Bearing Witness

This moment in history makes a claim on us all.

Illustration by Jörn Kaspuhl. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Stephanie Paulsell

By tomorrow afternoon, you will all be Harvard Divinity School graduates. What does this mean? The world outside the walls of divinity schools is not always able to say. But rest assured, anytime you’ve gathered for a meal with others, and someone in the group wants that meal blessed, all heads will turn toward you. Trying to get out of this by saying, “But I didn’t do an MDiv,” or “I mainly studied critical theory,” will only slow things down and annoy the people who want to eat before the food gets cold. So my first bit of advice for you is: no matter what degree you did or what your area of focus was, keep a blessing in your pocket. Then you’ll always be ready. Or keep Kerry Maloney on speed dial. She will always have a prayer for you when you need it.

Graduation is always such a bittersweet moment for teachers, because it reminds us of the cyclical nature of our vocation. We are forever saying goodbye to our beloved students, forever being reminded that, as you step out into new spaces, new communities, we will remain here and soon get ready to start again, with a new group of students, to whom we will also one day bid farewell.

But this year, I feel that we, your teachers, are not just watching you from the sidelines with pride but standing alongside you, at our own threshold. This is our bicentennial year, after all. With two hundred years behind us, it is time for us also to get ready to step into the future.

This moment in history makes a claim on us all.

It’s not just the long history behind us, though, that makes me feel this way, but the intersection of that history with our present moment. If you are graduating tomorrow with an MDiv, then you most likely began your first semester of study at Harvard Divinity School just a few weeks after Michael Brown, unarmed, was shot to death by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. And all of you began your last semester of study at HDS the day after the inauguration of a new president whose administration has been busy ever since throwing the fragile beginnings of a reform of our criminal justice system into reverse; breaking up families caught in the widening dragnets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and proposing a budget that is spectacular in its cruelty toward the most vulnerable people in our society. In this perilous time, the distinctions between teacher and student, your work and our work have seemed more fluid than usual. This moment in history makes a claim on us all.

The novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote that, even with war coming, writing still seemed to her to be the work that was “far more necessary than anything else.” You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the work that you feel is most necessary to do in these days as you’ve chosen your classes and your field education sites and the topics for your dissertations and your senior papers. This is a question we heard a lot from you: Am I doing the work that is most necessary to do? Am I putting my best energies where they can be of most use? Am I being true to my commitments? To where I came from? To what matters most to me? Is my work the act of resistance that I want it to be?

One of the things I will remember most about you, Class of 2017, is that you not only posed these questions to yourselves, you posed them also to us. Certainly you posed them to us institutionally, asking how HDS would respond to the senseless killings of black people by the police, or to the Trump regime’s travel ban, or its threats of increased deportation. But you also asked us personally. Especially in the wake of the presidential election, I found myself, in office hours, not only talking with you about your vocations, but also being asked by you about my own. How are you thinking about your work in the wake of this election, you asked. Will it change what you teach or how you teach, what you write about, and how you write it? What is the work that you think is most necessary to do?

I remember reading an interview with Tim DeChristopher, a soon-to-be MDiv graduate of HDS, just before he began his studies. Tim was already a well-known climate change activist, had already served two years in a federal prison for an act of civil disobedience, was already the subject of a documentary about that act. He was asked in this interview: Why is going to divinity school your next step? And he answered: Because the question for me is starting to shift from how do we reverse climate change to how do we remain human as these changes overtake us. Tim’s answer has stayed with me, and it shapes the answer I am groping toward to the question of the work that I feel is most necessary to do as a teacher and a student of religion in these days: to bear witness to the multiple and radical possibilities that our humanity holds.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed Harvard Divinity graduates in 1838, he urged them to “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” What he seems to have meant by this memorable phrase is that he wanted those graduates to be so human in their interactions with other people that they opened a space for others to stretch out into their full humanity—to coax out what he called their “timid aspirations” and “trampled instincts.” To “let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered.” Everyone, Emerson believed, longed for “a few real hours of life.” Everyone, he said, loves to be heard, loves to be “caught up into the vision of principles.” So listen, and offer a vision, he urged those long-ago graduates sitting in the Divinity Hall chapel. It is the responsibility of those who have the word “divinity” trailing along behind them to make room in the world for encounters that are real, that touch down on the things that matter most, that draw out the most radical possibilities of our humanity.

Photo of Stephanie Paulsell

Stephanie Paulsell

We are living in a time of trampled instincts about what it means to be human. We see those trampled instincts in the executive orders that sort people by religion and nationality. We see them in the decision by United Airlines to use state power to drag Dr. David Dao out of his seat and down the aisle of their plane, leaving him bloody and concussed, so that they could seat their own employees. We hear those trampled instincts in Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony about why he shot Michael Brown, in which he described the young man as a “demon” who seemed to be “bulking up to run through” the bullets, like a character in a comic book. Human beings can’t run through bullets unharmed. If we think they can, there is something dangerously wrong in our understanding of human being.

All of the religions we study at HDS have cultivated ways of understanding what it means to be human that resist these warped views. This is not to say that religions themselves aren’t capable of diminishing the human—of course they are perfectly capable of doing so. But I think it’s hard to study religion and have your understanding of humanity narrowed. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I do think you would have to work at it. Because studying religion requires us to do things like learn a new language (or two or three), which quickly shows us the limitations of our familiar ways of speaking about the world and sometimes illuminates dimensions of life that our own language has obscured. It requires us to think comparatively, which illuminates both the family resemblances between religions and the distinctive differences in the ways in which human beings become “acquainted with Deity” or with reality or with the mysteries of their existence. Studying religion requires us to think historically about the rituals and practices that people pass down from generation to generation that render sacred the ordinary things we do by virtue of being human: eating and drinking, bathing, resting, working, dying. It requires us to think ethically about what we owe one another. It requires us to think theologically, even mystically—to feel our way along the edges of human existence and to wonder with others from many times and places what might be beyond those edges, just out of our line of sight, and what a life that integrates the known and the unknown might look like. Studying religion opens a window on the endlessly diverse ways we humans have of inhabiting our humanity.

This has certainly been visible in your work at HDS, Class of 2017. I think of Kenny Rice’s senior paper on the theological underpinnings of mass incarceration, in which he insisted on the lively diversity of black life, something that must be narrated and brought to life over and over and over again in a nation in which white supremacy has depended upon a static, monolithic account. I think of Cora McCold’s work on the body, grounded in the mystery that we both are our bodies and also more than our bodies. I think of Ali Jablonsky’s study of the ways human beings find and cultivate sacred space—in their bedrooms, in their gardens, in the stairwells of hospitals, in coffee shops. Or Jahdiel Perez’s work on laughter and how it works like a jackhammer on our tired old notions and awakens our bodies to new ways of being. Or Karlene Griffiths Sekou’s exploration of the sacred text of black lives in ritual, in protest, in art. Or River Olsen’s cultivation of a new form for her ecstatic, erotic transfeminist theology. Or Eric Ogi’s work on how we might risk reading scripture together in an ekklesia of many voices.

Through your work, Class of 2017, I have become a little more acquainted with Deity, by which I mean you have coaxed out my own timid aspirations and reawakened some of my trampled instincts. You have given me a “a few real hours of life” by inviting me into your vision for a while. You have reminded me that the study of religion can be a way of loving the world, a way of bearing witness to all that we are and all that we might yet become.

All of my colleagues can tell a similar story. In fact, in more than one faculty meeting this year, and as recently as yesterday, when we have been discussing some difficult issue or other, a faculty member has raised a hand to remind us that we have a lot of wisdom and expertise on the issue at hand within our student body, and we should look to our students for guidance.

At the end of this service, we, your proud teachers, are going to meet you on the threshold of this church. We will line up on either side and clap and cheer as you walk through the middle of us. We will be teachers and students, one more time. But then we’re all going to walk back together over to HDS for a party—all of us indistinguishable, as the poet Fanny Howe once put it, beneath an undiscriminating sky.

Editor’s Note: When Stephanie Paulsell sent along the text of her address, I was already struggling with what I could write that would adequately respond to the essays in this issue and speak to the present moment. As it turns out, Paulsell’s address beautifully ties up our bicentennial year at HDS, while it also (fortuitously) echoes many of the themes in this issue: bearing witness, remaining human, being present, thinking comparatively and historically and theologically (even mystically, as she puts it). Thank you to Stephanie for these words of wisdom, and for agreeing to let us publish them as the Perspective.

Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She delivered this address during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 24, 2017, held at the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.