A Timeless Conviction

by John I. Jenkins


John I. Jenkins is the President of Notre Dame University. Here, he delivers the 2012 Commencement Address to Wesley Theological Seminary.

President McAllister-Wilson, Dean Oden, members of the Board of Governors, members of the faculty, staff, alumni, friends, parents, and most of all—the Wesley Theological Seminary graduates of 2012:

I want to thank David for his overly generous introduction, and for his invitation to speak to you on this holy occasion, inside this exquisite house of prayer. Knowing the recent history of the Cathedral, I do want to express one desire. Namely, if at any time during my remarks, the earth should quake, and the sky should fall, and the Cathedral should rain its treasures on this pulpit—I want to be declared a martyr.

Earlier this year, in downtown Washington, I was invited to lunch with President McAllister-Wilson and several faculty and friends of the seminary. Afterwards, we visited the Mount Vernon Square campus— the magnificent church, the dormitory, the classrooms, and I heard more about your expanding dreams for yourselves and for your seminary.

It’s a high honor to be offering the commencement address to seminarians studying theology here in our capital city, determined to engage the world for Christ and preach the Good News to people hungry for it. I find it especially exhilarating to address a graduating class representing 25 Christian denominations. As Pope John Paul II emphasized in his encyclical Ut unum sint (On Commitment to Ecumenism), we cannot proclaim the love of God in Christ without seeking the unity of all Christians. His message makes me especially grateful and humbled to be here today.

Commencement is always a joyful time, and I find your graduation today especially inspiring.  There is no law of motion in the physical universe that guaranteed that you would end up where you are today. More likely, the many demands of life were pushing you in other directions, and you pushed back. Even if the Spirit called you here, the world did not make it easy to arrive.

You fought your way here out of conviction born of faith.

Conviction. It is indispensable to every good deed. It defies the forces of inertia—the prevailing winds and currents that fight to keep everything the way it is, or worse. Without conviction, there would be no hope.

Conviction, however, is not all good. It can easily be corrupted by pride and greed and lead to hatred and division.

Last year, here in Washington D.C., our elected officials nearly shut down the government in April, nearly defaulted on the debt in August, nearly shut down the government over disaster relief in September, failed to reach an accord for debt reduction in November, and forced another showdown over the payroll tax in December. The officials were so debilitated that they couldn’t stop a bailiff that wanted to impose charges.

These stalemates proved that our political leaders don’t suffer from a lack of conviction. But in many cases, they expressed their conviction as would a bitter couple seeking a divorce, using all manner of coercion to get the best deal—dismissive of the misery their hatred would create in their own lives, and the injury it would cause in the lives of the children.

Yet, we cannot responsibly blame this on politicians. The hostility they expressed did not originate with them. We in this country are in the midst of a social crisis, a harsh and deepening split between groups that are all too ready to see evil in each other. Each side has never been more eager yet more unable to dominate the other. Both sides call for change, but each believes it’s the other side that must change.

We cannot pretend to stand outside this. We are woven into it.

We the People are exhibiting the human tendency that James Madison warned of in 1787, in Federalist No. 10. And I quote: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points … have … divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Two hundred and twenty-five years later, we are like actors following the script for creating factions: Develop strong convictions. Group up with like-minded people. Shun the others. Play the victim. Blame the enemy. Stoke grievance. Never compromise.

At a time of expanding diversity of people and moral opinions—when we need more skill and wisdom in engaging those with other views—we seem to be less skillful, less wise.

So of all the questions posed in this campaign season—the most important one is rarely asked. Now, when the country is increasingly diverse, when the number of disputed moral questions is rising, when citizens have deep and opposing passions that neither side will give up for the sake of civility—Can citizens of the United States learn to express their convictions in more skillful, more respectful ways?

We need an answer.

A country whose citizens treat one another with scorn does not have a bright future.

* * *

Many of you chose to come to a seminary in Washington D.C. because you wanted to engage the world, live your faith and learn how it can make an impact.

I believe your faith can have a transforming effect on the world.

Of all the graduates entering the wider world this spring, you here today, more than others, have the responsibility, and the training, and the commitment to address the most urgent, most strategic challenge in the country today—the challenge of reducing hatred and promoting love.

This is your calling. It is the most urgent call of our times.

“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: love one another,” says the First Letter of John. And this command to love is found not only in Scripture, but in our hearts. Love is the deepest human need. Each human being has a deep spiritual, psychological, emotional longing for love. And not to get it injures us deeply.

Love is the greatest commandment—and hatred is at the heart of the greatest sins. Hatred is the great destroyer—the great divider. Hatred is more dangerous to us than any other threat, because it attacks the immune system of our society—our ability to see danger, come together and take action.

Hatred poisons everything.

Yet we seem not to see the danger. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “It is strange that we should not realize that no enemy could be more dangerous to us than the hatred with which we hate him.”

If we can help solve the problem of hatred, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.

Now, I would rather not admit any special intimacy with hatred. I would like to say that I am familiar with it only from hearing confessions and reading books. I must confess, however, that much of what I know of hatred comes from examining the temptations in my own heart. So here are some personal observations.

First, we cannot directly reduce anyone else’s hatred. If we were capable of reducing the hatred of others, we would already have done it. Most everyone would prefer there were less hatred in the world, yet there seems to be more—which is indirect proof that no one apparently wants to give up any of their own.

Second, if we’re going to do battle with hatred, we have to accept for practical purposes that hatred is not out there. It is in here—ready to rise in disguise inside of us, posing as virtue, sowing destruction.

Third, to avail itself of the most effective disguise, hatred often hides in self-righteous conviction—where it can be seen as driving the effort toward a noble goal. This is why hatred is so hard to see. It can hide from our conscience by entangling itself in our most noble beliefs.

Let me offer an illustration.

In 2009, a member of the Armed Forces was charged in a plot to commit murder. He had created a plan he called “Operation Patriot,” complete with maps and photographs. In papers recovered by law enforcement, he had written that—because he had taken an oath to protect the country against all enemies foreign and domestic—he was obliged to honor that oath by killing the President of the United States.

That young man fell prey to self-deception.

He believed he was driven by a noble desire to protect the country, when in fact he was driven by deep hatred in the guise of patriotism.

To spare ourselves the same form of deceit, we have to call on our conscience to explore our convictions and how we express them. Even in the case of my most noble belief, I must ask myself: am I trying to advance this belief through persuasion or coercion, with respect or contempt, by accepting sacrifice or imposing sacrifice? When I refuse to compromise, is it because I love a principle, or because I hate the people on the other side?

In 1749, after a series of riots in Ireland that included attacks on Methodists, John Wesley published an essay he titled Letter to a Roman Catholic. He wrote:

“Are you not fully convinced that malice, hatred, revenge, bitterness, whether in us or in you, in our hearts or yours, are an abomination to the Lord? Be our opinions right, or be they wrong these tempers are undeniably wrong.  They are the broad road that leads to destruction.”

This Roman Catholic has received John Wesley’s letter, and I am fully convinced of the manifest truth grounded in the Gospel that it proclaims.

If we are committed to reducing hatred in the world, then the way we engage one another in public debate is not a means to an end; the means are the ends.

And if we are determined to keep our convictions free of malice, then I propose that we strive to meet one simple test for public discourse: Our attempts to express our convictions should take the form of an effort to persuade.

If I am confident in my beliefs, and I have love and good will for the other side, then it would be my duty to try to persuade them. And if I want to persuade them, then how can I vilify them? People are not persuaded by those who attack their character.

But if I don’t try to persuade them, but only condemn them, then I am not showing the respect that love demands. To stand apart, proclaim my position, and refuse to talk except to judge does not reduce hatred or promote love. And if it does neither, how can it be inspired by God?

The moment I venture into tone and language that is unlikely to persuade, it can be a signal that I have left the sphere of respectful discourse. Once I do that, my odds plunge of winning over another, and the chances rise that I am expressing hatred—which will lead to factions and fracture the common good. With the common good fractured, any individual good becomes a very fragile hope indeed.

The danger is all around us now. Hatred is rising, yet all sides feel more virtuous. We’re asleep to the threat. We can have the most sophisticated Constitution, a brilliant system of checks and balances, and a Bill of Rights to safeguard against the tyranny of the majority—yet none of it can stand against the power of hatred. It can all be thrown down.

* * *

As you set out in your ministry, I ask you to affirm again the noble beliefs that led you here, and advance those beliefs in ways that strike a moral contrast with the dominant culture of discourse in the country today. If you do this, you will set a new standard for moral conviction in the 21st century—one that will offer hope for reconciling two great human needs: our longing to give full expression to our most passionate convictions and the need for a national unity that can survive the diversity of our views.

Let me close with a story well known to all of you.

Driven by the desire to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to recover sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” Wesley Seminary began planning a new campus in downtown Washington DC, right at the intersection of Poverty and Power.

In late 2008, the votes had been taken, the plans were set, the shovels were ready … and the  financial crisis struck. Investment houses vanished. The stock market was losing half its value. Universities saw their endowments plunge and their donors step back.

President McAllister-Wilson, the board, the faculty of Wesley had one last chance to turn back.  They conferred.  They prayed. They pondered the wisdom of giving up the seminary’s  financial security in stern economic times. But ultimately, they asked one another: “Does the world now need our witness and service less … or more?”

And so the seminary that taught you and steeped you in the theology and practice of passionate Christianity pushed ahead—as the whole world pulled back.

Could there be any better inspiration for your ministry?

Go now—become worthy sons and daughters of your seminary. Inspired by its example, go preach love, stand fast against the momentum of your times, and renew the face of the earth.

Published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.