About Morehouse

The Creative Tension

A sermon delivered by President Robert M. Franklin at Spelman College,
February 1, 2009

Deut. 19:14  You shall not move your neighbor's land mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess.

It is a special pleasure to stand in the Sisters Chapel pulpit for the first time as president of Morehouse College. President Mays, Morehouse’s last clergy president, spoke often here and he enjoyed it a great deal. I read his sermon notes and smiled when I saw his comment that he so admired Spelman students and so often shared their perspective in minor interschool rivalries that Morehouse students believed him to be a bit imbalanced in Spelman’s favor.

And, it is a special privilege to be here on this Sunday just days after the inauguration of President Obama. Dr. Cheryl Franklin and I are grateful to President Tatum and Dr. Travis Tatum for their friendship and the leadership they exert at Spelman, in Atlanta, and across the nation. Dr. Tatum is a leading voice for diversity and academic excellence and we are all the beneficiaries of her terrific scholarship and leadership. During the first week of my presidency, I went to visit her office to demonstrate my respect for her tenure here, and to invite a dynamic, friendly partnership in leading our two great institutions.

Since that time, we have worked together on many issues, conferred often and, in 2008, convened an historic town hall meeting on black female-male relationships in this great hall.

I also acknowledge the leadership of Dean Rhodes and the staff of this chapel for your commitment to nurturing the next generation of religious thinkers, leaders and morally sensitive citizens. Alumnae from this chapel are making their mark in the world.

My topic today calls attention to three dimensions of our current reality: first, our inheritance which are the gifts of black folk. Second, our situation filled with opportunities and challenges. And, third, our responsibilities and choices to act on behalf of the next generation. But, between these precious variables lay a creative tension, a tension we must all learn to negotiate.

Every one of us who sits here today is a proxy for the multitudes who prayed for our progress. You know the names of the people who did the most to deliver you to Spelman -- parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, pastors, and communities.  But, each of us is also a debtor to the unnamed masses who sacrificed, shared wealth, built this campus, protested for opportunities to use a Spelman education in the world. Many were pioneers who were the first to occupy corporate board rooms, NASA space shuttles, science labs, operating rooms, and now the White House. One wonders how Michelle Obama must feel as she walks through the halls of the White House.

The gifts of black women, the gifts of black folk must be remembered and celebrated. The sisters of Sisters Chapel were your big sisters. For all of those women; black women and white women, Asian, Latino, and Native American; rich and poor, let us offer the gift of recognition for our inheritance.

As you walk across this campus, you see names engraved on buildings and monuments. These are the landmarks of our ancestors. Some landmarks are not physical but symbolic. Think of the rituals and rules that define the Spelman woman. The values, the expectations and the practices that set you apart from others. These are Spelman landmarks.

But, there are additional landmarks only slightly perceptible to strangers. These are the ones that you carry within and that you brought here with you. The unique investments, stories, and dreams of your family and your villages. Each one of you has landmarks; values and voices and memories that constitute your inner moral compass

Today’s text from Deuteronomy places us into a seminar in which God issues rules and guidelines for a good life. These rules are given to a homeless, migratory people who would move often in their lives, from city to city, campus to campus. God tells them, when you come into this new place, you will encounter landmarks that were placed there by others. They are not your landmarks…yet. You may come to embrace and inherit them, but your first response should be to respect them and understand them.

Theologian Howard Thurman, a Morehouse alumnus, loved and interpreted this passage as follows: “think twice before you move your neighbor’s landmark.” No person can see and experience the world exactly as another does. No person or single tradition can possess all truth, all of us are behooved to avoid the arrogance that insists that there is only one way, our way.  Therefore, we should show respect and humility for other people’s landmarks. Respect for a neighbor’s landmarks challenges us to listen and to learn from them. And, it imposes restraint on us as we consider imposing upon others.

Different religion? Different landmark. Different sexual orientation? Different landmark. Different political outlook? Different landmark.

But here is the creative tension. We can and we should respect the institutional and the personal landmarks that we encounter in a diverse community. That is the mark of an intelligent person.

But, after listening and appreciating, we should also challenge them to be liberating traditions, liberating landmarks, rather than inherited tokens of oppression.

I love the way Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan distinguishes between liberating and non-liberating traditions. He observed that “tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
In order to ensure that the landmarks are alive, we must enter into a respectful dialogue that sometimes becomes an argument as we seek to hold every truth claim accountable.

Speaking frankly, sometimes traditions and landmarks are harmful and wrong. And, they should not be permitted to stand simply out of respect for the past.

Not long ago, the landmarks of this society, the standard opinion, defined black people as inferior, lazy, and irresponsible. An entire culture supported those landmarks. And many powerful and smart people fought to keep them in place. The only portrait of Jesus that hung in black churches was of a Northern European savior; a landmark of a supremacist order. An educational system supported them, and governors stood before school entrances to prevent black children from entering. The laws of this country supported race and gender exclusion. But, they were wrong. And, those flawed and hurtful landmarks would stand today, had not the women of Spelman mobilized to dismantle oppressive traditions and practices. The landmarks must be understood and appropriately respected, but they must be interrogated and held accountable.

This brings me to our situation filled with challenges and opportunities. Our inheritance meets our situation.

Today, our situation may be more complicated than that of our ancestors. Many of the landmarks of oppression in our community have been self imposed.  Schools and libraries are open to us but many young people choose will not to study or learn. In many school districts 70% of black boys who enroll in 9th grade will not graduate four years later. No one requires us to produce or consume disrespectful rap lyrics or wear the costumes of clowns with drooping pants and odd headwear; we do it to ourselves.  No one requires us to point weapons at another human being and pull triggers. That is our spiritual crisis.

A Spelman woman has best highlighted the crisis of our situation.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund has observed:

  • Every 5 seconds during the school day, a black public school student is suspended;
  • Every 46 seconds during the school day, a black high school student drops out;
  • Every minute, a black child is arrested;
  • Every 3 minutes, a black child is born into poverty;
  • Every 4 hours a black child or youth under twenty dies from an accident;;
  • Every 5 hours, one is a homicide victim, and;
  • Every day a black young person under twenty-five dies from HIV infection, and;
  • A black child or youth under twenty commits suicide.

Then, she declares: “we must learn to reweave the rich fabric of community for our children and to re-instill the values and sense of purpose our elders and mentors have always embraced…A massive new movement must well up from every nook, cranny and place in our community involving millions of parents; religious, civic, educational, business, and political leaders; and youths themselves.” (How to Make Black America Better, 123)

Michelle and Barack Obama symbolize and embody the opportunity that is open to us. They represent something that no previous generation of Spelman women and Morehouse men have experienced. You are the first to live in a world where the highest, most powerful, and most visible roles in the world are in the hands of people who look just like you. But, more important than looking like you, they are made of the same spiritual stuff that you possess or should seek. And America and the world will need more people that look like you to help reinforce the fact that the Obamas are not an anomaly. They are the norm of black intelligence, dignity, beauty and charm.

But, they have a world of problems before them. On a lighter note, perhaps some of you saw the November 5, 2008 story in the satirical newspaper, “The Onion”. The headline proclaimed:

Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job
WASHINGTON—African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation's broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it. Said scholar and activist Mark L. Denton, "It just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can't catch a break."

Sounds like something out of D.L. Hughley’s ‘breaking the news’.

But, we understand a different point here. Barack himself said ‘that if this work were easy, then others could do it.’ He will guide us out of this quagmire because his landmarks are good, decent and honorable. He is made of the right stuff for managing a crisis.  He possesses the spirit of a redeemer, a reconciler, and a hopeful, wounded healer.

That is our opportunity, to heal a hurting village, heal a divided nation, heal a broken world.

We have only to look across the street to find where we might start.
The work that needs doing is clear. And there is no better way of framing it than the vision statement of this president and college -- you have “a choice to change the world.”

Harvard developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote in his classic book, Childhood and Society, that the mark of a truly mature and healthy adult is the ability to invest in the next generation. Erikson called them “generative women and men”; those who do not spend all of their resources, energy and time on themselves but who share prosperity and wisdom to prepare the world and prepare youth to inherit the world.

Who were the generative people in your life? Remember them; cherish them. You have inherited much from them.
The question is, ‘will you now do for these children what others did for you?’

I have no doubt that Spelman women will make the right choice because there is much evidence that you have already done so.

You challenged a rapper who disrespected black women and you inspired a nation of college students to activism.

You were there to clean up New Orleans after the ravages of Katrina.

You were there in Jena, LA to protest injustice and racism.

You are there placing energy efficient lightbulbs in low income households.

And, you are there in local schools and communities, mentoring children and showing them a better way.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. But there was a rabbi who also spoke that day. Reflecting on the horrors of the holocaust and of slavery, Rabbi Joachim Prinz said, ‘while few were guilty, all are responsible.’

We are all responsible to do something to leave a better world for the next generation.

We can do this and we will do this because we’re made out of special stuff.

You have some of what Phyllis Wheatley had as she became the first published black poet in 1773.

You have the same substance that drove Nannie Helen Burroughs the business woman and orator who founded the largest black women’s organization in the country in 1900 (the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention) while challenging black male clergy to allow women to share in leadership.

You have some of what Anna Julia Cooper had as she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne in 1924 and became the fourth black woman in America with a Ph.D. 

You have the same stuff that animated Mary McLeod Bethune the educator who bought land that had been a garbage dump, and built what became Bethune Cookman College in 1904.

Today, let us rededicate ourselves to loving the world the way God loves the world. We have many gifts but our greatest gift is the gift of Jesus Christ who can animate our inner lives.

And let us seek God’s grace and strength to overcome the challenges of our situation.

A choice to change the world?

“If we can help somebody as we pass along. If we can cheer somebody with a word or a song. If we can teach somebody who is traveling wrong. Then our living will not be in vain.”