undeserving and heal injustice, let’s look more closely at the character of redeeming judgment. First, it has to be judgment and not merely mercy. It has to call us and others to account. Judgment redeems when it changes and not merely accepts what is, and that change requires more than tolerating unjust behavior, values, policies, and character. Second, sacred writings record divine judgment retrospectively and judgments manifested in events, not merely in human words. We are not God. Our words can be wrong. We all need to be redeemed as well as to exercise judgment. We become instruments of redemptive judgment only by recognizing that we are enabled to make sound judgments by gifts received from others. We must internalize that we need to learn and be redeemed by the judgment of others. Only disingenuous and ostentatious pontificators proclaim belief in forgiveness and redemption for which they have no need for themselves. I urge us to make judgments recognizing that we are enabled by parents, teachers, and colleagues and acknowledging that we need to learn from the judgments of others. We often benefit from turning judgments on ourselves.
Let me offer myself as an example. In the earlier nineties—before most of you graduates were born—I taught social and economic justice in the Religion Department. I still recall vividly an African-American senior asking me why I offered no course on religion and justice focused on race in America, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr. I stuttered and realized the student was focusing my own judgments on me. I subsequently offered a course on the theology and ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, a course I taught until we started the Shepherd Program. Other faculty preceded me in this focus on race and many now teach courses on race relations and justice, including my former theology student, Professor Ted DeLaney, but that student’s comment and the course that followed were eye-opening for me. Teaching that course informed my own scholarship and teaching in the Shepherd Program. The student’s judgment was important for me and for W&L. Thankfully, others were offering similar judgments.
When Washington and Lee began focused poverty studies in 1997—about the time you were born—we proposed a series of courses that would eventually constitute a minor. A colleague and friend of mine from the law school reminded me and others that studying poverty from a strictly research approach was like studying scum on a pond, i.e., it never penetrates a surface understanding. His point was harsh, correct, and persuasive. When the Shepherd Program started, it included a summer internship conducted in collaboration with students from Berea College and Spelman College in Atlanta. A collaborative internship, in which approximately 30 of you have participated remains a centerpiece for the Shepherd Consortium of 26 schools. It may be hyperbolic to call my colleague’s judgment redemptive, but it surely changed and benefitted me and higher education at Washington and Lee and beyond. Note in these examples, judgment mediates grace, a gift for which I could claim little responsibility, and those who judged were enabled by their experience and education rather than claiming great credit for their judgments.
This redeeming judgment can come in forms other than religious, philosophical, ethical, or straightforwardly political arguments. It can come through the sciences and through literature and the arts. I will be honored to tomorrow to receive a degree with Marjorie Agosín, a distinguished teacher and writer from Wellesley College. In a recent historically and autobiographically based novel, Professor Agosín offers effective and harsh judgments about human rights in Chile and the U.S. in the words of an ostensibly adolescent narrator. The book, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, is accessible to adolescents and offers searing judgments through an elegantly told story. I recommend it to you, regardless of your age, for what you can learn about human rights, politics, and U.S. foreign policy.
Let me offer another example by focusing on one of you. Sara Jones worked as a Shepherd Program intern last summer at the City of Refuge in Atlanta. In an essay about what she learned, Sara wrote about her naiveté regarding the term “privilege,” which she had been tossing around loosely on the basis of her academic experience. Sara reflects, “The time has come to be honest: ‘privilege’ is a buzzword. I cannot count the instances in which I’ve thrown the term out, whether in medical school applications, in class discussions, or in casual conversations. I’ve somehow come to believe that using the word ‘privilege’ makes me seem worldly, wise beyond my years. . . . I don’t believe that I’m unique in this . . .; I think a lot of us have fallen into this trap, of seeing privilege, . . . as an abstract, intellectual concept. In my own life, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the only form of privilege I do not have: male privilege. This belief that I am somehow disadvantaged makes me insist on being referred to as a woman and not a girl . . .. This past summer though, I got to see what privilege really is: a tangible force that systematically denies otherwise deserving people the right to reach their full potential. Inequality matters at every level of privilege, but at City of Refuge in Atlanta, . . ., privilege can mean the difference between life and death.”
Sarah illustrates using the realities she encountered: “my supervisors told me that I was never to go to the convenience stores in the neighborhood; I would not be safe there. I learned later that these stores will pay a resident of the neighborhood $250 for a $500 SNAP card, and then stock their shelves with food purchased with the card; this practice particularly targets those suffering from substance abuse, who are often desperate for cash. The City of Refuge,” Sara tells us, “. . . provides a multitude of services to the community: healthcare, after-school programs, vocational training, housing programs, and a program specifically for women escaping lives of exploitation.”
Sara shares a particularly wrenching passage from her journal: “My heart has felt like a rock for approximately 9 hours, and the usual remedies have not worked. Today could be filed under several headings: aggressively horrible . . ., the only time I’ve wanted to cry at work (the only time I have cried about work), testing the limits of compartmentalization, or simply: sadness. This morning I sat in on an abuse survivor support group. Women recounted the kidnappings of children by their fathers, sexual assaults in front of children, childhood abuse at the hands of family members, and the financial traps that so often led them to stay in abusive relationships, in hopes of providing for their children and in fear of what would happen to them on the streets. My heart and my body weep for these women. I am thinking about the notion of blurred lines that permeates so much of college life: what happens to consent when people are drinking, when mixed signals are sent, when memories are fickle? I am privileged enough to forget that sometimes lines could not be [clearer] and less blurry; I am privileged enough to be floored by these stories, while many of the women in the room simply nodded along.”
Wow! Sara helps us become sensitive to our privilege relative to the women with whom she worked and to marvel at her self-awareness in these circumstances. We can learn a lot from Sara. To place Sara’s observations in context, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in January that eight homeless persons in Atlanta died of hypothermia. Sara is surely right: lack of privilege is literally a matter of life and death at the City of Refuge.
Lest there be doubt, Sara attributes her insights in this essay to her entire education at Washington and Lee, not merely to her internship. She concludes, “I am, reassured by the most heartbreaking eight weeks of my life, because I know what lies ahead. Structural inequality and social injustice aren’t going to go away overnight; nor is one person going to solve these problems . . .. But there are so many good people in the world, such as the team at City of Refuge, . . . devoting their lives to making the community around them just a little bit better. And that’s what [Washington and Lee] and the Shepherd Program [have] given me the tools to do: make the community around me just a little bit better. I’m headed to medical school next year, to pursue a dual degree MD/Masters of Public Health. I want to be an OB-GYN in an underserved area, and my time [at Washington and Lee] has given me knowledge that I would not have received otherwise. . . . I have an understanding of how privilege intersects inequality and social injustice, and I have the conviction that I can do something to help.”
I conclude with a few observations about Sara’s judgments in this poignant essay. First, Sara is not content to accumulate credentials for medical school from her internship and consent to policies and behaviors she knows to be wrong or unjust. She steps up to make risky judgments. Second, Sara recognizes that the gift and privilege of her college education enable her to make judgments that she could not otherwise offer. She is graced to make these judgments. Third, she can turn these judgments on her own hubris and naiveté about privilege and injustice. Her judgments are not simply castigations of others. Fourth, Sara’s judgments are sharp edged and go against the grain of standard bromides and acceptable behavior. They demand respect for persons who have failed, such as addicts or women who have partnered with predators. Finally, Sara’s judgments point toward a more positive professional career for herself and all of us toward prudently redeeming unjust policies and persons rather than simply condemning the unjust.
I want to leave you with this wisdom from a classmate—and many of you, I believe, have acquired similar wisdom. Do not fall prey to the temptation to live and let live. Speak publicly in an informed and reasonable manner to judge behavior, values, institutions, policies, and politics that do or do not advance justice and the common good. Even if you are not always right, you can raise the level of public discourse. Recognize that you are enabled to judge by gifts that are not of your own making and that your judgments can correct your thinking and behavior as well as that of others. Finally, intend that your judgments, no matter how harsh they need to be, aim to redeem, not to destroy or to advance selfish goals. Public judgment is not a zero-sum game. The end goal, like the God of Israel, is for the other to become a partner bound in covenant.
If we learn to make public judgments in this manner, our judgments will not be antithetical to grace. They will be means of grace.