On the corner “A commencement address for the “Friends of Christ”

By Bob Docter

I’ve only been asked on one or two occasions to deliver a commencement address and never to graduating Salvation Army cadets. Therefore, I will take this space to tell you what I would have said had I had the honor to speak to you in person.

Yes, you are graduating and being sent out with your new epaulets, shiny stars and some basic training. This is not what most people think of when they imagine a college. This institution calls itself the College for Officer Training. This label suggests it’s involved with “training”—that’s learning specific skills and transferring the same skills to another similar setting. It accomplishes some of that.

You have become aware of some of the multiple identities you must own. First, did you realize that you have embraced a different culture? You are no longer an individual person. You are part of a military organization that requires you to embrace some specific codes of dress, speech, attitudes, belief, and behavior. You very soon will need to reveal your skills in a number of different roles: an administrator, a pastor, a counselor, a youth worker, a fund raiser, a song leader, an accountant, a public relations executive, a social worker and so on. You have learned a little bit about one of the most complicated jobs anywhere. You are also becoming educated about matters that go way beyond one-to-one transfer.

So, I don’t like the “training” label because you will continue to be in the process of learning much more, none of which is directly transferable. You have been saturated with some important generalities that pertain to the communication of your own spirituality to others. You have not “learned” them. These qualities must be owned. It is a “practice.” You must sense, feel and translate to behavior the meaning of love. If you don’t understand compassion in today’s world you’re in serious trouble.

You take your faith and your commitments to a tension-filled, divided, racing, frenzied, harried, beautiful world on the edge of all kinds of bankruptcy. Its populations contain varied ethnic and racial groups holding vastly different values. You better have yours locked firmly in your mind and heart or they will be mysteriously separated from you. It will happen before you’re even aware they are gone.

This does not mean that you impose your own values on others. It means that you understand and respect the values of others while living out your own. By “living out,” I hope you avoid making value judgments about the worth and choices of others.

Speed seems to be the metaphor of the age, and as is always the case, when speed is present thoughtlessness increases along with a sizeable escalation in the number of wrecks, both human and machine. Computer technology dominates the world ethos even as computers themselves begin to give way to iPads, iPods, and iPhones.

You, also, enter a world in which a chasm of alienation is nurtured by a philosophy of separatism fed by arrogance. We seem always to insist on “us and them” labels. “Us” people always contain benevolence, truth, righteousness and justice. “Them,” we believe, never find the really true truth, and always hold grimly to that which is false, wrong and unjust. Also, besides being just plain wrong, “them” people and their crazy ideas scare us to death.

Polemics seems to be the theme of the day. We see it in almost anything that contains competition—politics, sports, individuals, ideas. It starts with ignoring one’s values and ends with stereotyped labels.

“I am always right, and you are always wrong,” he says with a tone of condemnation. Yet, Learned Hand, the great Supreme Court Justice of distant, bygone years, said: “Liberty is never being too sure that you’re right.” So, to be free, one needs an open mind—willing to entertain difference, willing to examine doubt, and able to eliminate the certainty of cynicism with healthy skepticism.

Today, the nation seems to be in a “no compromise” position. The actions of Congress seem to give permission to everyone outside looking in to follow the same rigid policies—all or nothing.

In a commencement address in 2006 to students at Georgetown University, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns urged the graduating class “to become soldiers in a new Union Army, an Army dedicated to the preservation of this nation’s great ideals, a vanguard against the new separatism and disunion.” He saw the country slipping into a new civil war, this time socially and culturally, “where the threat is fundamentalism wherever it raises its intolerant head.”

Maybe that Army can be a Salvation Army, an Army that “loves the unloved, never reckoning the cost, with banners and bonnets they come”; an Army that completely abandons any intolerant judgmentalism and continues to adhere to the teaching of Romans 14.

I say to you: be a hero, stay enthusiastic. In the original Greek usage of the term it meant “God in us.”

Keep on believing.

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