President’s speech: “Healing the World: Peace by Peace”

Opening Convocation of the 2009-2010 academic year, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009 in the Goshen College Church-Chapel.

Amazing Grace! When I look out and see all you wonderful, talented, gifted people in this chapel, no two words quite capture the sentiments of my joy of being back with you, back together, than “Amazing Grace.” None of you are here today simply because you’re stronger and smarter than anyone else, though some of you are. None of you are you here today become you will become stronger and smarter than everyone else, though some of you will. You’re here today, as all of us are, because of a thousand amazing graces that God has bestowed upon us, not the least of which is Goshen College.

We have been heard to say sometimes that Goshen College is “more than a college; it’s an academic think tank, an international change agent, a community of the spirit and a whole new kind of peace movement.” And that, it is. Among the hundreds, and even thousands, of colleges and universities all over the world, we are — to borrow a phrase — “the few, the proud, and the brave” who believe when Scripture, both older and new testaments, says that God, the Creator of the whole universe, is Peace. The older testament says “God is peace.” The New Testament and that “God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is Our Peace” and when we worship such a God, then it’s probably pretty important to ask what difference in our lives should such a confession make.

I hope that as you see this expression “Healing the World: Peace by Peace,” and you see it on pamphlets and on signposts and on patches that you’ll get on the way out today, that you’ll see that it’s more than simply a clever slogan. Rather, it’s an awesome challenge, a double-dog dare, if you will, an invitation to a profound vocation — even a holy calling for each and every one of us.

Now, the idea of “healing the world” is not all that new; it’s not like this is just a clever expression that someone dreamed up. It comes from ancient Jewish tradition, the Hebrew word being Tikkun Olam, which simply means, “repairing the world, or healing the world.” It’s an invitation for everyone, no matter how young or old, no matter what gender or creed, no matter what race or ethnic group, everyone, is invited to be a part of God’s great plan for the universe to help heal the world’s wrongs, to mend what is broken, and repair any violation. To say we want to help heal the world, means that the educational question that we ask of ourselves has to shift from simply being “What ought I to do?” or “How ought I to live?” to “How might all the people live together in peace on this speck of stardust we call earth or even a corner of God’s universe called Goshen College?”

When I think of the most basic of all human longings, found in all religious traditions the world over, and especially in Christianity, I think about the longing to be at peace with God, at peace with each other and at peace with ourselves.

Making peace in all its forms seems to me to be so fundamental to human flourishing that one would imagine that every college and university on the planet would claim such a message for itself. And yet, few do. I’m so pleased that Goshen College does!

As I shared at the faculty and staff fall retreat, if God’s name is Peace, says the older testament, and if God’s essence is Peace and if God’s son’s, Jesus Christ, is our peace, says the New Testament, if we worship such a God and if we put God before anything else, then the scope of peacemaking must be broad and wide — what the biblical text calls shalom. Making peace can never be just about what we don’t do. It cannot be simply conflict resolution or about non-violence. It cannot simply be about reducing evil, being anti-this or that or trying to stop wars or protest wrong – as important as all those activities are. It has to be more than that.

Making peace must be about human flourishing, about joy and beauty and celebration. The prophet Isaiah dreams of a time when Rabbi God will sit around in a lecture room and all God’s children will be there and hear the lecture of the most high God. And after the lecture is over, the whole world will experience shalom or prosperity or peace.

Pope John Paul II echoed the prophet Isaiah when he said, “To reach peace, is to teach peace.” Philospher Nicholas Walterstorff called such a vision “educating for shalom.” And Albert Einstein insisted that lasting peace “can only happen and be achieved by understanding and not imposed or maintained by force.” Prophet, Pope, Philosopher, Scientist all came to the same conclusion that the outcome of a good education, grounded in faith and profound values, the kind that we’re committed to here at Goshen College, is key to healing the world peace by peace. The best liberal arts education in the world can’t get much better than having such a calling as its own.

Making peace, then, means inviting God’s help to do good, to celebrate our accomplishments, to compete well, to discover new medicines and create musical masterpieces. Making peace is that warm embrace, that thrill of a kiss, a word of encouragement and a job well done. Making peace is anything and everything that encourages human flourishing and hope.

We can’t go back to the old “peacenik” days of yesteryear when I was a student on the Goshen College campus, when we tended to reduce the work of peace to a pet list of sanctioned professions, or callings, or issues, or narrow means to the exclusion of other equally powerful peace-making options that are available to all of us in this room.

A businessperson making a profit, hiring people, is in itself an act of peace. He or she need not seen as a second-class peacemaker over against a voluntary service worker in some faraway country. And one wonders sometimes if it could be the business people of the world who can utterly shift the axis of the world if they seek to make peace. An engineer is no less called to making peace than a preacher. A basketball coach who works miracles of heart and motivation, discipline and teamwork may in fact, outpace a bookish theologian in creating a more peaceful world. The social policy expert in Washington is no less a potential peacemaker than the social worker in Elkhart, the politician no less than the mediator, the wonky green economist — of which we have one currently in Peru — no less a peacemaker than the radical prophet among us. Dolores Huerta, a Latina civil rights leader, said last year when she visited the Goshen College campus: “Every person can make a difference, and every minute is a chance to change the world!” Tikkun Olam, to heal the world. And I agree.

Every minute is a chance to change the world. And every person can make a difference. You and I can make a difference:

  • Through random acts of kindness, not unlike two of you soccer players who stopped by my office one hot day this summer and gave me an ice cream and were passing out ice cream just out of a random joy — an act of kindness.
  • The enjoyment of the Purple Passion Party with gusto is part of the peacemaking joyful experience.
  • A greeting on the sidewalk.
  • Helping tutor fellow students and local kids.
  • Business students helping a local trucking company, as some of you have, to “go green.”
  • Artists. Some of you have expressed your art on — an expression of wholeness and well-being and caution.
  • Our Maple scholars among you who studied the educational needs of the local Latino families; who this past summer studied the cholesterol structures in the cell membranes; who studied vengeance and forgiveness.
  • The Peruvian bracelet project — and all the Study-Service Term assignments you do elsewhere and nearby — in this case helping young women to turn their craft skills into a business. I don’t know how many of you have purchased one of those bracelets since coming back.
  • Documentaries that you’ve made about immigration in Mexico, about women’s voices in South Africa, about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Swaziland. You are making peace.
  • Physics and Chemistry students designing equipment to turn French fry oil into biodiesel gas to run Goshen College lawnmowers. We’ve got to eat more French fries because we’re running out of gas.
  • Parables traveling to churches far and wide and expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the form of parables of music and drama and personal testimony.

Well, I started a list and I could just go on and on and on. Making peace is as possible as our imagination is strong. And I invite us, all of us, peace by peace, little by little, every person, every minute to make a difference.

The world needs more people like you — more students, more peacemakers, future researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, diplomats, artists, professional sports folks, pastors, mothers, fathers, and even college presidents. The world needs you — anyone whose work is an expression of his or her faith in the One God, whose name is Peace.

So, I ask you, can a small college in the Midwest heal the world, and have a good time doing it? This is when we say, “Yes.” I believe we can. I know we can. I want us to jump on board and get ready for the journey of a lifetime. Let’s heal the world: Tikkun Olam, little by little, peace by peace.

Let there be faithful followers, soccer games, poetry jams, movie nights, bursts of song, canoe trips and let there be peace on earth. Thank you.