Given the past week’s reminders of ongoing national and international civil and moral dysfunctions that episodically emerges in public consciousness (mostly consequent to acts of intolerable behavior), I spent a lot of time reflecting and reading about human experiences of inhumanity and the hateful treatment of human beings by fellow human beings. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not new. History is filled with such behavior from prehistoric times to the present. Lessing once wrote, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” I think what he intended to convey by this is the idea that reacting abnormally to abnormal situations is normal behavior. This is not a good way to live but describes the despair many people I know feel at the current state of affairs.
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, wrote of psychological stages he and fellow prisoners went through. The second stage he described as “the blunting of emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more,” for to truly care amid such brutality meant death. Thus brutalized, the prisoner eventually became insensitive to the daily and hourly beatings. “Disgust, horror, and pity are emotions that [the prisoner] could not feel any more. The sufferers, the dying, and the dead, became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him any more.”
The fact that masses of people in the United States and beyond could empathize (still feel) with the pain of George Floyd and others like him offers some encouragement, but how often have we experienced such indignation only to fall back into the same old insensitive patterns after a few weeks when the latest topic of national news interest shifts elsewhere? As G. Gabrielle Starr, African American president of Pomona College, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week, “Here we go again. Pain. Fear. Suffocation. Death. Rage. Grief. I’m supposed to be an optimist. … “I’ve lived all of my life in hope for the future. I have steadfastly believed that if we do our jobs right, the world will be a better place. This generation, and the next, and the next, will be smarter, better, kinder, humbler, more careful of the world and of each other. Then comes 525 seconds…. What can we do?”
I suspect that most of us here at Central can identify with Dr. Starr’s motivating hopes, and with her question. As we now sit amid the ashes of yet another dashed hope of actualizing the kind of just society we had imagined our ministries would construct, what can we do?
In his satire titled Candide, French philosopher Voltaire portrays an optimistic young man enamored with Leibnizian ideals whose Edenic view of the world is abruptly shattered by the Seven Year’s War, the horrendous 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and other atrocities. Unable to reconcile his optimistic view of the world with realities of such evils such as rape, mutilation, forced servitude, slavery, greed, lies and political manipulation, Candide eventually decides that the best he can do is retire in seclusion and cultivate his own small garden. Overwhelmed by all that is going wrong, we might be tempted (or feel forced) to do the same out of sheer survival.
I resonated with Dr. Starr’s declaration of how she intends to respond, “It is a small thing, in the larger scheme. Yet my work is to teach, to make it possible for others to teach, and learn, and grow. I will do this with ferocity in the coming months, for holding up that light of knowledge is something that, no matter how dark the night, is one of the best hopes for humanity.”
For decades Central Seminary has upheld the following among its core values: “Humanity: We regard every person as bearing the image of God and worthy of inclusion in our educational mission. Diversity: We respect the richness of diversity as we engage voices of different ages, races, ethnicities, genders and faith traditions in a welcoming and open environment. Justice: We model justice and stewardship in fulfillment of our Mission, forming students to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Not only by declaring, but by practicing and teaching these values you and I make, perhaps a small, but a genuine difference in the world. We must not lose hope for a better and a just society and world amid the brutal defeats of recent years. We must not allow each other to become insensitive to or unable to feel the pain of the world. We must not allow optimistic anticipation that motivates action for building a better world fall victim to despair. We must help each other to not retreat to our own small gardens, at least not as a way of dealing the evils of the world. (Momentary respites in those gardens for recuperation may be essential.)
As you teach, preach, carry out ministries of caring, study, research, write, administer, or any of the hundreds of other things we do, PRACTICE REGARD for EVERY other person as bearing the image of God and as being worthy of inclusion in Central’s educational mission; RESPECT and ENGAGE the voices of different ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and faith traditions with welcoming and open hearts; MODEL justice and contribute to the FORMATION of each other to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. “Do this with ferocity in the coming months and years, for holding up that light of knowledge is something that, no matter how dark the night, is one of the best contributions that you and I can offer to humanity.” Some of us might be in positions to do many additional things. But do not diminish the value and importance of being bearers of truth amid the many assaults against the human dignity and worth of every single person.
Robert E. Johnson, Provost & Dean of the Faculty