|Commencement 2005 - Reflections|
Reflections on the 2005 Commencement
Calvin College was pleased to host President George W. Bush as our 2005 Commencement speaker on Saturday, May 21.
We consider it a singular honor to host the sitting President of the United States and to have our country's leader address our graduates; that is why the decision was made to send an invitation at the suggestion of the White House. In his message, President Bush charged our graduates to live lives of commitment and service, a theme that resonates with Calvin's mission statement and our call "to engage in vigorous liberal arts education that promotes lifelong Christian service."
In short, it was an overwhelmingly positive Commencement occasion that those present will never forget.
But many are unable to acknowledge the spirit and mood that prevailed on Commencement Day because of the events that led up to that day.
For in the weeks prior to Commencement we had spirited yet civil discussions on our campus about faith, politics, social policies and more, the exact sort of discussions one might expect to find at a place that takes so seriously the life of the mind as well as matters of the heart.
Yet while there was some disagreement within our Calvin community concerning certain policies of the President's administration, there was no protest over his participation in Commencement — as inaccurately reported in some media accounts.
A Celebratory Commencement
Hosting the President of the United States at Commencement does not imply that the college embraces a particular party, policy or action. President Bush was greeted warmly at the ceremony. Indeed, he received standing ovations and thunderous applause. Those who differed expressed their differences quietly and respectfully. We were fully confident that the Calvin community would treat the President hospitably, demonstrating Christian civility and the respect due the office of the President — and that is how it was.
Here is an email I received after the event from Calvin parents John and Marilyn Wiesehan of St. Louis, Mo., who witnessed the graduation of their son, Chris:
Disagreement, not Protest
Some have expressed concerns to the college about either the choice of President Bush as speaker or about those in the Calvin community who have publicly voiced differences with President Bush or policies of his administration. Some tell us that simply inviting President Bush politicized our commencement and diminished the send-off for our graduates — and that hosting the President implies that Calvin fully embraces everything that President Bush endorses. Still others think that any articulated dissent indicates a lack of respect for our Christian brother in the White House. Critics on either side of this argument have been equally vehement in their protestations, and some cite Scripture to fortify their statements.
Calvin College respectfully states that neither view is accurate.
People who are reacting to second-hand accounts of what transpired here over the last few weeks do not have the benefit of living and working within this Christian academic community. They read about the invitation to President Bush and hear about faculty and students worried that Calvin will be identified with President Bush on various issues — and some aspect of this offends them. But that kind of event and dialogue is exactly what an engaged Christian college should be doing — challenging one another to think carefully and Biblically about important issues, rather than simply making quick judgments based on information gleaned from general sources (and for most Americans today that means television, radio, newspaper stories and the internet). And it is clear at Calvin College that well-meaning believers who agree on the essentials of the faith and that affirm the mission of our institution can disagree, not only on matters of politics and public policy, but in all academic areas from economics to philosophy and from the sciences to social work.
Calvin is an institution of higher learning that takes its faith and learning seriously. Our faculty and students have had the advantage of participating in intense discussion for many weeks now so that, by the time Commencement Day arrived, most of the strong feelings and emotions found civil avenues for expression, disagreements notwithstanding.
However, some faculty members chose to express their dissent in an open letter placed in the Grand Rapids Press on Commencement Day. The letter's intent was to articulate their convictions and urge President Bush to reconsider several policy matters on the basis of a shared Christian faith. The open letter was itself the center of campus debate. While some felt strongly that making these statements was a matter of Christian conscience, a majority of the Calvin community feared that the media and media audiences would construe the statement as disrespectful protest and a challenge of the President's Christian faith. Yet, about 120 of the nearly 700 people who work at Calvin (along with a few emeriti) signed the letter. (Before the statement was even in print, two professors appeared on a confrontational political television show, which many also saw as sure to be interpreted as merely about protest and disrespect.)
In the same May 21 edition of the Press, an opinion piece written by Calvin communications professor Randall Bytwerk also appeared, articulating his view that President Bush should be welcomed without dissent — and his confidence that despite the debate, the Calvin community would put its differences aside and welcome the President with enthusiasm. Yet another column was printed that same morning, penned by the religion editor of the Grand Rapids Press, which praised Calvin for being a college "that likes to mix it up on a firm platform of faith."
Complicating the picture further, a full-page ad appeared on Friday, May 20, in the Grand Rapids Press. On this page, 823 Calvin alumni and others expressed their views, without the benefit of the weeks of campus discussion that preceded the faculty statement. Calvin College had no part in that more harshly worded ad. Unfortunately, media reports confused the alumni ad with the faculty statement, fueling the charges of campus disrespect.
In fairness to the entire Calvin community, perhaps we should put those numbers in context. There are 53,600 members of the Calvin Alumni Association. Of those members, less than 700 participated in the "alumni and friends" letter — and, on the other side of the spectrum, it should be known that a "calvin4bush" website collected 1,754 alumni and friends names for a supportive statement in a matter of a few days.
It is not surprising that some do not understand that a college can be deeply Christian and engage in intense dialogue about the world and society — even venturing into areas of great contention in the public square. It is not surprising because, in this day and age of polarized public debate (even in Christian circles), there seems little room for any middle ground or for civility. To best describe the nature of the conversation among Calvin College community members concerning President's Bush's visit, consider these excerpts from the work of my good friend and former Calvin professor (and now Fuller Theological Seminary president) Richard Mouw in his call for "convicted civility." Mouw, in his excellent book Uncommon Decency, quotes theologian Martin Marty: "One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility." Mouw says we need both a civil outlook and a "passionate intensity" about our convictions; thus, a "convicted civility."
Mouw bemoans the fact that today "civility" is equated with being a pushover. "But," writes Mouw, "in the past civility was understood in much richer terms. To be civil was to genuinely care about the larger society. It required a heartfelt commitment to your fellow-citizens. It was a willingness to promote the well-being of people who were very different, including people who seriously disagreed with you on important matters. Civility wasn't merely an external show of politeness. It included an inner politeness as well" (pp.12-13). Mouw calls for Christians to lead the way in modeling this virtue to a skeptical world.
Calvin College professors and students have engaged in spirited conversation and debate during these final weeks of school. And while no one at Calvin claims perfection or a sinless heart, pondering the meaning of the President's appearance here on Commencement Day has been an exercise in "convicted civility" — with many earnest calls to examine speech and motives as followers of Jesus Christ.
On May 21, Calvin faculty, staff and students displayed that "convicted civility" with "inner politeness." Commencement 2005 at Calvin College was first and foremost a time when our community gathered to praise God for His faithfulness and to commission 875 Calvin graduates to bring hope and healing to the corner of God's Kingdom where they are sent. This year President George W. Bush was a part of that ceremony, singing and praying with us and charging the graduates to "embrace this tradition of service and help set an example for all Americans."
At my inauguration as Calvin's eighth president in 1995, my first address to the Calvin community had to do with acknowledging and embracing the tensions inherent in being a college that does not sacrifice faith or learning. These events underscore the difficulty — and necessity — of taking such a path. We promise to respond to our critics with humility and grace. We also reassert Calvin's mission to be agents of renewal in the academy, church and society, pledging fidelity to Jesus Christ and offering our hearts and lives to do God's work in God's world.
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