Resolve this: Serve others
By DONALD EASTMAN Special to the Times
Published June 9, 2007
Excerpts from the 2007 Baccalaureate address delivered at Eckerd College by president Donald Eastman on May 19, 2007:
We gather together this evening to speak and pray and sing of ultimate things and, in particular, to speak and pray and sing about the duty of you new graduates to live a meaningful life.
Three values are the pillars of the American liberal arts college: the primacy of the close relationship between student and teacher; the importance of the residential experience; and the commitment to an educational model, in college and beyond, which places great value on public service.
As Eckerd College students, each of you has engaged in voluntary service activities in college and in high school to assist those Saint Matthew calls "the least of my brothers here." You have gone to Central America to build houses and shelters; worked at soup kitchens in St. Petersburg; and helped at schools, hospitals, hospices and shelters of all kinds for the poor, the battered, the hungry, the illiterate and the homeless.
You have seen, in your lifetime, your own country wander into new thickets of moral complexity and ethical challenge. You have witnessed your country start a war in the Middle East, a war now longer than World War II, a war the secretary-general of the United Nations has called "illegal." You have witnessed the incarceration of prisoners by our country without trial or the right to a trial.
You have witnessed the development of the name of an American military base, Guantanamo, into a worldwide symbol for American desecration of human rights. You have witnessed not only the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by the United States Army but the defense of torture by the vice president of the United States.
You have witnessed, in our own city, a surprise attack by police on the homeless in a public park. You have seen business leaders, including the sainted Steve Jobs, who created that indispensable aid to modern life, the iPod, casually backdate their stock options to guarantee their personal profits.
My point is that you do not have to study the world of Oedipus the King, or that of the Roman Empire, or the murderous intrigues of the 16th century to enter the world of moral complexity and ethical challenge. You do not have to go back 40 years to Vietnam to find a nation driven by a destructive foreign war that some are calling our last line of defense and others are calling a war of aggression against the men, women and children of a non-Western culture. You already live in that world - and it is up to you whether you will be a force in it for good or for ill.
As Eckerd College graduates, you have work to do - in a world that desperately needs your intelligence, your moral compass and your sense of service. Because you know the good. This is not a simple thing. You know the good: You have seen it modeled by your teachers and mentors here, felt its power as you listened and were moved by the unparalleled example of Elie Wiesel, seen it honored as professor Bill Felice, whose professional life is dedicated to the politics of peace, is named Florida's Professor of the Year.
You know the good. You know that it is always a viable option to evil. You have seen its power. You know there is work to do, in the world, in the courts, in the prisons, in the fields, in the study and in the classroom, at home and abroad. You and your classmates did 55, 000 hours of volunteer community service last year. You know that you will not be satisfied until, as Martin Luther King liked to say, "justice rolls down like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24).
Remember Saint Paul's familiar but difficult words - difficult particularly to those of us dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge:
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing... ."
Men and women of Eckerd College: Resolve to remember the third principle of your education: That you were educated, and you are called, to serve those less fortunate than you, no matter how high you rise in the eyes and estimation of the world. Resolve to remember that such service is called love.
There is indeed a balm in Gilead "to make the wounded whole" and "to heal the sin sick soul": There is a balm - and it is you.
Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA).