Graduating to Glocal Martyrdom
Dr. Calvin Seerveld
Tradition Student Commencement, May 14, 2011
The wise person in the Older Testament biblical book of Ecclesiastes answers the question “Is a deathdate better than a birthday?” by saying, “Yes! Entering a home touched by grief is better than walking into a house toasting champagne, because death is the conclusion of every man and woman, and when the living (face it), they have to take it to heart” (7:2).
Is a graduation day from Trinity Christian College better than the day you entered as a freshman or fresh woman?
It depends, let’s say, on whether one faces what is happening to you today.
Georges Rouault’s bittersweet print, “Il serait si doux d’aimer” (1914-48), “It would be so sweet to love,” shows a mother tenderly gesturing with her extended arm outward to where the nestling child needs to go, to places where the protecting love of the older generation is traded in for circumstances less safe, where you cannot, it seems, be your childlike self, love and be loved, without getting trampled to competitive death.
I do not mean to do a variation on the old commencement bromide of “Okay, fellows, now you are going to go out into the real world!”
No, the real world of opportunities and failure, of disappointments and acts of kindness, have been present inside your Trinity education too. You do not escape sin and blessing in daily action by going to a Christian college. However, if you have been an actual student, instead of majoring in extra-curricular affairs, you have enjoyed the wonderful gift at Trinity of an “academic” fix on your activity.
That is, you can err in a biology lab dissection experiment without killing somebody; you can be wrong in a theology class without being declared a heretic; you can do musical, mathematical, basketball exercises before you face the test of execution; you are given time to “practice” teaching and not be fully responsible yet for the lives of young learning children. The college years are a wonderful time to make mistakes, because they can be corrected by teachers in this “academic” training setting of trust.
There is less leeway for bad consequences in botched trial-and-error raising of your children, in a failed medical diagnosis or surgical activity, or in implementing unwise commercial decisions. The protecting cover of an “academic holding position” (like a circling airplane needing to wait to land at O’Hare) goes when you graduate from Trinity. [That’s why anybody who continues on to “graduate” studies must be wary of doing so just to avoid facing direct life responsibilities of landing, because “academics” can dry up and be good for nothing in God’s world, unless they envelop their research and pick priorities with a holy spirit of Wisdom.]
So, you are graduating, prepared by Trinity’s solid educational program in the tradition of the historic Christian Reformation of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, and you are called by God, I propose, to “glocal martyrdom.”
What does that mean?
“Glocal” is a fairly new English word which combines “global” and “local”--“glocal.” Biblically formed followers of Jesus Christ, from whatever Christian tradition, develop a cosmic global vision and a humbled sense of local responsibility in a united (bifocal) glocal perspective and task. “God did not send God’s Son into the cosmos in order to condemn the cosmos, but in order that the whole cosmos (=environment, plants, animals, society of humans) be saved by God’s Son” (John 3:17). And, said the resurrected Jesus to his prospective disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you all to be witnesses of me, (of my bringing in the Reign of God, both locally) in Jerusalem, all of Judea, Samaria--that is, Chicago, mid-Western USA--to the very ends of the earth--Europe, Ecuador, Asia, Australia” (cf. Acts 1:8,3).
Glocal martyrdom: we do not have to save the world. The triune God fully revealed in the historical Jew Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit will see to that. We who are “Christians” in more than name only have to be faithful, obedient witnesses locally first of all, actually practicing, living the Lord’s merciful just Rule acoming over the earth, be bringing shalom to all creatures on earth under the sun. Μαρτυριον in Newer Testament Greek means “witness.” Martyrdom means “giving a testimony...that could cost you your livelihood, your life.”
Is that my recommendation to you who will be graduates within the hour?
Scottish poet Robbie Burns, you probably know, has that famous poem, “To a louse, on seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church.” In the last stanza are the lines:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, / To see oursels as ithers see us!”
Oh, would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us!
From his pew sitting behind the lady decked out in her Sunday best, the poet noticed a dirty “ugly, creepin blasted wonner” of a louse crawling over the fancy fine clothes—
“How daur ye set your fit upon her-- / Sae fine a lady?”
But the moral the poet settles for is that if we could see ourselves with others’ eyes, it would free us from many a blunder, foolish notions, fashionable airs in dress, way of life, and “ev’n devotion!”
Do you know how others in the globalized world see us educated, graduated Americans?
In 1967, just before the so-called “Seven Day War” in which Israel swiftly demolished Egyptian military forces and took over the Sinai Peninsula, my wife and I were traveling in Egypt with a German archaeological group, speaking German, passing for Germans, since Americans were not loved during that time of Secretary of State Foster Dulles. Our Egyptian guide, at the Aswan Dam site, which the Russians were now building since America had abruptly pulled out, apparently told a group of young Egyptian men hanging around, “There are a couple of Americans here.” So they came over, faced us: “Why you no like Nasser!?” As we talked, they asked to see our American passport. I showed it to them, even let the leader hold it for a brief moment. I saw from his fixed, fascinated stare what that American passport meant to him, even though we were an enemy: Power! Prosperity! Work and Happiness! practically unimaginable for his stymied generation. And he was holding this pure gold ticket in his hand!
That American Dream of ivory palaces in the sky was brilliantly pictured by Thomas Cole’s four-part series, Voyage of Life. This is the soul of the painting Youth (1842), setting out to reach the holy grail of life, liberty, in the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, blessed by his guardian angel on the shore. The Idealist aspiration colours much of American cultural history, and resonates with peoples throughout the world. Jules Breton’s sentimental The Song of the Lark (1884) was the most popular painting at the Chicago Art Institute during the widespread depression of the 1930’s, probably because it gilds the barefoot working poor with a halo of sunrise light and imagined, inspirational bird song--an utterly unreal escape for the urban unemployed or those “blessed” with menial assembly line drudgery.
An underside to how others see us with an American passport is this mural painted by graduate students on the wall reserved for each graduating class at the Rands Africaans Universiteit in Johannesburg, South Africa, which I photographed in 1992, almost 20 years ago. It depicts student hijinks, but up in the far corner is a sad comment about us and the Viet Nam expedition and subsequent military interventions where the stars in “The stars and stripes forever” march slide down into crosses on graveyards and the Statue of Liberty becomes a stalking Grim Reaper. Without making a political comment about the invasion of Iraq and Superpower America’s embroilment in the killing fields of Afghanistan and Pakistan today, I am just showing you how certain others see the lice on our well-cut and Idealistic clothes.
The Trinity registrar wrote me that you twenty-year-old graduates are “ready to take on the world.” If your eyes are open glocally, you know the world at large is distraught and speckled with violent abuse. Not just God’s earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, Chile, Haiti, Indonesia--California and British Columbia, Canada are still due--but human wars over clean drinking water and boundaries, life-and-death questions like “Can we dispense generic drugs to the poor who are sick unto death? Who has the right to pack a gun? Can anybody immigrate into `the land of the free and the home of the brave’?” What will your Trinity Christian College graduate glocal witness be in (American) society?
Trinity art professor Dayton Castleman gives a good imaginative example when he witnesses in an old God-forsaken stone penitentiary outside Philadelphia with a very thick steel pipe that threads its way up and down corridors and right through stone walls surfacing out into the prison exercise yard where it finally scales the impassible wall: once over on the other side, the blood red pipe (not a silver lining!) multiplies into a seven-fold set of organ pipes trumpeting a “Hallelujah! Freedom!” chorus.
I find this site specific art piece called “The End of the Tunnel” (2005) to be a fine corrective to the insatiable ambition integral to achieving “the (Idealistic) American Dream,” because the bright red pipe expresses a more humbled search, through obstacles, with a patient hope for finding the Way to become free...to praise, and thank God. The glocal martyrdom the LORD God calls us to, also you graduates as well as your parents and friends here present, is to give hope in service, not rise to success, to heal the world, not bomb it--sometimes I wish I were a Mennonite--to rehabilitate prisoners, not neglect them into incorrigibility, to give priority to the handicapped, not push them aside. The task Scripture clearly posits is: “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
I do not know you students, but I know personally many of your professors in philosophy, sociology, art, theology, literature, psychology, communications, chemistry, and I know they have articulated and embodied, along with their colleagues, the Reformational heritage Trinity stands for--“capturing every notion (and practice) to make them obedient to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:4-5). That is how you students have been trained. And my final point is that that yoke is light! It fits well over your graduating shoulders, even if it makes you feel maladjusted in our Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest society. Glocal martyrdom is not a “downer”: with the worldwide vision of this being God’s world, to which Jesus Christ will return! Joyfully give away your life to enact locally the peace of the Lord.
You see, I have eaten in the Trinity cafeteria; the amazing surplus of good food there is staggering, available for the taking (once you have paid the piper). How can anyone who eats this luxuriously daily ever understand, I asked myself, what “hunger” is? I heard an earlier Trinity graduate, Elvia Rodriguez, say last month in a meeting here, that when she first came onto Trinity’s campus, it seemed like an “Enchanted forest.” Well, I hope you graduates will have the eyes to see that Chicago itself is...a burning bush where God says, “Take off your shoes and make my presence known on the streets here, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
When you business graduates walk past this city street, resolve again to open up thrifty commercial deals to the liberating profit of generosity for the neighbour. This mural-decorated building in the Pilsen district downtown (photographs taken by Professor John Bakker) is a hostel for the homeless--no home to go to!--for the unemployed who are hungry, destitute, who are losing their human dignity, while across the street a non-Trinity-graduated real estate developer has built a colourless, pricey condominium building looking like a formidable, unfriendly bunker.
When you education majors become teachers, or even principals, persist in giving the difficult or autistic unruly child in class, the extra mile of love, though it wear you out.
When you nursing graduates become overworked hospital caregivers or serve in an African village without adequate medical supplies, remember the sculpture by Britt Wikstrom called Caritas (2006) (which Professor Michael Vander Weele along with another Trinity graduate, Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang got commissioned by the University of Chicago hospital downtown; it stands in their cancer ward waiting area) where a younger man simply helps a more feeble older person put on his coat, for which the elderly fellow, as if he were Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), gives a look of quiet, bewondering gratitude.
Your graduation day from Trinity, I dare say, with Ecclesiastes, is better than your matriculating entrance day, because your profs, as a community, have spent endless hours protecting you by faithfully correcting reports and exams, so that you are now more readied to accept the glocal martyrdom of disciplined living and embodying the compassionate holy spirited rule of Jesus Christ which is acoming.
May you joy in this day, graduates, and go in peace.