Commencements and Conflicts
President Obama has attended two Commencements in less than a week. Both occasions (Arizona State University and Notre Dame University) were charged with controversy and protest.
Without mentioning the Middle East conflict, his current discussions with the key players and his forthcoming speech from Egypt to the Arab world, Obama revealed some important attitudes that are crucial to solving conflict and offered insights that are pertinent for making international peace.
When a storm brewed over the decision by the Arizona State University not to grant President Obama an honorary degree, because ‘his most significant work was in the future’, he defused the issue. In his Commencement Speech (13 May 2009) he not only called this a ‘storm in a tea cup’, but his agreement with the ASU statement became the major theme of his address. He said:
“In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one's life has been led - and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”
“And I want to say to you today, graduates, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone, one that you and your families are rightfully proud of, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Your body of work is yet to come….”
This big-hearted, bridge-building spirit is essential for people seeking peace across deep divides.
In his Commencement Speech at Notre Dame University (17 May 2009) President Obama tackled head-on the abortion controversy that surrounded his visit and told a story about the need for fair-mindedness:
“The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”
“Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.”
“As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that's not what was preventing him from voting for me.”
“What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website - an entry that said I would fight ‘right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.’ The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, ‘I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.’”
“After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn't change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that - when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think, like what we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
Find Common Ground
At Notre Dame Obama elaborated on the need to find common ground rather than point up the differences:
“I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but my mother instilled in me a sense of service and empathy that eventually led me to become a community organizer after I graduated college. A group of Catholic churches in Chicago helped fund an organization known as the Developing Communities Project, and we worked to lift up South Side neighborhoods that had been devastated when the local steel plant closed.”
“It was quite an eclectic crew. Catholic and Protestant churches. Jewish and African-American organizers. Working-class black and white and Hispanic residents. All of us with different experiences. All of us with different beliefs. But all of us learned to work side by side because all of us saw in these neighborhoods other human beings who needed our help - to find jobs and improve schools. We were bound together in the service of others.”
“And something else happened during the time I spent in those neighborhoods. Perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.”
“At the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads - unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS, and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together; always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, ‘You can't really get on with preaching the Gospel until you've touched minds and hearts.’”
“My heart and mind were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside with in Chicago. And I'd like to think that we touched the hearts and minds of the neighborhood families whose lives we helped change. For this, I believe, is our highest calling.”
Remember our Common Humanity
Toward the end of his Commencement Address at Notre Dame University President Obama acknowledged that peacemaking between people who are vastly different takes time and the space in which they can recognize their common aspirations and essential humanity:
“After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African-American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the "separate but equal" doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God's children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the twelve resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
“There were six members of the commission. It included five whites and one African-American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. They worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. Finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame's retreat in Land O'Lakes, Wisconsin, where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.”
“Years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered that they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.”
“I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away. Life is not that simple. It never has been.”
“But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived. Remember that in the end, we are all fishermen.”
Links for the Commencement scripts:
Obama at ASU, Full Script, Huffington Post, 13 May 2009.
Obama at Notre Dame, Full Script, Huffington Post, 17 May 2009.
Why We in the UAE and Arab World Like President Obama, ETE, 14 May 2009.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: President Obama at the ASU and Notre Dame Commencements. "Remember the lessons...of movements for change both large and small."
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