Jason Byassee: Graduation and institutions

Rare words at commencement: Praise for institutions

Graduation season is a prime opportunity to reflect on what’s good about institutions. Now that they have no more grades to pursue or tuition checks to write (though Development will be calling soon!), those with fresh diplomas in hand may think more benevolently of their new alma maters. Graduation speeches from high profile guests still ring in the ears of the Class of 2009, their friends and family members. In our region, Oprah Winfrey and Desmond Tutu turned heads at Duke and the University of North Carolina, respectively. Two less conventional addresses from Duke Divinity professors won’t get reported in the New York Times. But their effect may be much more profound than their more-famous fellow speakers.

Sam Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel, and Tim Tyson, a visiting professor, offered appropriate words of congratulation to students at Duke Divinity School and the UNC School of Social Work, respectively. But they also gave what is all-too-rare for occasions like this: words in praise of institutions.

Tyson, perhaps daringly for a state university commencement, basically preached on the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He noted that the Samaritan offered the beaten stranger not just one-time help in the form of first aid. Jesus’ famous parable does more than hold up a measuring stick for would-be righteous individuals. It suggests a place for larger, institutional change:

He takes the victim to an institution that is set up to deal with the man’s injuries. And he makes sure that the institution has enough money to do its work. And this we should pledge to one another, regardless of whether we are social workers or merely love a social worker: that we will not see ourselves merely as individuals, but instead we will make sure that the rape crisis center, the homeless shelter, the rehabilitation programs, the elder care centers, all the institutions that we need, have enough financial support to do their jobs. Social Work has to be rooted in communities, and those communities need to stand behind their social workers.

He may as well have directed his comment to preachers. We ministers in the modern west have often treated our work as though it is limited to the care within the four walls of a church building and not an extension of Jesus’ ministry to all people in both body and soul. Church leaders in the rest of the world are more aware they have to care for the whole person, for there are no other institutions to get roads built, sanitation attended to, mental health addressed and so on. The very existence of the field of social work may suggest an ecclesial abdication of more wholistic responsibilities our ministries had in the past. At least Duke’s joint degree with UNC’s Social Work School suggests the knitting back together of something that should not have been divided.

Sam Wells preached to divinity graduates about Elisha’s inheritance of the mantle of his mentor Elijah. See also his undergraduate Baccalaureate sermon. That event involved pomp and circumstance if one ever did—see 2 Kings 1:1-12 for details of the whirlwind and the chariots of fire. Wells told the graduates that as much as they loved their professors at Duke, those women and men won’t be there at their first parish. And at that parish they should think far bigger than their, well, parish:

To pick up the mantle today means to continue to build institutions, but to do so without the pretensions of social control. Our job is not to run America, it’s to model a society that would be impossible without the death and resurrection of Jesus and to provoke people’s curiosity into how such a thing is possible. We need institutions to train people to live in and guide and inspire such communities. We need people to lead those institutions. And those people are sitting right in front of me right now. Hello down there. I’m talking about you.

Duke Divinity School was founded by Methodist preachers who believed their new institution would be impossible if Jesus were not raised from the dead. Those preachers were as ordinary as the ones we graduated last weekend. These preachers, not less than those decades ago, now hold our church’s future in their fragile hands. Those hands may wind up as scarred as Jesus’, and as empowered by his Spirit, as any in the church’s history.

Hugh Heclo has recently detailed the difficulty any of us in our culture have of thinking, and acting, institutionally. Not thinking about institutions, but thinking with them, and acting on their behalf, in such a way that our personal good is tied up with theirs, and vice-versa. Graduation ceremonies remind us of all the ways our lives depend on the health of our institutions. Just for a moment it seems that the institution’s good and the individual’s are one and the same. And this is as it should be. For with Jesus, his church and a hurting world that so needs competent helpers, it is.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity