05/17/08 - Bucknell Baccalaureate Address
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Baccalaureate Address, Bucknell University
May 17, 2008
Thank you all so much for the privilege and honor of being here. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to be introduced by someone who knows you well, and has much that they could say, so let me thank you, Bill, for your gentle, generous, yet restrained introduction. My warmest congratulations to the Bucknell Class of 2008, to your parents and extended families, your friends, your teachers, trustees, administrators, alumni and all. I am profoundly grateful for the chance to be back here. Bucknell took a real risk on me some years ago – fresh out of seminary and loaded with much more enthusiasm than experience or wisdom. I learned on the job here, probably at the expense of no small number of people. I hope that each of you, members of the Class of 2008, similarly experience in your professional lives the grace of unearned trust, bottomless support, and lots of forgiveness. Heck – I hope you get that in your personal lives as well! That’s what it’s all about. I hope you receive these things. I hope even more that you can give them.
You are headed off now to do many different things in many different places. Some of you will go to Wall Street and some to poor schools, some to new homes of your own and some to graduate programs, some will stay in Lewisburg and others will go to the farthest ends of the earth. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you have invaluable contributions to make. But wherever you go, and whatever you do, I hope you will remember these words from the prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” [That’s Jeremiah 29:7] This is no idle musing from an upset guy at a bad historical moment! “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Judeans who had been sent on a forced march into the Babylonian Kingdom after the fall of Jerusalem. Divide and conquer – send a bunch of Jerusalem’s residents packing in the night, separated from parts of their family, the rest of their community, no questions tolerated. I hope very much that you do not feel yourself to be in exile – not next year or any year or phase of your life – but I do hope you’ll remember Jeremiah’s words – wherever you find yourself: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Jeremiah wasn’t writing to most of us, to people driven out by an invading army, but he was talking to us. He says to all: wherever you find yourself, know that your own well-being is inextricably bound up with that of the people around you. Wherever you go, dear graduates, your welfare is tied to the welfare of those around you. In their welfare you will find your welfare. We are not separable entities – people who live side by side, doing “parallel play” as do young toddlers. We are interwoven – threads stitched together – with people we may feel are completely unlike us. They may not speak English, they may worship differently than we do, they may really value things very different from those things we identify for ourselves: and in their welfare we shall find our welfare. In the welfare of total strangers! In the time of Jeremiah, that meant the welfare of the general population whose rulers held you captive. Who could they be, to us and to others, today?
Dr. King said, “No one is free until we are all free.” I think he understands Jeremiah. He understands that when someone else is kept down, I can’t flourish; neither can you. Our humanity is all bound up with one another. If the life of a family far away is constricted by persistent gnawing hunger or by repression, my own family is not free. When people die of entirely preventable diseases, you and I are not free. Numerous religious and ethical traditions, including Dr. King’s, teach of the radical equality of human value, the interconnectedness of the human family, the necessity of seeking the welfare of every person, even the responsibility to build the fair and just world of our yearnings. There are various arguments and motives for similar action, similar service. Last month I participated on a panel at Princeton with a member of our Economics Department. The topic was the care of orphans around the world. She offered that there is no moral responsibility to care for others but there’s a great practical imperative, for when others, close and far, have their basic needs met, we are less likely to be negatively impacted by their criminal behavior. Perhaps that is a sound economic argument; I’m not qualified to judge that. But it’s very different reasoning from that of Jeremiah and King. They do talk about an individual’s welfare – they have as their starting point the “me.” But their ending point is “we,” while my colleague’s is still “me,” or at best, “us” and “them.” And the “them” are the problem – they have criminal instincts and may cause me harm if I don’t see to it that certain conditions are met. As we know, criminal instincts belong to humans in every economic stratum, including students at elite universities. Jeremiah’s starting point is a “me” who is the disadvantaged party, a captive in forced exile. Jeremiah wrote to people who were decidedly not free. And still he told them they could only thrive if everyone around them was thriving too.
These Judeans were very much the “other” in Babylon – they had a different language, a different religion – one that they could only partially practice away from their home country. And still, Jeremiah tells them to be generous, to be merciful, to out do themselves in showing honor to their neighbors, to share with them whatever things they may need. I hope very much that you never feel yourself, wherever life takes you, as being in exile. I do think that, if you don’t already, you will likely find yourself at some point being the other. Maybe it’s about what you look like, the culture you come from, your language, your identity, or the things you believe. Some of us live continually with a feeling of otherness, and have at Bucknell. For some of us it’s sporadic. I am ever grateful to my parents for moving our family to Hong Kong when I was four. We lived there for three years. It wasn’t always easy for me to be different. The overwhelming majority of people in that, the most densely populated place on earth, are Chinese, and what white people were there in the mid-late sixties were from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. I remember walking through open-air markets as I held my mother’s hand. It was teeming with people. The walkway was covered with blood, entrails, chicken feathers, hog stubble, and human spit. To my left and right the stalls had huge pigs and cows hung by their jawbones from massive picks. They’d been skinned and entirely gutted, a long slit down the length of the gaping body. I could have fit inside the carcass. The smells, the language – everything was different. Actually it was I who was different, and stared at. I am now, as I’ve said, grateful for that experience. Jeremiah tells us that especially when we know ourselves to be other – different – it is time to seek the welfare of those around us. We let our understanding of our otherness not shut us down but grow our hearts, make us larger human beings, people of deeper spirits and more expansive souls. I hope not to make otherness too blithely easy-sounding. You may know very well from your own experience what the ramifications upon a human life can be. I do want to say that our otherness can be a portal into a deepened commitment to the welfare of all around us, and even be the very source of our compassion or understanding.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “We are always getting ready to live, but never living.” The prophet Jeremiah knew that danger – to postpone really living until certain benchmarks have been achieved in our life. The exiles in Babylon might well have felt that there was no way they could really live until their captivity was over. Jeremiah told them not to succumb to that – he said “don’t live in exile, just live.” Plant gardens that will mature. Literally put down roots. Give your daughters and sons away in marriage and flourish in new generations. Live like you would in Jerusalem. Abide by the laws of your captors, and then just live. I have a friend who is struggling with cancer. She is treating it aggressively with as full an onslaught of medical therapies as possible. She is not in denial, but she’s also not living with cancer. She’s just living, doing the same things she had planned to do before this recurrence of her disease.
I hope that you, too, will keep old Emerson’s words in mind – “We are always getting ready to live, but never living.” It is a temptation to look at any time in our lives as a preparatory stage for the real life we’re going to live one day. After I graduate. After I get that job. When I’m married. When the kids are out of the house. When I retire. Jeremiah told people in dire circumstances to live now. How fully might we, who enjoy many blessings, just plain live? You will be very busy people, dear graduates, but I do hope that you never pause to look back over some years and realize that you’ve been postponing living all along.
Attributed to the Buddha is the saying, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” That’s about living fully in every moment, and in every phase of where life takes you. And wherever you find yourself, do the right thing. (The Buddha didn’t say that, Boden says it.) If a word of difficult truth needs to be spoken in the board room, in the teacher’s lounge, at the dinner table, in your place of worship, speak it. If you live in a community where there is inequality of any kind, address it. This isn’t the stuff of a Nobel Peace Prize but a person of simple integrity. Use whatever resources are at your disposal, no matter how small. Wherever you find yourself, do the right thing. You’ll know what it is.
Class of 2008, you are ours for a moment and God’s forever, the pride of your families and of this university for all that you will contribute to communities and a world that so desperately needs your talent, compassion, and commitment. I wish you endless joy on the journey; I hope you will live while you are living, freeing all who are suffering any captivity, and in that finding meaning and happiness beyond any human measurement. God bless you all!