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06/16/92

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Graduates told to seek elusive embrace of justice, peace

STANFORD -- The 85th Psalm looks forward to a day "when mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other, truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven."

Yet the troubles of the present day - hunger and the threat of famine, tribal slaughter in the former Soviet republics, and the cries of indigenous peoples - seem to drown out the hope of ever achieving that "elusive embrace of justice and peace," the Rev. Prathia Hall Wynn told graduates and their families at Stanford's annual baccalaureate service on June 13.

"Not only are the earth's people crying for the embrace of peace and justice, the earth itself is screaming," said Wynn, a veteran civil rights activist and associate dean of spiritual and community life at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

"We are passing to you with your diploma a planetary mess. And should you decide to opt out of the struggle and let the world go to hell in a handbasket, it will be suicide. For you, our only hope of a future, will go down with it."

Wynn told the members of the Class of 1992 to take seriously their own yearnings for justice and peace - and perhaps even abandon the traditional American dream to follow them.

"It may well be that the dream must disappear, that a greater vision might replace it," Wynn said. "Yours must be a new vision, a global vision, a planetary vision.

"The difference this planet needs will be made not by politicians, certainly not at first and certainly not easily. The difference will be made by people such as you: young people who dare to envision and actualize a bold new earth. You can and you must. Five hundred years after Columbus, you must claim and restore that which he lost. You must and you shall."

Will justice and peace ever embrace? Yes, said Wynn.

"They meet and embrace first in our hearts, and together they generate within us an appetite for justice and peace in our world," she said. "That awesome, exquisite kiss within us causes us to settle for nothing less."

Sometimes, she acknowledged, that quest can be a frightful struggle. In 1963, Wynn was one of a group of students working to achieve voting rights and political empowerment for black people in southwest Georgia.

"Four of us were stopped by a man wearing a tin badge, who told us that he was a deputized marshal," she said. "He asked us what we were doing. I answered, 'We are discussing voter registration, and you have no right to stop us.'

"My answer infuriated him. He began to sputter and curse and tremble and literally foam at the mouth. Suddenly, he whipped out a gun and emitted a stream of exceedingly graphic expletives, and began to fire bullets in a circle around my feet. I stood frozen in place. I did not move a muscle. Had I done so, he would have had his excuse to raise the gun and fire point blank.

"Finally, when the gun was empty, he seized us and threw us into jail. Was I frightened? My Lord, I was so terrified, I was numb. But I learned something that day about the shalom of God. I learned that the struggle for justice and peace is the shalom of God, and the shalom of God is both power and protection."

Wynn is now a doctoral candidate in religion and society at the Princeton Theological Seminary. She was ordained a Baptist minister in 1977.

About 3,000 people attended Stanford's interdenominational baccalaureate ceremony, which also featured spiritual readings by Dean of the Chapel Robert Gregg, President Donald Kennedy, senior class presidents and ministers of major religious groups on campus. Music was provided by the Memorial Church Choir and Vintage Brass.

-tj-

This is an edited text of the address given by the Rev. Prathia Hall Wynn at Stanford's 1992 baccalaureate service on June 13:

[In Psalm 95] we are urged to make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. This is surely a joyous occasion, and tomorrow there will be many joyful noises. However, whether or not they will be sung to the Lord is an open question. This psalmist invites, even commands us, to worship and to bow down, to kneel before God our maker. For we are God's people. . . . The invitation becomes a plea: "Oh, that today you would listen to God's voice." Do not harden your hearts as in the wilderness, for when the heart of the people goes astray, God denies to them the rest of God - the divinely blessed place, space or state of peace and well-being.

What is all this really about? Is it just beautiful poetry from some former time, or is there some relationship between worship and obedience to God, and our human well-being? This psalmist certainly believed that there is. Indeed, the invitation to worship becomes an urgent mandate because right worship is understood to be a prerequisite for human peace, for human dwelling in the place of divine promise and rest. The psalmist of Psalm 85 fervently prays for restoration of divine favor, and describes the sign of God's return as a time when steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, when justice and peace will kiss each other, faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.

There seems to be lodged deep within the human spirit a desire, a longing . . . for a state of harmony and solidarity and beauty and tranquility and grace that so transcends our usual state of anxiety and fear, insecurity and need, unsatisfied hunger and unquenched thirst, as to become more than an experience, more than a transient state of mind, but rather a state of being. Our readings today reflect in various ways the relation between right worship and right relations - which is righteousness, or justice, and the tranquility of humankind. And the good news is, the yearning is articulated as possibility. Yet the excitement and anguish, questions and anxieties of this present hour in history may well drown out the sense of possibility, or the hope of ever achieving that longed for but indeed elusive embrace of justice and peace, faithfulness and love, well-being and right relations.

The problems and anxieties are myriad. The morning news pronounces them with wretched regularity. You know the litany as well as I. There is hunger and the threat of famine. The Soviet Union has been dissolved, but now tribal slaughter threatens to destroy many of the would-be republics. And we wonder what will be left of the former Yugoslavia, if and when the bloodletting ever stops. There is not only the aftermath of the Los Angeles revolt and the challenge of restoration, but the sure and certain knowledge that potential Los Angeles-style explosions lurk in nearly every American city, large and small, east, west and in between. Perhaps for you, young and gifted as you are, the uncertainties of unemployment and the state of the economy do not pose the kinds of threats that hover over many college graduates today - but you cannot be really sure.

You have a right to ask, "When and where do justice and peace embrace, and how on earth do we get these evasive partners together, that they may indeed kiss?" I must warn you . . . the questions and problems and challenges are far deeper, far more complex than those I have mentioned. You see, all over this world there are people who are asking the same questions, who are seeking the same embrace. Last year, I attended the seventh assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia. There were councils and caucuses and meeting after meeting after meeting, in search of the elusive goals of Christian unity, and a global state of justice and peace and the integrity of creation. Participating in these gatherings were indigenous peoples from around the earth, and for me, their anguished cries for vindication for the blood of their slaughter not only shaped the dialogue but so permeated the atmosphere above and beyond the assembly that this very morning I can still hear them. I cannot forget them. There were the aboriginal peoples of Australia, who have been in that land upward of 40,000 years, and the peoples of the various Pacific islands, . . . the native peoples of the Americas and the people of the African continent. And from the United States - although to many of the other peoples we looked like rich Americans - there were the descendants of those who were much of the capital upon which capitalism was built, the African Americans. And although it is seldom discussed in polite company, the fact that the first of our endless contributions to this nation was 246 years of free labor caused those cries to mingle with those of all the other peoples of the world for justice, fairness and a rightful share, and with the cries of women against gender oppression.

Now that is a very complex picture. And whether or not we choose to look at it, it is there. We hear the cries from Rio: "You developed nations created most of the environmental hazards, and it is only fair that you pay to correct it." Not only are the earth's people crying for the embrace of peace and justice, the earth itself is screaming. This planetary violence and violation must stop. The earth's balance must be restored.

If all of this is not enough, you are also a part of the picture. You are young, educated, talented white women and men, and women and men of color. This is the world we pass to you with your diplomas. And many of you add your own cries to those of the peoples of the world: "It is not fair. We did not enslave anyone. We are not oppressors. Why must we pay the price for the deeds of our forebears?" And you are right. It is not fair that you are called to fix and to settle and to heal a planet and its people. But this is the fact: We are passing to you with your diploma a planetary mess. And should you decide to opt out of the struggle and let the world go to hell in a handbasket, it will be suicide. For you, our only hope of a future, will go down with it.

Perhaps you wish to cry with the psalmist, "Oh God of our salvation, will you be angry with us forever? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, oh God, and grant us your salvation." Where is justice? Where is peace? And what does it take to get these two together? How do we arrange an encounter? They must meet before they can embrace.

Class of 1992, you must take seriously your own yearnings for justice and peace, and the integrity of creation. Yours must be the quest for this elusive embrace. There is much talk today about the disappearance of the American dream. It may be well be that the dream must disappear, that a greater vision might replace it. Yours must be a new vision, a global vision, a planetary vision. And as you live it, even wrestle it into actualization, you will find within it the resources and direction for the next era, the epoch. It is a tall order, a very tall order, but Stanford Class 1992, even as you are challenged, you are also blessed. You are blessed with education and energy and vision and commitment and spirit. You have demonstrated your capacity to accept the challenge and to make a difference in your numerous public and social contributions to the community of which Stanford is a part. You may have thought of these activities as small investments, academic requirements or interesting projects, but they are indeed seeds for your future.

The difference this planet needs will be made not by politicians, certainly not at first and certainly not easily. The difference will be made by people such as you: young people who dare to envision and actualize a bold, new earth. You can and you must. Five hundred years after Columbus, you must claim and restore that which he lost. You must and you shall.

The prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible tells of the time when God the creator brought a suit against the people of God. It is a fascinating text, in which God becomes at various times plaintiff, prosecutor and even defendant. God calls nature as the jury - the hills and the mountains must bring righteous judgment, because humans cannot be trusted to do so. Finally, in an attempt to achieve an out-of-court settlement - an effort to get off as lightly as possible - the people offer to God an obscenely lavish display of religious ritual. They offer burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil. Finally, in a desperate effort to stop the trial, they offer their own firstborn: "the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul," they tell God. God answers: "I do not want dead rams, dead lambs or dead babies. I want you. I do not want ritual. I do not even want religion. I want righteousness. I have told you, oh mortals, what is good and what the Lord requires: justice, love, kindness and walking with your God."

The peace for which we yearn is God's peace. It is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice. The justice that we do, the kindness that we give, and the right relations that we enjoy with God, self, neighbor and nature. It is God's shalom. Jesus offered it on the eve of his departure: "Peace I leave with you. . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." This shalom of God is the embrace of justice and peace. We cry for peace, we pray for peace, we pay for peace, we even wage war for peace; at least that is what we say. But the shalom of God is never devoid of justice. Righteousness is a precondition, it is the gift of God within us, so that we can bring it to life in the world around us. No justice, no peace. If you want peace, work for justice. It seems so difficult. There are moments when it seems impossible. Will justice and peace ever embrace?

My answer is, yes they do. They meet and embrace first in our hearts, and together they generate within us an appetite for justice and peace in our world. That awesome, exquisite kiss within us causes us to settle for nothing less in our world. They become the content and the context of our existence. The quest for their actualization in our world . . . establishes our priorities.

Sometimes the quest becomes a struggle, and the struggle can be very frightful. About a year ago, in a conversation with seminarians, I was made to recall a terrifying moment in my own quest for the embrace of justice and peace in our world. Please allow me to share it with you. It was 1963. I was one of a group of students working to achieve voting rights and political empowerment in southwest Georgia. We were encouraging persons who had been prevented from participating in the political process, by a pervasive campaign of terror, to register to vote. Four of us were stopped by a man wearing a tin badge, who told us that he was a deputized marshal. He asked us what we were doing. I answered, "We are discussing voter registration, and you have no right to stop us." My answer infuriated him. He began to sputter and curse and tremble and literally foam at the mouth. Suddenly, he whipped out a gun and emitted a stream of exceedingly graphic expletives, and began to fire bullets in a circle around my feet. I stood frozen in place. I did did not move a muscle. Had I done so, he would have had his excuse to raise the gun and fire point blank. Finally, when the gun was empty, he seized us and threw us into jail. Was I frightened? My Lord, I was so terrified, I was numb. But I learned something that day about the shalom of God. I learned that the struggle for justice and peace is the shalom of God, and the shalom of God is both power and protection.

You alone will decide how you will respond to the challenges of your generation. Difficult as it is, you have before you the opportunity to proclaim and then dare to create a new way of being human. . . . "To everyone there openeth a way and a way and a way. And every soul decidedth the way that soul will go." Oh come, let us sing to God, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.

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