The Power of Kindness

May 31, 2016
Professor Kimberley Patton at the 2016 Multireligious Commencement Service. / Photo: Justin Knight
Professor Kimberley Patton at the 2016 Multireligious Commencement Service. / Photo: Justin Knight

Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion Kimberley C. Patton was the faculty speaker during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 25, 2016. Below are her remarks:

Dean Hempton, members of the faculty, honored guests, alumni and alumnae, members of the Class of 2016, families and friends:

I would just like to admit defeat before I begin. Dean Hempton managed to smuggle in his own commencement address, while disparaging the very genre of all commencement addresses. Rhetorically awesome! And so HDS! So this is my footnote to his address, definitely Chicago-style. And I am grateful for the honor.

It is a remarkable thing to look out from this high pulpit at your faces: the graduating classes of MDiv, MTS, ThM, and ThD candidates at Harvard Divinity School, and those of the staff who every day tirelessly support our work. It is also moving to be able to see behind and above and surrounding all of you, your friends and family, revealed at last. Welcome, friends and family! And welcome to our ancestors, with whom we have never lost connection.

They are the great cloud of witnesses, the tribes whence you came, who up until today have remained mostly invisible as we undertook our work together in ethical reasoning and Hebrew Bible and early Christian mysticism, second-year Sanskrit and the Gospel of Mary and the Tiruvaymoli, Buddhist compassionate care of the dying and the histories of racism and the politics of sexuality. And of course the wildly overenrolled ancient Greek athletic sanctuaries. The French socialist Charles Pierre Péguy, who later in his life became an unhappy Roman Catholic, said in 1909, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." Péguy would have been perfect at HDS, someone we would call a seeker, thoughtful, evolving, restless. And having had the privilege of teaching at our school for almost 25 years, I might answer Péguy that everything also begins in politics and ends in mysticism. "What is it like to teach there there?" I am sometimes asked. I usually answer, wearily or humorously, depending on the day, "God bless them, they are all trying to save the world."

How weird and wonderful to see you world-savers today and tomorrow not as independent, self-actualizing graduate students, but instead tenderly encumbered, trailed by your nearest and dearest. Your matrix. Today your tribes dwell not only in your thoughts as you toil far away in Cambridge, but now out in plain sight, like dreams suddenly manifest in the waking world. Loving you, annoying you, photographing the life out of you and sometimes anxiously asking us, behind your backs or maybe right in front of you, "What on earth will she do with a divinity degree? Especially in this economy?" This week, just when you seriously need them to behave, smile, keep quiet, and keep their opinions to themselves, families and friends have an irrepressible way of not. We faculty have been listening to the anxiety for weeks now. In the past, we have heard things like this: "My grandmother is coming from Albuquerque; she insisted; but no one knows her real age. I hope she doesn't collapse." "A friend told me that no one is supposed to applaud until everyone gets their diploma, but my whole family is coming from Nairobi, and they are bringing cow bells to ring when I get mine. We are not talking silver jingle bells. These are going to drown out everything." "My parents gave their two Tercentenary Theater tickets to my fifth-grade teacher and her husband because she said I was smart even though I mostly just goofed off in her class." "My dad is a Vietnam vet with PTSD. So he'll be checking the perimeter. All day. That's what he does. I'm just hoping he doesn't freak out the Harvard police." "My father can't come because my brother overdosed last month. He just got out of rehab and dad has to drive him to meetings every day." "My mother won't be here because she is jealous of anything I achieve." "My parents are both coming but they haven't seen each other or even been in the same room since I was twelve: no, I mean literally in the same room. Literally." And we faculty kindly don't say, "So you didn't mean metaphorically in the same room?" And, every year, as graduation nears, we hear more than one person say, "My family would love to come. They can't afford it. But they are really proud of me. No one in my family even went to college."

You have spent years in training to become scholars and ministers, to become literate in what has always been one of the oldest and most persistent realms of human experience, the one that calls the shots for all of the rest of them. There is no chronic injustice or pernicious evil in this world that can be solved without understanding the profound role that religion, culture, and ideology, intertwining as they do, play in its action. And after HDS I would be willing to say that are few problems that you will face with any other than a self-aware and self-critical way, a way that does not polarize, or over-simplify, or reduce the views of others to ignorant bromides. And when others interrogate or reject your thinking, however you engage them, I also know that you will not need a placemat to tell you how to answer. Because you will instead ask them to tell you why they think that. And you will listen. That is the beginning of a real conversation.

Two thousand sixteen is a special year for Harvard Divinity School. It is our bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the first non-denominational seminary in the United States. The election of the Unitarian Henry Ware to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1805 broke the dominant grip of Calvinist theology at Harvard, the legacy of its Puritan days; Harvard College overseer Jedidiah Morse led an exodus of disaffected orthodox theologians to found Andover Theological Seminary in protest. In 1838, in the beautiful small antique chapel on the third floor of Divinity Hall that you can visit this afternoon, HDS alumnus Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a commencement address on a sweltering July evening that indicted the failures of what he called "historical Christianity" and exhorted the graduating class to "cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity"—a deity to be found as much in the natural world, in dreams, and in the communion of one’s own soul as in Scripture. Emerson's speech drew the ire of theologians, especially in the Unitarian Christian Examiner, which called it "utterly distasteful." HDS has been widening the non-denominational circle ever since, which at its founding meant different kinds of Protestantism, and now means many kinds of religious traditions, including paganism, humanism, and atheism. Like the bumblebee, we should not be able to fly.

Our school has been embracing, refining, rejecting, and refining theologies and methodologies ever since, pushing at the fetters of social and religious convention, including the fetters of the real enslavement of fellow human beings and the theologies that supported it. We continue to feel the pain of how very far we have to go to become truly a diverse community, not only in our religious, racial, and sexual identities but also in our points of view. In saving the world, we do not want to become an echo chamber. On August 31 last year, Harvey Cox offered a convocation address in honor of his half century of teaching at Harvard and the coming bicentennial, noting that HDS was born in trouble, has often created trouble for Harvard University at the center, and needs to continue to be troublemakers in the outside world as it fractures and oppresses itself. "Theology by its very nature is, or should be, troublesome." Theologians, ministers, and scholars of religion are not excellent sheep.

This past December, as the calendar stood poised at the start of 2016, the bicentennial year of Harvard Divinity School, a young Filipino man, one of my students from the Extension School, came to see me in my Dumbledore office. It is a Dumbledore office because Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, the same one that represented the original dissenting group of theologians, left the campus of Phillips Academy and purchased land from Harvard, on which they built Andover Hall, a neo-medieval building in an architectural style called "Collegiate Gothic," a nineteenth-century style deliberately evocative of medieval Christian religious beliefs and unexpected, archaic ornamentation, neo-orthodox buildings with battlements, leaded-glass windows, esoteric symbols, and heads of saints, green men, and philosophers. When Andover-Newton exiled itself from this building unlike any other at Harvard, HDS, which had shared the building with our former detractors, took it over. Even in our main building we dwell in a world of mixed, eccentric heritage.

My Filipino student told me, "It was hard to find your office. I had to ask a lot of different people all over the HDS campus. Everyone was kind to me. Everyone is so kind here."

I have been thinking about this ever since. "Kind" is not the first word that pops up in my mind when I think of any part of Harvard. But this was his first encounter with our School. And despite all our flaws and struggles, this newcomer found Harvard Divinity School kind.

This is something to be proud of, something to continue to aspire to while we are saving the world in synagogues, hospitals, prisons, mosques, and NGOs, while we are including the excluded into our theorizing, while we are re-writing the histories. Kindness is so often dismissed as the anemic, saccharine twin of its more robust siblings in the terminology of world religions—compassion in Buddhism, mercy in Judaism and Islam, love in Christianity. Worse, kindness is often seen as a cowardly way to duck agonizing ethical dilemmas that involve the surrender of power, privilege, or capital; or to ignore systematic violence against female, brown, child, or gay and transgender bodies; or to hack the gnarly challenge of injustice while racking up gold stars for being nice. But kindness is not niceness. It is instead a powerful and subversive thing. It is something that anyone can perform even if she cannot bring herself to feel compassion, or mercy, or love. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Addressing a conference on family in Rome in 2013, His Holiness Pope Francis did not push away a little boy about four years old who ran onto the stage and sat on his chair and hugged the pontiff's robes, even as cardinals tried to bribe him back with candy, but instead tenderly rested his hand on the top of his head for the rest of his remarks.

When my husband Bruce was a very young boy about the same age, visiting his grandmother who still lived in her Depression-era home in rural Ahaskie, North Carolina, he kept going in and out of the house onto the porch, slamming the screen door. Bruce's grandmother, also named Bruce, said to him, "Bruce, if you slam that door one more time, I'm gonna wear you out." Of course little Bruce did, and she picked him and laid him across her knee. He twisted around and looked up at her and said, "Grandma! The Bible says, 'Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another." (Ephesians 4:32). Astonished, she stopped. "Lord," she said. "I have never heard a child quote scripture against me."

As a first-year MDiv at HDS, a thousand miles from home and dealing with his required class in meaning-making, my husband walked into a administrative office and asked if he could borrow a "gem clip." The administrator mocked his Southern accent and said he could have one if he called it by its right name, "paper clip." Bruce on that day determined to kill his accent, and it has stayed killed to this day.

Let us try never again to be that school, sacrificing kindness in the face of difference. Let us instead be the school that Reynaldo found when he came. The school in which I teach where one day, after years of advocating for Muslims in the academic and public sphere, I looked up at the fifth meeting of a class I was co-teaching and called one of two hijab-wearing students by the name of the other one. I did that twice, when she did not respond. Because it was not her name. I apologized immediately, but nothing could remedy the shame I felt. When I myself climbed the steep stairs to my Dumbledore office, there was the young woman whose name I had wrongly used to call on her classmate. I cringed, waiting for the polite but well-deserved rebuke from her. I began to apologize again. She interrupted me. "Please, Professor Patton. I'm not offended or angry and neither is Amira. I could see how upset you were. So I came to make sure you were OK."

The Arab American poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote her iconic poem "Kindness" when she was stranded alone in a remote village in Columbia in 1978. The bus on which she was traveling was attacked and one of her fellow passengers, an indigenous man, was murdered and left by the side of the road. With only the clothes on her back and her rudimentary Spanish, she was adopted by a street gang who protected her and fed her rolls for days until she was reunited with her husband.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Etymologies make humanities scholars suspicious, as genetics worries social and physical scientists; both can be twisted towards supremacist ends. But even Derrida used etymology as a tool of philosophy. The deep history of the word "kind," "friendly, deliberately doing good to others," opens up to a place of mystery. It comes from the Middle English kinde, which in turn comes the from Old English (ge)cynde "natural, native, innate," originally meaning "with the feeling of relatives for each other." It has the same root as "kinship."

So can only relatives be kind to one another? Can only like-minded people treat each other tenderly and sacrificially? This is the way the world seems to be today. Religious traditions, clans, and classes coalesce; political parties draw in the wagons and protect their own, often while condemning their counterparts or even politicizing kindness itself.

The astonishing news from human genetics is that all human beings living today descend, in an unbroken line, from one common matrilineal ancestor who lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, almost certainly in East Africa in what is today Ethiopia. She is called "mitochondrial Eve." The multiregional hypothesis turns out to be wrong. She was not the only woman on earth when she lived, but she was the grandmother of all homo sapiens sapiens. There is no one in this chapel or in any place in the world who is not our cousin. How would such a view change us from the inside out?

Why can we speak fairly of our relationship to our grandmother from Albuquerque in terms of identity politics, but not in terms of our grandmother from Ethiopia? Why do two generations define us and thousands of generations can be dismissed as a romantic concept that does not?

May all of us leave this beautiful chapel not as as those who tolerate one another like doses of poison, but as relatives, however unruly. Let us give up, in the words of Jane Bennett, the "futile attempt to disentangle ourselves from one another." Let us surrender ideas of hatred, or profiling, and even when we differ to the point of breaking, to the point where we can only say, with Tevye, "No! There is no other hand!", let us nevertheless practice kindness, the gateway to compassion, the gateway to justice.

Even when there is no other hand, there is still our heart, set in motion when we were conceived, beating throughout our days without any help from us, the heart we all inherited from our Ethiopian grandmother, who does not want us to destroy one another or this beautiful earth we have inherited. She is not a distant relative. She is here and in this place, "where the living meet the dead." As the Senegalese poet Ishmael Birago Diopp wrote, "Les morts ne sont pas morts" (The dead are not dead):

they're in the hut, they're in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.

The dead are never gone,
they're in the breast of a woman,
they're in the crying child,
in the flaming firebrand. . .
the dead are not dead.

Let no one who is graduating today without their family present feel that they are completely alone. Your family is here. We are all around you. "Kind" comes from "kin." We are all kin. This changes nothing. But it also changes everything. It is a radical notion that troubles and queers every division our world insists on creating and savagely patrolling. We have the same grandmother: Set-ii-yet, Bibi, Jiddah, Nonna, Lola, Omi, Bubbe, Obachan, Yaya, Tutu, Savta, Abuela, Patti, Nainai, Halmoni, Avo, Gi.

Dear Harvard Divinity School class of 2016, the only one to bear on your diplomas the year of the 200th anniversary of your school—your majestic, brave, and restless school—know how much we who will remain here will miss each of you. May you rejoice in all you have accomplished, and in the ways you have been changed. Even when the world in its cruelty afflicts your hearts, or you are lost in your own self-doubt, frustration, or despair, may you remember to be kind, one to another, and especially to yourselves. In the words of the Dalai Lama, "Be kind, whenever possible. It is always possible."

May God, "Creator of the intertwined," bless you all.