This 2017 year has brought us chaos, instability, violence, division in our nation, but in eloquent response, the year at St. Andrew's found expression and inspiration from Bryan Stevenson in January and Diane Nash in November. Both leaders shared how their own experiences with inequality, prejudice, and intolerance awakened them to the full expression and exploration of their education and their lives. Nash led the intrepid movement to dismantle the iron gates of segregation. In her spirit, Stevenson continues to expose the racist tragedy of mass incarceration and the brutal legacy of lynching in the American South.
In their powerful addresses in Engelhard Hall, they articulated the full expression of a life of wisdom, courage, and transformation, and in so doing they suggested that we do not have to rely on government to change the world: we have agency, responsibility, and spirit to do good work.
Diane Nash began her remarks by teaching us the many forms of energy we may choose to share. We can devote our energy to idleness, distraction, narcissistic pursuits. We can unleash threats, violence, devastation. Or, we can focus our work, our discipline, our creativity on what she beautifully described as agapic energy — "the love of humankind."
Living with agapic energy in our hearts and spirit represents a powerful and vibrant response to the chaos of our time. It gives us the opportunity to define and explore the central purpose of our lives. We remember that Bryan Stevenson towards the end of his studies at Harvard Law School found himself surrounded by peers eager to embrace lucrative professional opportunities — all the while he felt a deep disconnect between his studies, his work opportunities, and his own experience as a person of color in America. He filled that gap only when he met other lawyers who connected their work and sacrificed their own salaries to the cause of social justice, the very work Diane Nash began when she in her turn, refused the comfort and security of collegiate, academic, and social life because the scourge of segregation pierced her soul.
Nashville, was my first experience with this kind of segregation, and I felt outraged. When I obeyed segregation rules, it felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to go through the front door or into certain restaurants.
You may remember the public and charter school teachers, leaders of Prep 9 and Oliver Scholars referring last Saturday at the Women's Network Program to the same phrase Diane Nash uses — a simple phrase really: "the work." The phrase suggests that their job and Nash's job and Stevenson's job involves participation and commitment to a vast human and historical movement towards a yet unfulfilled goal and mission. The phrase involves an embrace of difficulty, complexity, perseverance, endurance, and affirmation. For Nash, the work involved an arduous campaign using agapic energy to weaken, destroy, and expose the corruption of white supremacy and oppression. For the educators last weekend, the work involves a heroic insistence that despite governmental and bureaucratic neglect and incompetence, every child in America deserves good teachers, good schools, and access to higher education. These teachers work in the spirit of Diane Nash.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured the spirit of the work when he wrote in remarks delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in March 1968:
I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation — the people on the wrong side — have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will.... Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts and the persistent work of individuals....
The work of agapic energy involves, of course, much more than changing the quality and nature of educational opportunity in America, exposing and rectifying the inhumanity of mass incarceration, and exposing modern forms and expressions of racial intolerance and violence.
It involves the powerful intersection and synthesis of individual passion, social responsibility, love for humanity, and glaring problems in our society and world. The work is humanistic, not political, and it includes so many possibilities, explorations, and commitments:
- The work involves saving the earth and realizing that decisions we make today will now, soon, and forever affect all of us, particularly the poor and the vulnerable in our world.
- The work involves human rights, affirming dignity, sanctuary, and safety for all citizens of the world, in particular the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the refugee, the immigrant.
- The work involves protecting religious expression and identity from outbreaks of intolerance, hatred, and violence.
- The work involves ending the danger of sexual harassment and assault in all aspects of contemporary life.
- The work involves protecting, affirming, and celebrating the LBGTQ community.
- The work involves listening to and responding to the voices Chloe Taft Kang introduced us to in her lecture last week — men, women, families, communities left behind in the wake of the end of the industrial era in our country and the world.
- The work involves feeling and replicating the scholarly and moral outrage of Emer O'Dwyer as she studied the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians in war time and as she described the danger of loose, reckless talk, and threat of the deployment of nuclear weapons in Asia.
- The work involves radical listening and respect for voices, political and religious perspectives, fears and anxieties different than our own.
- The work honors the miracle of health care and seeks to assure a quality doctor for every child in the world.
From the example of Nash and Stevenson, we have also learned this year that human beings find meaning, happiness, fulfillment, and grace when we embrace work that opens doors for others, honors voices other than our own, creates new opportunities for those denied agency and respect. People who embrace the art and discipline of agapic energy live courageous, audacious, significant, and ever expanding lives. When we explore and enact courageous unconditional love, we uncover aspects of the human condition we never considered or discussed before. As Eric Motley writes in his book Madison Park, "Alienation is difficult in a place where we all believed we were responsible for one another."
You remember, I know, the most powerful moment in Diane Nash's talk as she reflected on how she and her fellow activists found the strength to continue to march into scenes and expressions of unspeakable hatred, violence, and murder. She said:
There was a good chance that someone would get killed or seriously injured and understandably, people sometimes got very afraid. Sometimes, they'd get freaked out. On several occasions, I recall, when someone burst into tears and super afraid and freaking out, the person next to them would put their arm around that person's shoulder and say:
'Remember what we are doing is important: we are doing this for generations yet unborn.'
[then, turning to you students, Nash said]
I'd like you to know that before we met you, we loved you. We were trying to bring about the best society we could for you to be born into and come to age in.
When Diane Nash said these words, I could feel her wave of love, concern, and agapic energy flow through your hearts. I have never witnessed such a moment of grace in my life here.
Think, for a moment, about her words: the dramatic juxtaposition of an angry, desperate, violent, and certain mob, and the eloquent human gesture, the human touch on the shoulder, and the expression in words of agapic energy to ease the anxiety, fear, and terror. And more — the spreading of energy, love, and possibility to those yet unborn — those they only imagined but loved all the same.
We give thanks for that moment, that vision, that assertion of radical love and reverence.
Let's think throughout the upcoming holiday of what the work of our lives will be for those yet to be born whom we revere and love. Surely, we can now imagine the way this school community will serve and activate such energy into the world.