A Message from Dean Hempton: 'Let's Not Be Found Wanting'

May 31, 2020
Swartz Hall
Swartz Hall on the HDS campus / Photo: Kristie Welsh

I know you share with me a deep anger and sadness after one of the worst weeks in our country’s recent history, possibly THE worst. There are now over 100,000 deaths from the Covid-19 virus, mostly the elderly, the incarcerated, “essential” workers, the marginalized, people of color, native peoples, and the poor. There are tens of millions unemployed and uncertain where their next meal is coming from. 

Then, with spirits already deeply troubled by the suffering from the pandemic, we witnessed in full view yet another outrageous violent death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer, the latest in a shockingly long line of such incidents. George Floyd’s painful utterance of the words “I can’t breathe” was both a heart-wrenching plea for mercy that was cruelly ignored and a powerful phrase that now sums up the racial oppression that disfigures all of us. Our hearts go out to the unimaginable anger and grief his family and friends are experiencing, not to mention all of the people in this country and the world who hold justice, compassion, and the rule of law as our highest principles.

At moments like this, when the scar tissues of our past sins and present ugliness burst open into full view, what we need most are not more ritual words of condemnation, but a steely, unquenchable resolve to work together for deep structural change that is long, long overdue. 

Above all, we need to look at the evil of racism fully head on, straight in the eye, and solemnly resolve to fight it for every inch of ground across every piece of territory, in every dark corner of our country, and deep in our own hearts. In the words of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The ugly reality of racism in our country has to be faced. I hope we can muster the courage to face it and find the moral energy to change it. These suffering times demand it of all of us. Let’s not be found wanting.

David N. Hempton,
Dean of Harvard Divinity School