An Investment in Understanding

November 9, 2020
Gregory Whitehead with his father John Whitehead
Gregory Whitehead with his father John Whitehead

As U.S. deputy secretary of state from 1985 to 1989, the investor, diplomat, and philanthropist John Whitehead saw that religion was the thread that connected many of the diplomatic challenges he faced around the world. He believed deeply in the importance of the study of global religion and in Harvard Divinity School’s capacity to advance that work. To that end, Whitehead was one of the School’s most loyal supporters for more than a generation, serving on the HDS Dean’s Council and as honorary chair of its capital campaign.

Since John Whitehead’s passing in 2015, his son Gregory has continued this work as head of the Whitehead Foundation, an organization that “honors and extends the philanthropic legacy of John C. Whitehead through support for mission-based organizations.” In line with its namesake’s belief in the mission of HDS, the Whitehead Foundation in 2020 pledged $1M to the School’s new program, Religion and Public Life (RPL), providing the initiative with critical funding. In a recent conversation, Gregory Whitehead talks about the way that RPL fits into the Whitehead Foundation’s philanthropic strategy and why he believes that global peace and human flourishing depend on the education of a new generation of religiously literate, ethical leaders.

HDS: How did you (through the foundation) decide to make a gift to Religion and Public Life in memory of your father, John Whitehead?

Gregory Whitehead: In his last years, my father was inspired and revitalized by the strong spirit of community within HDS, and within the Center for the Study of World Religions in particular. He deeply admired and respected Dean David Hempton’s tireless work in search of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, as well as his emphasis on the practice of peace within both HDS and the University as a whole. Dean Hempton has referred to John as a valued mentor, yet John would undoubtedly say that the reverse was closer to the truth. This gift honors their special friendship, as well as the exceptional creativity, skill, and knowledge of RPL Director Diane Moore and her colleagues in articulating such a beautifully interdisciplinary and interfaith program.

HDS: Why support RPL in particular? How does the gift reflect your father’s life and work?

Gregory Whitehead: My father, like his father, Eugene, before him, always came to the table in the spirit of fairness, consensus, and service to others. He abhorred violence and conflict at all levels, and he despaired over the relentless rise of fanaticism, what Thomas Merton identified as a “universal infection” that flows from a crippled human nature that recoils from love, mercy, and compassion. He rejected the senseless War on Terror, and we often spoke about how our lamentably long list of documented war crimes and abuses would haunt the American conscience for generations. 

In one of our last conversations before he became seriously ill, my father and I talked about reparations for torture victims, and accountability for those who enabled and perpetrated such cruel atrocities. We need a new generation of ethically grounded leaders for whom such decisions would be unthinkable, being in profound violation of what Bryan Stevenson calls “just mercy,” an ethos present in many variations throughout world religions, one that provides a sacred key toward a viable future. I believe that Religion and Public Life holds that key. I’m sure that my father would have as well.

HDS: The Whitehead Foundation supports many worthy causes in key areas like environmental protection, human rights, and restorative justice. How does RPL fit in? How can knowledge of religion help address the urgency and depth of the challenges humanity faces in the years ahead?

Gregory Whitehead: We are always looking for partners and projects that aim to heal what is most broken and splintered in our fundamental relationships to each other and to the whole of life on Mother Earth. Spiritual practices and religious knowledge offer a powerful and transformative path back to the wholeness we will surely need if we are to resolve the severe challenges ahead. RPL supports those with the courage, compassion, and faith to engage sacred texts as the foundation of ethical leadership, a path that compels us to recall and honor the sanctity of all life-forms in a spirit of restorative justice, equity, and humble reckoning with uncomfortable truths. Rather than RPL fitting into the work of the Foundation, I would like to think that the Foundation resonates and unites with ideas and practices already vibrantly presentn within RPL!

HDS: The Whitehead Foundation gift will in part help expand HDS’s public engagement on the topic of religion. Why do you think it’s important for the School to play a greater role in the public conversation?

Gregory Whitehead: Given the intensity and acuteness of the global health crisis, the equally as virulent pandemic of racism, through to the ticking time bomb of the climate emergency, now is not the time to stay safely within the privileged confines of Harvard. The path of compassion requires walking in the shoes of others, and that means confronting the world and its many wounds at the site of their infliction. Here again, broader engagement across the entire global reach of the HDS community through RPL seems a natural outgrowth from the countless fertile conversations that have incubated in HDS conferences and colloquia over the course of the past several years, with brilliant guest speakers such as Lily Yeh, Zumbi, Leah Penniman, Aysha Upchurch, and Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, and luminous moderators such as Terry Tempest Williams and Melissa Bartholomew.

HDS: Finally, what are your hopes for the gift? When the money is spent, what would make you say it was a worthwhile investment?

Gregory Whitehead: I know my father would be strongly encouraging students from Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School, and the Law School to participate within the RPL, together with those pursuing the new master’s degree in religion and public life. Professional boundaries can be as confining as campus walls, and the core values of RPL apply equally to all human endeavors. 

My father was particularly concerned about the collapse of ethical standards within the financial world to which he had devoted much of his career. Yet in the end, the power and value of RPL will be measured in countless acts of love, courage, mediation, reconciliation, and transcendence, and it would be wrong to apply any sort of conventional investment metric to such deeply liberating and divinely inspired work. Of course, I would celebrate the day when the Foundation could support projects led by RPL graduates!

See also: John Whitehead