Samford University The BelltowerFebruary 2005

The Perspective Behind Each Voice


J. Bradley Creed, Provost
University Convocation
January 27, 2005

“...When you don't make the effort to listen to the perspective behind each voice and don't encounter face to face those persons whose backgrounds, opinions, and cultural contexts are different than your own, you are more prone to stereotype, ridicule, and dishonor, without ever intending to. A writer in a recent article in a Christian magazine expressed it this way: ‘to be unaware is to be less than moral’...”

Officers of the SGA have asked me to assist them in promoting an important initiative that is being launched this semester. They would like for you to be aware of the Be Aware campaign. I hope that you will do more than be aware of this effort but that you will get involved. There will be activities throughout the semester with some of the events taking place these first few weeks of school. Look for more information on bulletin boards, in newsletters, and other means of communication.

This project arises as a result of incidents and conversations last semester which many in the student body believe present an opportunity for growth. There has been an acknowledgement that we all need to raise our awareness of the implications of our actions and the often unintended consequences that result. The Be Aware campaign is undertaken with the desire for fostering understanding and unity within the student body and as a catalyst for a more enriching educational experience not only this semester but also for the rest of your lives.

As I have thought about this initiative, the words of the poet Robert Burns keep coming to my mind: "O wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us." English Prince Harry probably wishes that he had taken Scottish Burns to heart and been more aware of his attitudes and actions. He has been excoriated by the unforgiving British tabloids for going to a party dressed like a Nazi. Most symbols are not just symbols, particularly the swastika. It was all in fun, and he certainly meant nothing malicious by it. Even royalty, those who seem most insulated from the rules that govern the lives of mere mortals like the rest of us, are learning the importance of being aware.

Some things can be attributed to immaturity or youthful indiscretions, but what of those who become entrenched in patterns and practices after a lifetime of not being aware? Archie Bunker is the poster child for boorishness and bigotry. He is a comic creation of Norman Lear and Carroll O'Conner, but the real-world figures who march obliviously through life unaware of any viewpoint other than their own are no laughing matter, especially when they assume positions of influence and power. Not being aware has fueled hatred, prejudice, tyranny, war and even genocide.

Why does all of this matter? What's the big deal and why should you take the time to participate in something that the SGA says will be good for you? Sounds a little like your mother telling you to eat your Brussels sprouts. You don't have time for one more thing, after all Step Sing practice is underway and you are already nervous about bringing your grades up. There are only so many viewpoints and cultural perspectives that you can handle. It's challenging enough to understand and articulate your own cultural perspectives, political opinions, and religious convictions. And some of you are suspicious that this is a well-intentioned but wrong-headed effort to push you into a mold of political correctness.

Being aware is what we all hope to gain through the experience of a college education. Listening to the perspective behind other voices lies at the heart of what we are trying to accomplish at Samford. It moves us closer to the kind of transformational learning that transcends credit hours, major, and G.P.A. This is central to a liberal arts education, one of the purposes of which is to make us more aware.

I revisit and wrestle with this purpose every year as I prepare to teach the Cultural Perspectives course to freshmen. In the midst of delving deeper into Augustine's psyche and chasing Aeneas around the Mediterranean, I try to keep three core issues in mind, ones that I believe are fundamental to a liberal arts education. Like a literary geologist, I use these as probes or core samples while engaging the various texts. These are not the only issues, but they are certainly primary: One is the issue of guiding vision. What shall be our guiding vision of a humane, just, and thriving community in which all members have the opportunity to live fully human lives? To probe your assignments with this question is to become a more educated person. The second is the question of virtue. How do we act? Live our lives? What values and standards should a community encourage so that its members might participate and contribute more fully in the realization of the guiding vision? The third essential consideration is relationships, and this is a consideration that spans from the Greek polis to the Florentine city-state to the family to the classroom and residence hall. How do we order our lives in the context of community? How do we work together in spite of our differences? How do we relate to those whose backgrounds are different that ours? Having respect for others and listening to their voices is absolutely essential in becoming a more educated person.

This is why we read literature in the course of completing a degree. When you read a good novel, you get in touch with what it is like to live inside another person's life in the everydayness of her existence. Many of the English novels are particularly conducive to this kind of vicarious reading experience. What is it like to be a young woman without a dowry or family, trying to find her way in the world, trying to find a husband or work that is not degrading and enables her to survive? What is it like to be an orphan? If you can identify with that, you can start to understand Huckleberry Finn. What would your world be like if you were a child whose family has been ruined financially? Without that, there's no David Copperfield. This is why I try to keep a novel going all the time, if only I read a few pages before falling asleep each evening.

Through the experience of reading, we learn to imagine other lives, most of which are more precarious and painful than ours. The practice of reading is not only enriching and pleasurable, but it also helps to sustain democracy and bolster the kind of community we hope for at Samford. Literature has a civilizing and humanizing effect as we become more aware of the perspective of others.

Walker Percy was a writer who grew up in Birmingham, over near the Birmingham Country Club. Mostly, he is known for his novels, such as The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and The Thanatos Syndrome, but in one of his essays, "Another Message in the Bottle," he reflects upon the experience of reading a book. Percy says that in reading, "that which seems most individual about oneself . . . is suddenly illuminated as part of the universal human experience.” I think that this is his way of saying that reading makes you aware of what binds us together as humans even with our many differences.

Becoming more aware is not only a goal in completing a college education but also lies at the heart of authentic and vital religious faith. Year after year, surveys of our students indicate that one of the reasons that you have chosen Samford is because we are a Christian university. For many of you, being a genuine and dedicated Christian is the number one priority in your life. In stating the Great Commandment, which is to love God and love neighbor, Jesus is admonishing his followers to be aware. Love God and love neighbor. One without the other is incomplete. Jesus on several occasions drew out the implications and applications of this command. Your neighbor is not just the person you are comfortable with or who thinks like you or votes like you or is a member of your organization or club. Your neighbor is "the other," - the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, and the stranger, who is the one you don't really know and might be somewhat leery of. Your neighbor is the one who is often on the margins of your life. What is even more intriguing about this teaching of Jesus is that there is something to discover about God's plan for your life when you encounter this stranger and listen to the voice of the other. Mysteriously and miraculously, in the presence of the other, you may encounter the presence of Jesus.

There were two consistent criticisms leveled against Jesus by his detractors: he violated the Sabbath and he kept company with the wrong people. His message, through word and deed, was that there was nothing wrong with the wrong people, they were just different. They were loved by God as much as anyone. When they were loved and forgiven by Jesus, those differences became a source of beauty and power in a new community of faith so that, as the Apostle Paul stated, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" in the communion of Christ.

In a community of learning, belonging, and faith, we, at some point, turn to ethics as we consider our responsibility in being a part of the community. Considerations of virtue and morality often turn to intentions. Intentions move us to the matter of motivation. Jesus himself said that "out of the heart come our intentions." When people are wounded by our words, actions, or attitudes, we often insist, incredulously, that we never intended the things that they identified as hurtful. "That certainly wasn't my intention." (In most cases, it wasn't). "I wasn't aware that you would take this personally." "I can't help it. It was the way I was raised." This is why if we are serious about being virtuous people, we must be aware enough to consider the consequences of our actions and not just our intentions.

Due to the complexity of our world and the intricate systems of living and web of relationships in which we participate, we can do a great deal of harm without intending to. At one time, warfare was conducted face to face in the maelstrom of battlefield conflict. Modern warfare usually takes place from a distance by lining up coordinates, programming a missile, and pushing a button. We are capable of doing a great deal of harm without being personally involved or intending to. When you don't make the effort to listen to the perspective behind each voice and don't encounter face to face those persons whose backgrounds, opinions, and cultural contexts are different than your own, you are more prone to stereotype, ridicule, and dishonor, without ever intending to. A writer in a recent article in a Christian magazine expressed it this way: "to be unaware is to be less than moral."

This is discouraging! If this is the kind of world that we live in and life is really so complex, how can we be virtuous people? How can we live in community in spite of our best intentions not to offend or harm? On our journey towards greater awareness and understanding, we fall short. We should remember the words of Jesus, uttered in a moment of wrenching anguish, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The people violating him were soldiers following orders who sincerely believed that he was a threat to the civil order. If only they had known! They were following orders and unaware of the consequences of their actions. This is the ethical escape clause, invoked to dissociate ourselves from responsibility. It has been used by Adolph Eichmann, Bull Conner's police force, soldiers being charged with abuses at Abu Graib, and accountants who inflate corporate earnings to meet Wall Street expectations. All were doing what they were told and what was expected of them.

The heart of Jesus' anguished utterance from the cross is not, "they know not" (they were not aware) but "forgive them." So, when someone has wronged you, been insensitive, foolish, and spiteful, even if they say they never intended it - can you forgive them? Forgiving does not ignore, excuse, or deny. It is not a religiously convenient detour around the unpleasantness of a difficult situation so that we can put it behind and get back to normal. It could be that God forgets our sins when God forgives us and does not condemn us for our sins because of grace. It might be that we forgive precisely because we do not forget and should not.

There is a fierce love in forgiving that is more powerful than vengeance or retribution. This has been the witness of Christian martyrs from the Roman believers who were persecuted under the Caesars to the Anabaptists of the 16th century to Martin Luther King, Jr. in our time. This fierce love of forgiveness gives you a place to stand as it intends the well-being of the one needing forgiveness. It confronts and challenges that which mars the image of God in that person and ultimately disarms and transforms.

It is a little late for New Year's resolutions, but I encourage you to make the effort to increase the impact of your tuition dollars and enrich your education by joining with your fellow students in the Be Aware Campaign. It will be a mind-expanding, soul-stretching, community-building experience, and Samford is better for it.

I leave you to ponder these desiderata which are things desired as essential:

  • Listen before speaking. God gave you two ears and only one mouth.
  • Be courteous to those who have the floor and are speaking, especially guest speakers, even if you think they are boring or that this is a waste of your time. Yes, if you are talking or causing a commotion when someone is speaking, you are being rude.
  • Look for beauty, truth, and grace in cultural artifacts, productions, and expressions that are not your own.
  • Believe tenaciously that you might learn something valuable and life-changing from those who are most unlike you.
  • Pay close attention to the depth, wonder, or awe you encounter in the oddest places of ordinary living. Then use that experience to draw you to the source of that depth.
  • Remind yourself daily that trying to understand another perspective is not the same thing as denying your own.
  • Don't take yourself so seriously. It will make encounters that you thought would be unsettling a great adventure. It was G. K. Chesterton who said, "Angels are able to fly because they take themselves so lightly."
  • Notice carefully what is happening at the margins of your life, outside of the center of the circle of your concern. Renewal, both personal and corporate, often begins at the edges and not the center.
  • Be grateful for new experiences and ideas, even if they are difficult to understand and are not easily assimilated.
  • When others don't get it, make sure you do.

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