Following are remarks I gave at the Cap & Gown Convocation on Saturday, September 23:
One year ago I addressed the Cap & Gown convocation about the choices we had yet to make as a nation in the November 2016 election. We could see the storm clouds on the horizon on that September day, and yet, we thought the threat would turn away. But the eye of the storm smashed upon our shores in early November, uprooting lives and flooding our consciousness with a sense of anxiety and social stress we have not seen in generations. This terrible storm uprooted and threw at us images we thought were long buried in the sands of history — swastikas, KKK hoods, torches in the night, people losing their freedoms before our very eyes in immigration raids and deportations, an escalating whirlwind of official violence and radical reaction and resistance churning ever faster, drawing us in whether we want to be there or not.
The maelstrom has exposed long-cherished assumptions as so many leaves swirling in the wind: the assumption of the measured, temperate language of a president; the ideal of equal justice under law; the purpose of a truly good government in service to its people, especially those in great need; the freedom from fear of provocation to war and even nuclear annihilation; the imperative of peace as a non-negotiable virtue in a good society.
This time last year we could not have imagined the president of the United States standing in the well of the United Nations threatening to obliterate another country. The storm surge destroys once-sturdy bulwarks against looming catastrophes.
One year ago I said this at the Cap and Gown convocation, six weeks before the election that changed everything:
“We will choose between two very different views of our society. One choice welcomes all people of all races and beliefs, all languages and nationalities, all abilities and heritages, and celebrates that diversity while striving to become one nation in peace and freedom. The opposite choice says that such an inclusive view is merely “political correctness,” that this nation belongs to only some people, that our society should reject the refugee, the immigrant, the Muslim, the person who is different from, frankly, the white majority. That point of view seems agnostic about the fact that by the year 2050 the majority will no longer be white; that point of view seems to think it can hold back the tide of sociology. History will prove that perspective to be terribly wrong, but at what price will that point of view persist in its aggressive resistance through the years of demographic and social change to come?”
One year later the question remains even more urgently: at what price does our nation resist the sociological change that is already here? The efforts to undo that change will, ultimately, fail. I believe this deeply. Sociology is a force as powerful as the ocean, nothing will ultimately contain the change that is sweeping through the rising generations. But the relentless efforts by some to turn back the tide of change is already causing profound harm to our social compact as a nation, to our ability to construct durable and moral human communities, to our sense of domestic tranquility and liberty for all that our nation once cherished as fundamental values.
I’ve meditated quite a bit on the turn of events in the last year — the impact not just political, but social, economic, psychological, spiritual on all of us. We know that some people, maybe some of you, are very happy and satisfied with the outcome. We know that other people, maybe some of you, are heartsick. Whatever your sentiments, you and I must both know that we are only in the first act of a long-running drama that we really didn’t see coming and yet we knew somehow it could, whose plot lines we often do not understand, whose final scenes are unknown and may remain so for years to come. Can we write a different ending that is not inevitable today?
Individually, we all have choices at this moment in history. We can ignore the great questions and focus on today’s assignments and chores, hoping someone else will fix the problems while we’re shopping at Giant. We can hide under the covers and hope it all blows away soon. We can go on Twitter and Facebook and rant.
My job as Trinity’s president is to call each of us out of that individual place of hope or despair or rage or acceptance that is our personal comfort zone to join together with our collective strength, intellectual power, spiritual fortitude, that thing we call courage to work for the kind of change that is morally good and likely to be enduring for future generations. This is the true mission of Trinity in the world that needs us so urgently.
In this way, I have come to understand this moment in our collective personal history, in our nation’s political history, not as a trial, but as an opportunity for triumph. We have to understand what’s happening not as a defeat for values we hold dear, but a clarion call to act on those values with greater fervor and conviction than ever before, to stand up and proclaim these values as essential for our communities and nation to flourish: values that include the respect for human life and dignity that is the foundation of our mission at Trinity in Catholic social justice; values that include freedom of speech and religion that are the foundation of American democracy; values insisting on equality for all, peace and genuine freedom which are bedrock human rights
Let me address three specific issues.
Immigration: Like never before, at least not in my memory, we have been called to rise up to say that we stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who are immigrants, or those who are refugees in flight from horrific oppression and genocide, or those who pray to Allah and choose to wear hijab, or those who speak in other languages and live by other customs and pray in other rituals than those that are comfortable to us. The recission of DACA, the surge of deportations, the travel ban directed at Muslim nations, all of these actions come from a government that has rapidly walked back from the American tradition of humanitarian action and welcome to our world, a government that has allowed itself to be dominated by the smallest of minds, the cruelest of souls, the most vengeful of human desires.
As Trinity’s president, not once in the past did I ever think that I would have to stand up and say in public that undocumented persons, some of whom are our own sister students at Trinity, have a right to be here as a human right, must be treated with dignity and respect, should not be subjected to the cruel and inhumane treatment that draws its power from the raging fires of racial and ethnic hatred that the last election unleashed on this nation. I never thought I’d have to say these things but I say them now and call upon you to stand with me. In this moment of great pain we can find redemption in advocating justice for those whose freedom and very lives are in such grave jeopardy, those who we call our sisters, our Dreamers, their families and communities.
Racism: In the same way, we have been forced to confront anew the American Original Sin of racism whose evil face we saw flickering among the torches that marched across the Grounds at the University of Virginia last month. Oh, yes, that was not the only place, certainly not by far. Those flames and symbols of racial hatred have seared our American culture for centuries, abated only on occasion by the glimpse of a far better, more equal, more just civilization, always so much beyond our reach. In too many parts of our nation, the civil war continues. We see the president of the nation standing at a podium in Alabama just last night, a crowd cheering wildly as he mocks and disparages black men in language I cannot repeat here, men who incurred such wrath by making eloquent, silent protests against police brutality, men who put fame and fortune in jeopardy as professional football players because they exercised their rights as citizens to express their views. This is where we are as a nation in 2017.
And so it becomes necessary and important as a matter of reclaiming any hope of moral goodness and justice in our society to stand up firmly and without hesitation in the public square, to look the torch bearers and hatemongers squarely in the eye and proclaim, Yes! Black Lives Matter — with no fear or hesitation or parenthetical limitations to the full depth and breadth of that powerful phrase.
We can find redemption in this moment when we respond to its call to stand up and be counted on the side of justice, equality and freedom.
Women: In this historic moment, too, we have the opportunity to rekindle our passion to lift up anew the once-radical idea that women’s rights are also human rights, that women should have no limitations placed on their ambition or opportunities simply because of gender. We’d become a little bit self-satisfied about women’s advancement in our society. Isn’t that women’s revolution over? We’d ask ourselves. We thought we had made it. A woman was surging in the presidential election. Hopes were high, a new generation loomed, one that would never know about the glass ceiling. We were so wrong.
In January, millions of women, including hundreds of Trinity Women, took to the streets to express their anger and sense of righteousness that women’s rights could not suffer so great a retrenchment as the new administration threatened. And yet, as recently as this week with the rollback of Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on campuses, we have clear evidence of the need to keep marching, to advocate even more insistently for women’s rights and equality. There are many other signs that women’s rights are not nearly as secure as we might have thought: of 42 nominations of the current administration for U.S. attorney positions, only one — ONE — is a woman. These are front line positions for upholding civil rights and justice. Only 19% of current judicial nominees are women. Only two of 14 cabinet secretaries are women. In Congress, men are alone in the rooms of power on most major legislation including decisions about healthcare for women and children, with one bright exception, Trinity’s own Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader, formerly the Speaker of the House and still the only woman to hold that position.
There was a story going around Washington last week that perfectly sums-up the condition of women in this new era. There was a gathering of 11 of the most powerful people in the country at the White House. The President had invited this group to dinner for the purpose of discussing the next steps in Congress for DACA. Of the 11 people discussing the fate of Dreamers, only one was a woman. The story goes that the men talked and talked and talked over each other and the woman could not get a word in edgewise, and finally she spoke loudly, “Do the women get to talk around here?”
Now, who would shout that out and bring the talk of the powerful men, including the president of the United States, to a screeching halt other than a bold Trinity Woman? Nancy Pelosi would not be silenced; she persisted, and she had her say, and the result was a remarkable agreement to get some bipartisan cooperation on DACA.
Do the women get to talk around here? We know we don’t have to ask that at Trinity, the women get to talk quite a lot. But what does all the talk add up to? If we don’t raise our voices for what matters, then it’s just so much palaver.
We can and we must make this moment in history matter even more for ourselves, our children, our families and communities, and for the generations to come. This is a moment that truly does demand our voices be raised and heard. The legacy of the generations that preceded us was one of greater freedom, greater opportunity, more hope than they ever knew. Our legacy to the future must be even more of that bright vision for how a good society can truly thrive. To paraphrase the great late Senator Ted Kennedy, “…the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
It’s been 120 years since some very courageous, radical, feisty women had the best idea ever, to found a great college for women in the nation’s capital to provide an education that would empower women and now some brave men as well down through the ages. The Sisters of Notre Dame who created Trinity had little to go on but the power of their own imaginations, their clear vision, and the audacity to believe that they could change the course of history for thousands of students in future generations, people they would never meet, but whose lives and achievements are a testament to the power of solidarity lived in commitment to human dignity as an article of faith in the Gospel tradition of social justice.
You, our seniors we celebrate this evening, are the latest gift of our Founders to the world. With them we pray for you, that the power of the Trinity will give you the courage to stand up triumphantly in this moment in history, to raise your voices for justice and freedom, to use this education for the advancement of our human community, to discover in yourselves the wisdom and the love that will give you comfort, strength and courage through the years.
May the blessings of the Trinity go with you!