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Willamette University Commencement Speech: Reverend Dr. William Sloane Coffin

Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin Preparatory remarks: A year and a half ago when I had a stroke, I tried to console myself with Mark Twain's observation about Richard Wagner's music: "It's better than it sounds." But I have no illusions, my words hardly skip like a stone on water, so I beg your indulgence.

This honorary degree reminds me of another remark, this time by the former Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. She was at a dinner where an aide of hers was smothered with praise. As he rose to respond, Golda Meir tugged his sleeve and said, "Don't pretend to be humble. You're not that great." So, I will not pretend to be humble, Mr. President, just deeply grateful for the honor of being at Willamette today.

Finally like Lillian, I am very aware of it being Mothers' Day. There's a Jewish proverb that says, "God could not be everywhere so God made mothers." May I invite all mothers to stand for a moment and we will show them our profound gratitude.

Now a few words to their daughters and sons. If the rest of you want to listen in feel free. Lev Tolstoy once said certain questions are put to us not that we should answer them but that we should spend a lifetime wrestling with them. Well, I have a question worthy of a lifetime of wrestling, namely, who tells you who you are? Let me illustrate. You've heard that I was for many years chaplain at Yale and it was natural that the seniors, going on to graduate school (not knowing that education kills by degrees) should come to the chaplain for recommendations. Immodestly, let me report that I wrote brilliant letters of recommendation. To such highfalutin' institutions of higher education as the Columbia Medical School or the Harvard Law School, I would often say, "Dear Dean of Admission: This candidate will undoubtedly be in the bottom quarter of your class. But surely you will agree with me that the bottom quarter should be as carefully selected as the top quarter. And for what would you be looking for in the bottom quarter if not the sterling extracurricular characteristics so eminently embodied in this candidate." And I would list them conscientious, will seek the common good not private gain, etc.

I would then show the letter to the student. You're not going to believe this but invariably their feelings were hurt.

"How do you know I'm going to be in the bottom quarter?"

"Well, all the evidence is in isn't it?"

"Well, you didn't have to tell them."

You see what's going on? Just to get into a place like Yale, probably like Willamette, you have to be in the 95th percentile and to graduate in the 96th percentile. To get into Columbia Medical School or the Harvard Law School, you have to be in the 97th percentile, to graduate in the 98th, and just because I didn't say they would be in the 99th percentile, and never mind that I said that they would be conscientious, seek not private gain but serve the common good, they clearly felt inferior. Such is the power of institutions of higher education to tell you who you are.

Some people need money to tell them who they are. There are, of course, two ways of being rich: one is to have a lot of money, the other to have few needs. In today's society, where the prevailing ethos is "enrich thyself," the second option is not often entertained. But let me remind you what the great British philosopher John Ruskin said, "The primary reward for human toil is not what you get for it, it's what you become by it." Human development is a matter of being more, not having more.

Some people need power to tell them who they are. Politicians too often seek power, gain power and hang on to power, for all they're worth. Not Senator Hatfield and certainly not Abraham Lincoln, who in 1847, in the Congress of the United States, declared the war against Mexico "unconstitutional and unnecessary." For that he lost his seat in Congress. But it is wonderful to recall a politician whose ethical instincts were higher than his political ones.

Some people need enemies to tell them who they are. In South Africa and in our country too, whites needed blacks, and blacks needed whites, and gays and lesbians are often enemies to heterosexuals. And I remember how, when the Berlin Wall came down, millions of anti-Communists in America lost their identity until they elevated liberals to the moral status of communists.

Actually it works on both sides. In March 1968, President Johnson in the middle of the war against Vietnam announced that he would not stand for re-election. Half a million people in the American anti-war movement lost their identity. "Who are we without LBJ?" Well, fortunately Mr. Nixon came along and restored their identity.

Finally, take it from a pastor, some people need their mistakes to tell them who they are. The way some people treasure their sins you'd think they were the holiest things in their lives.

So, it's a good question isn't it. "Who tells you who you are?" Well, it being Sunday and my being a Reverend, I'll have to take a couple of minutes to suggest what it might mean if you read the Prophet Isaiah, 43rd Chapter, and then believe what you read. "I have called you by name, You are mine, saith the Lord." What does that mean? It means for one thing that you never have to prove yourself, and that for two reasons: God's love is poured out universally on everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and God's love doesn't seek value, it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value. For short, our value is a gift, not an achievement. So, you never have to prove yourself.

What you do have to do is to express yourself, and what a world of difference there is between proving yourself and expressing yourself. Expressing yourself means basically returning God's devotion with our own devotion to God and to our fellow human beings. It means you don't have to be successful; you have to be valuable. You don't have to make money; you have to make a difference, and primarily in the lives of those society counts least and puts last.

Let me tell you a story. In 16th Century Paris, a beggar, desperately ill, was brought to the operating table of a group of doctors who said in Latin they were sure he would not understand, "Faciamus experimentum in anima vile." ("Let us experiment on this vile fellow.")

The beggar was in fact an impoverished student, later to become a world renowned scholar, Marc Antoine Muret. From the slab on which they had laid him out, he replied, "Animam vile pro qua Christas non cledignatus moriest?" ("Will you call vile one for whom Christ did not disdain to die?")

From a Christian point of view, if Christ didn't disdain to die for anyone who are we not to live for everyone? The higher our education is, the greater are our responsibilities for a humane world. And I want to underscore that because, to quote Tolstoy again, "Indifference to evil is violence," such indifference is quite characteristic of institutions of higher education. The world is in peril and the dangers threatening it come not from the poor and the ignorant for whom education is the answer, but from the well-educated for whom self-interest is the problem. The higher our education is, the greater are our responsibilities are for a humane world.

So, dear graduating students, wrestle well with the question "who tells you who you are?" Don't let money tell you who you are. Don't let power tell you who you are. Don't let enemies and for God sake don't let your sins tell you who you are when there's more mercy in God than sin in us. I leave you with a benediction left all of us by the great Spanish writer Unamuno. "Que Dios no te de paz, asi gloria." ("May God deny you peace but give you glory.")

05-13-2001