Emilie Townes

The following text was offered during the Yale Divinity School opening convocation of 2005

… and so we begin
for some of us gathered here
this is a time that is familiar
yet even in the somewhat comfort of the known
there lurks the unknown
we can know certain things about this new academic year that is dawning
but we can never know what kind of class we will have
because new configurations of students
other source materials
keep even the known in the category of
“adventure”for some of us gathered here
this is a time i sometimes refer to as the “oh my god what have i done” time
we have launched ourselves into the unknown
or some mixture of these emotions and more
i think, overwhelmed-but-trying-to-hang-in-there, may be a better description of
what is going on in us
for others of us gathered here
this is a time of affirmation
we know this is where we should be and we are doing what we should be doing
yes, this may even be a call
for others, this is a time of seeking and questioning
we have a sense this may be the place—but perhaps not
and so we are digging in and listening intently and trying to feel deeply to see what the future brings
for others, this is a time of feeling incredibly entitled or incredibly inadequate
both are human
both are natural
both need to be gotten over
quicklyfor others, this is a time of resistance
we wish we were somewhere else
doing something else
with someone else
but we often don’t know what that “else” is
so here we sit
or when we do know what that “else” is
time, circumstance, and letters of appointment mean
here we sit
for others, we have the challenge of moving in and out of all these emotions and ways of being
sometimes at the same time
often with lightning speed
and we are simply stunned and amazed
and often humbled
there are other ways in which we sit here today
and i want to suggest that given the worlds we live in these days
however we are, as we sit here to begin this academic year
it’s normal
the challenge, i think, for all of us is this: what will we proceed to do with the fullness and incompleteness of what we have
brought to this time and place
as we remember that we are in a world
that we have helped make
that needs a new, or perhaps ancient, vision
molded by justice and peace
rather than winning and losing
so i want to talk with you this afternoon about a few of the things that are behind holding on to justice and peace in the midst of
myriad injustices and a world that is a spinning top of wars
and give you some sense of why i think that what we do in this academic life has a profound
effect on the worlds we live in
if we choose to make our work and our studies rigorous academically and relevant experientially
it is for me to respond to the call by the black mystic and theologian Howard Thurman,
who joined others
in encouraging us to blend head and heart

one of my sources of sustenance for this challenge is found in the speeches of the late former congresswoman from texas, Barbara
Jordan was a woman of firsts:
1st black woman to serve as administrative assistant to the county judge of Harris County, Texas
1st black elected to the Texas state senate since 1883
1st black woman to deliver the keynote address at the democratic party convention in 1976
first black person to be buried in the State Cemetery in Austin, Texas, on january 20, 1996,
and those of us who remember or have heard the recording of the crisp bell tones of her perfect diction and impeccable
cadence will never forget her testimony before the house judiciary committee during Watergate at 2am:
Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the
people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of
September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George
Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment,
interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”
Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness
that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going
to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
i am struck, by the profound trust she had in the notion “we the people”
Jordan was the daughter of a baptist preacher and a devout practicing baptist her whole life
one of the bedrock principles she lived her life by was that human equality under God is categorical, absolute, unconditional,
and universally applicable
so when she said “we the people” she really did mean all of us
now because she was a public servant, she did not do much god-talk in her public addresses
but i think she can be a window into how we can think about how we understand one link between this divinity school
on the hill and the rest of the world
and realize that what we do here is the real world
to be sure, it’s only a small slice of it
but one of the temptations we must avoid
is believing that what we do here—with our well-placed and much-needed emphasis on academic and intellectual rigor
means that we check our hearts at the door
for i learned well from the older black men and women who raised me in the church and outside of it
that intellect with no heart is about as useful as a heart with no intellect
and missing both sides of that equation means you probably don’t have much common sense to boot
in other words, you’re not very useful
so let me offer a counternarrative to the expansion of moral hubris that we are experiencing of late in many of our religious and
non-religious homes
that i think springs form the kind of faith that Jordan placed in what it means to take our citizenship seriously as people
of faith
these lines are from the notebook kept by Marie-Sophie Laborieux
she is the protagonist in the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau novel Texaco
Chamoiseau’s novel chronicles the path to freedom of Martinique from colonial rule
through the eyes of Marie-Sophie and her ancestors—slaves and former slaves
Marie-Sophie records the words of her father
In what I tell you, there’s the almost-true, the sometimes-true, and the half-true. That’s what telling a life is like, braiding—
all of that like one plaits the white Indies currant to make a hut. And the true-true comes out of that braid.
Chamoiseau captures in novel form
the shorthand version of my reply to why i hold on to justice and peace as
and indispensable values
that we can craft into faithful action in our scholarship
in the lives of those in our religious communities
in the worlds we live in
that is
lately, we have existed on the almost-true, sometimes-true, and half-true without looking for the true-true
searching for the true-true is what i think we should be after these days
this takes what ethicist Marcia Y. Riggs calls a mediating ethic
this mediating ethic is not one to seek easy reconciliation
it is an ethic, which is a “process of acknowledging seemingly diametrically opposing positions and creating a response
that interposes and communicates between opposing sides. It is living with tension rather than aiming at an
end result of integration, compromise, or reconciliation. These may be outcomes, but mediating as process occurs
whether or not mediation as an end does.”
mediating as process rather than mediation as end
and i suggest that the only way we can faithfully look at who we are
as a nation
and the roles we should and must play
as people of faith or people who hold deep values of respect for others and the rest of creation
who must live our lives not always comforted by the holy
but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life
and not just talk about it or wish for it or think about
means that we remain in the tension
in the process of uncovering and working through how we can build faith-filled responses
to meet the needs of those who may be the least of these
or folks just like many of us—blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them
with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless justice that can only come from a rock-steady God

we must be about these things because
we are living in a time in which imperialism is being dwarfed by empire
from the beginning of this country as a republic
the myth of universal uninhibited freedom has always had its evil twins—studied sadistic subordination and analretentive
our history is one of that cast native americans outside of the constitution
and included blacks in the constitution—but not as 5/5ths of being human
this has, to my mind, always been a great problematic in our self-understanding as a nation
we have not always been the land of unfettered liberty, equal access, and open markets for all peoples and on a truly
equal playing field
we have, domestically and globally, been a nation that has practiced—far too many times—imperialistic domestic
and global outrages that carry kinder and gentler names such as
usa patriot act
economic growth and tax relief reconciliation act
free trade area of the americas
you and i are drawing breath in a country, which is for many of us, our country
one that possesses an incredible concentration of financial, diplomatic, and military power
and is rather disingenuous not to admit the tremendous power and influence we have on a global scale
and also recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with this
because we have the power to do incredible good—and have done so
and must continue to grow this side of who we are as a nation larger and stronger
on the global stage and here
and the way that we respond to this is by telling the truth as we see it, know it, smell it, breathe it
this is what empire and permanent war does not count on:
people of faith telling the truth that not only does the emperor have no clothes, the emperor is, as my grandmother
used to say: naked butt
if we can hold on to digging up the truth when it gets buried in political and theological cat fights and mud-wrestling contests, i
think we will be able to bring together issues of justice making and peace
but only if we take seriously the challenges of a mediating ethic that tells us that we are caught in H. Richard
Niebuhr’s web of creation
we are responsible for each other and ourselves
we may not always agree, nor should we expect to
we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions
we may get tired and need a break, but we must always come back because we do not get out of this life
and we are responsible for what goes on in our names

we human folk are challenge and hope
living with ourselves is often a demanding or difficult task
many of us are called to prove or justify our very lives in a court of law that may be structured so that some of us
need not apply for justice or mercy or equality or harmony or peace
we see (when we do not sense) that there are false accusations lining the fabric of our lives
that we are involved in an ill-designed and misbegotten contest
that is deadly, oh so deadly
but we have expectations of and for others and ourselves
we have dreams that can be more powerful than the nightmares
possibilities more radical than the realities
and a hope that does more than cling to a wish
or wish on a star
or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth
after dining on a meal of disaster and violence
for a challenge such as we face today, is also a call to respond
and this, i believe, is where our challenge meets up with hope
this is not the hope of pandora’s box
for pandora, hope is an evil that comes to confuse the human spirit
it is not the hope of goethe
for goethe believed “why roam in the distance? see, the good lies so near. learn only to achieve happiness, then
happiness is always there”
it is not the hope of camus
for camus’ myth of sisyphus was to teach us that we should “think clearly and [do not] hope”
no, the challenge and hope we have before us
comes from miss nora
ms. montez
mr. press
miss rosie
and mr. waddell
this hope is unequivocal and unambiguous
it does not detach the human spirit from the present through mad delusions and flights of fancy
no this hope is one that pulls the promise of the future into the present
and places the present into the dawn of a future that is on the rimbones of glory
To combine challenge with hope is powerful. For together they enable us to press onward when we feel like giving up; to draw
strength from the future to live in a discouraging present. Challenge and hope make it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be; to move us to new places and turn us into a new people.
For there is something about challenge yoked with hope, when it is grounded in living for tomorrow as we live for today, that
is solid enough to sustain our lives and overcome skepticism and doubt. But it is frightening because we know that loving and
caring for others and ourselves interrupts the mundane and comfortable in us, and calls to us to move beyond ourselves and
accept a new agenda for living. Hope cannot simply be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us;
but covenant and commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then we must order and shape our lives in ways
that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a world (and
sometimes theological worldviews) that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our
beliefs from our action.
Yoke challenge and hope in our lives so that justice and peace mean something, and are more than rhetorical ruffles and
flourishes. None of us can hide from any of the “isms,” war, the economy, confirmation processes, rising oil prices, calls by
a conservative christian leader to assassinate a duly elected president of an oil-rich nation because it is cheaper than another
$200 billion dollar war, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, and a proposed freedom walk next month from the Pentagon to the National Mall
inaccurately linking the Iraq war to September 11th. A walk that will end with a country music concert headlining Clint Black
(whose music i generally like) singing lyrics from his song “I Raq and Roll” like “our troops take out the garbage, for the good
old U.S.A.” It is wicked, ya’ll, to mix jingoism with the death of innocents in our national mourning.
No, we cannot hide from responsibility or accountability. We can choose to say that someone else is more qualified and more
knowledgeable about economic forecasts and political decisions. We can be content to allow experts to debate the quality of our
lives. We can wring our hands, or declare we are too busy, or worse, turn our backs in indifference and callous disregard to the
erosion of human rights.
But this never relieves any of us of the responsibility that we have to our generation and future generations to keep justice,
peace, and hope alive and vibrant. And if all we want to be are poster children for the status quo, then we can find much less
expensive places to train for this—and places better equipped to teach us this—than a divinity school.

ultimately, i believe that somewhere deep inside each of us
we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of “what will we proceed to do
with the fullness and incompleteness of what we have brought to this time and place” is: live your faith deeply
now i am not talking about perfection—i’m an american baptist
i’m talking about what we call in christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts
it’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation
and action
the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk to hear what they are saying
the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh ourselves through prayer or meditation
the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths
the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives
the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking
the everydayness of sharing a meal
the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment
the everydayness of joy and laughter
the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere or at least point them in the right direction
and walk with them
the everydayness of blending head and heart
it’s the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right
it is in this everydayness that “we the people” are formed
and we, the people of faith, live and must witness to a justice wrapped in a love that will not let us go
and a peace that is simply too ornery to give up on us
have a good year

Emilie Townes is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Studies in Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School.
Professor Townes’s teaching and general research interests focus on Christian ethics, womanist ethics, critical social theory,
cultural theory and studies, as well as on postmodernism and social postmodernism.