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
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
for 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
                      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 anal-
                         retentive annihilation
                         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 at home
this is part of the true-true i think Chamoiseau is trying to tell us about
                         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.