James Carroll: Commencement Address

Author James Carroll gave this address at CDSP’s 121st Commencment on May 22, 2015. Watch it online.

James Carroll commencement address

“Cries of ‘Please help us!’ rose from the boat.” – the New York Times, only days ago.

“Cries of ‘Please help us!’ rose from the boat.”

Imagine. Imagine that this beautiful enclosure is its absolute opposite – the stark negative of this so profoundly positive scene.

Imagine, that is, that instead of a happy throng of graduates from one of the great theological schools in the country, together with loved ones, proud professors – all celebrating one of the milestone achievements of your lives, and the generous gift of your futures to a welcoming community of faith.

Imagine instead that we are a completely different throng. Women, children, men—crowded into a confine perhaps this very size, but a dangerous confine. A tarp above us perhaps, flapping. Walls. Or railings, at least. But, instead of steady ground beneath us, an unsettling, sickening roll and heave. The sea.

Terrors of the sea. Imagine that we are migrants on an overcrowded, top-heavy, unseaworthy vessel, at the mercy of human traffickers, pirates, ocean storms, sea monsters, and an indifferent world. Nation after nation refusing us landfall.

Brothers and sisters of 2015, I am privileged to salute you this morning. The text of our gathering is your happy graduation. But what is the context?

In the Mediterranean Sea since April, at least five vessels with thousands aboard have sunk, leading to the deaths of more than twelve hundred people. The Prime Minister of Malta declared recently that the Mediterranean is becoming a cemetery for migrants.

In the Andaman Sea off Thailand, up to 20,000 people have taken to rickety boats to escape violence and deprivation in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Even today, legions of the world’s most desperate people are casting themselves upon the waters, as Pope Francis put it, “In boats which are vessels of hope and become vessels of death.”

“These broken lives,” he declared, “compromise the dignity of the international community, and we…”–the rest of us–“…are in danger of losing our humanity.” Because we ignore them. We do not see them.

At commencement ceremonies across America this weekend–or across town–it might be a matter of bad taste to impose such an unhappy reference on the festivities. After all, graduation is one of life’s unbridled joys–the occasion when the diligence of students and the support of families are honored. But in fact, the commencement of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific measures this occasion against a different standard.

What is CDSP for?

What are your degrees for?

What have you been doing here across these years?

And what are you going to do now?      

“Cries of ‘Please help us’ rose from the boat.”

Many people of good conscience everywhere are attuned to the grotesque inequality that shapes the culture, economy, structure of law, and the very meaning of life across this nation, and on the planet. But for a community that defines itself as a custodian of the Biblical vision and Gospel values, the plight of the desperate ones can never be a marginal concern, one on a long list of problems to be addressed, challenges overcome.

What does it mean to be a fully formed and well educated person of faith if not this: Aren’t you here today to do nothing less–forgive my presumption in suggesting this–than see the world through the eyes of God?

To the globe’s infamous one percent which owns nearly fifty percent of the world’s wealth, the very poor are invisible. To Americans who take satisfaction in a dropping crime rate, the more than two million people in prison are invisible, especially if they are among the more than three thousand on death row. To educators condemned to operate within a triage system, the one third of children left behind by No Child Left Behind are invisible. To Americans who grieve the roughly seven thousand U.S. troops killed in a succession of misbegotten wars, invisible are hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, Afghanistanis, Pakistanis, Yeminis, Libyans, Syrians, and Somalians, not to mention the millions upon millions of the displaced, many of whom die at sea trying only to find a safe harbor, a home..

And even here in Berkeley this weekend, to a population that defines itself by success, achievement, accumulation, and looks–those who fall behind, or fall off, are invisible.

Who sees those who suffer? May I ask such a question here, today, when we are gathered by the opposite of suffering?

But of course. It is not my question. It is yours. What did you do when you chose to come here if not submit to it?

Who is the God whom we uphold? That was the question Moses put to the One who commissioned him. Who are you? Why are you sending me forth? Why?

“And the Lord said, ‘I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard them crying out… and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.’”

Note: The foundational text of our tradition does not say, “I have seen the sin of my people.” The falling short. The failure to succeed. Nor does the text say, “I have seen the winners. The good-lookers. The one per cent.”

No: “I have seen the suffering, and I will rescue them.”

And in what does God’s rescue consist?

When the people are driven out, exiled, made migrants, refugees, literally scapegoated–the goat “driven out” in Leviticus. God goes with them!

Yes, the Bible is the story of power and the violence needed to hold onto power, but the Bible uniquely tells the story of power from the point of view of the powerless. God sees the suffering ones, and sees the world through their eyes.

“Cries of ‘Please help us’ rose from the boat.”

I was raised to believe that when God looked upon the people, what God saw was sin. Therefore God said to Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain.” Because of sin! To Adam, Therefore, “you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

Thus, we have brought suffering upon ourselves. An offended God condemns us to it. Such a theology–emphasizing an Old Testament God of vengeance–is not only slyly anti-Semitic; it undergirds the heartless indifference of the world’s affluent minority toward the misery of the vast majority. Somehow, they brought it on themselves. If we are privileged, we are invited to believe we have earned it. We have a right to our indifference.

No. “I am concerned about the suffering. I have come down to change it.”

And how does God do that? Not through magic or miracles; not through denial, or through willful blindness. God changes suffering, rescues from suffering, by joining in it.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to cling to.” Here is Paul’s astonishing assertion. “But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2: 5-8)

Perhaps the true miracle of Christian origins was in the way the good news of Jesus Christ sped across the ancient world–a fire ignited over night in the hearts of legions. Forty percent of the Roman empire’s population were slaves–laborers in mines, farm workers, war captives, sex servants, the colonized, and the exploited. Together with the urban poor, they were a host of deracinated, hounded, lost and invisible underlings on whom the pyramid of the Romasn empire stood.

Invisible people. But not to God. “I have seen the suffering, and I have come down to change it.”

How? By joining in it. Here is the urgent and never more relevant meaning of our conviction that Jesus Christ was somehow divine. The boldness of Paul’s elevation of Jesus of Nazareth into the status of Christ of God, somehow God Himself, lay in the central fact of the ignominy of what befell Jesus. “Even death on a cross.” Instead of downplaying the crucifixion, the mode of death expressly reserved for slaves and insurrectionists–and recall that thousands of Jews were hung on Roman crosses – Paul made it the keystone of faith. The cross saves. This is not the crude atonement theology–again, slyly anti-Semitic – that would later grip the Christian imagination, but a drama of an ultimate empathy. In Jesus, God suffers with you!

Enslaved people heard this word – and so, in many cases, did their masters, since suffering is only partially circumstantial. It is existential, too, as everyone here knows very well. “There are tears in things…” This is Virgil. “…and all things doomed to die touch the heart.” Somehow, everyone is crying out, “Please, help us.”

The Church Divinity School of the Pacific exists to hear that cry. At CDSP, you have sharpened your hearing to take it in. You have honed your vision to see those who, mostly, remain invisible.

They are not invisible to God, who not only sees the suffering, but joins in it–the ultimate “compassion,” which means, as you know, “to suffer with.”

If faith in such a God enables the transition from despair to trust–from “Why have you abandoned me?” to “Into your hands I commend my spirit”–the suffering is not removed, but it its meaning is changed. Or rather, it can have meaning.

For us, as privileged people, the meaning takes the form mainly of a demand. We must, we are obliged to, we simply have no choice but to see everything–as the Lord God of Israel does–from the point of view of those on the bottom, the otherwise invisible ones who carry the weight of war, of free market capitalism, of contempt for the other, of an ever more degraded environment.

“Please, help us.”

Those words have intruded on our festivities today. Can it be that the intrusion is welcome?

A reminder of what made you want to shape your lives by such a place as this? Not Law School. Not Business School. Divinity School.

A reminder that the God in whom you believe comes announced as one who exists to hear those words. A reminder that God made those word’s God’s own: “Let this cup pass from me.” Please, Jesus said, help me.

“Therefore…” Paul goes on to say in that famous passage in Philippians, “…God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”

Do you see it? Paul’s genius was to see Jesus’ identification with suffering as the revelation of his divinity. A revelation also known as the Resurrection.

And here is the Resurrection promise: What God does for Jesus, God does for us. The meaning of suffering changed for all and forever.

“Cries of ‘Please help us!’ rose from the boat.” From beneath the tarp. From the crowded space.

The most wrenching dread of the human heart is that we are castaways adrift on the seas of an indifferent cosmos. But we are not. For the creating and sustaining heart of the cosmos is with us. The life force, the principle, the ground of being, transcendence itself, whom we chose to think of as a person. Whom we call ‘God.’ In Jesus Christ. “God with us.” That is the good word–the Word that was with God, the word that is God, dwelling here.

That Word is now entrusted to you. Accept your commission to go from this place as its proclaimers. Your commission to see those whose suffering is otherwise unseen. Your commission is to hear their plea and answer it with your very lives. Go!