Baccalaureate is usually one of my favorite services of the year. I get to design the service, plan with the musicians, practice with the readers beforehand; then line everyone up, give the opening prayer, sit back, relax and enjoy the service. But I guess this year the president thought I ought to earn my salary.
I suspect that some of you know a major feature that Buddhism and Anglicanism have in common: the via media or middle way. Both religious groups are proud of forging a path between extremes: in Buddhism’s case between indulgence and asceticism; in the case of Anglicanism, between pre-counter reformation Roman Catholicism and European Calvinist Protestantism.
The Episcopal Church is a branch of Anglican Communion. So as an Episcopalian, the via media or middle path appeals to me. I like balance. I am fond of “centering” as a spiritual practice. I enjoy the work of mediation and reconciliation, helping folks to find the middle ground on which they can agree for the purpose of compromise and community.
One of the reasons I love being chaplain at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is that I am called to walk a middle way between intellectual atheists and evangelical believers of all stripes. I enjoy the challenge of maintaining my own integrity as an Episcopal priest while ministering with and to people of different beliefs or no beliefs. It’s like balancing on a large beach ball: there is no perfect, permanent place of secure rest. I find a pretty good spot, but then I start to lose it and have to lean a little bit the other way, do some fancy footwork to reach another brief balance point. It’s work but it’s fun! Finding the middle way, finding balance, keeps me alive and lively. (Although I do admit to falling off the ball completely at times.)
Because I am such a lover of the middle way, and of balance, I am naturally suspicious of extremists, of true believers, and of fundamentalists of all sorts. Radicals and Reactionaries make me nervous. It’s that wild look in the eye. It’s phrases like, “the truth is,” where truth has a capital ‘T’. I find that even when I generally agree with an extremist’s beliefs, I am sort of horrified by the attitudes and behavior that go with them. “There is only One Answer (and I have it!) You should learn the One Answer as well. You should be like me, believe like me, behave like me.” Aahh! All my fears of a totalitarian state rise to the fore. I keep remembering the enormous brain “It” in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time forcing everyone to walk alike, breath alike, think alike.
Just recently I reread an article written by Michael Hurd on September 12, 2001. In that article, titled “No Middle of the Road Response to Terrorism,” Mr. Hurd seemed to delight in one aspect of the previous day’s tragedy. Finally people would have to chose sides. Either you love freedom and capitalism, or you love terrorists. There could be no in-between. A scary, and I might add, false, choice.
And so, I would like to preach to you today, as the seniors prepare to graduate and enter lives full of promise, on the virtues of the Middle Way, on the promise of balance and centering. Seniors, make use of the wonderful Hobart and William Smith Colleges education you have received. You have learned to be critical thinkers. When faced with controversial issues, find and evaluate all the evidence. Nothing is simple. There are always at least two sides to every issue. Use your gifts for complex thinking. Use the experience you have gained in service and in travel abroad to understand all sides, to analyze social, economic and cultural differences. Be mediators and peace makers.
I would like to preach that sermon, but I don’t think I can. Somehow, today’s speaker (that would be me) has chosen readings from Revelation and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev. 3:16) “The question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist will we be?” (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
I want to follow a middle path, but here I find my scripture and one of my heroes calling me to be extremist! In fact, the way Dr. King puts it, I hear all kinds of folk I admire calling me to be extremist: Jesus, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. And I could add a few more to the list. Wasn’t Elizabeth Cady Stanton an extremist? Wasn’t Harriet Tubman an extremist? Weren’t Mother Jones, Sojourner Truth and Dolores Huerta extremists? Wasn’t our own Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell an extremist, applying to a men’s college to train for a man’s profession? (Some of you probably have those buttons that say, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Right?)
Suddenly I recall all the unflattering associations for via media: middle of the road, wishy-washy, Casper Milquetoast. How do you mark out a middle ground between Love and Hate and feel comfortable standing there? How do I find a balanced center between Justice and Injustice? Perhaps being loving and just is like being pregnant – you either are, or you’re not.
Songs from my past start playing in my head: Pete Seeger is singing that labor song, Which Side Are You On? Joan Armatrading is singing Join The Boys. “Are you for or against us / we are trying to get somewhere / looking around for a helping hand.” Perhaps living is an extreme sport.
And then I remember meeting this priest from the south many years ago. We were talking about our Church’s failure to move on allowing women to be ordained priests in all our dioceses. (Or perhaps I should say we were wanting to force conservative bishops to ordain women in all our dioceses.) There was a lot of talk about how women should compromise, about our tradition of finding the via media, the middle way. And my priest friend said, “You know? The only thing in the middle of the road where I come from is a double yellow line and a dead possum.” That’s an image that has stuck with me.
And so perhaps I had better not preach on the middle way. Perhaps I should preach instead on the virtue of being an extremist. Seniors, don’t let this wonderful Hobart and William Smith Colleges education go to waste! For heaven’s sake take a stand. You have learned to be critical thinkers. Find and evaluate all the information you can. Decide what you believe is right and then voice your opinions and back them up with evidence, as your professors have taught you to do. You have learned to do service and to be activists. Work for what you believe in. Participate in our civic life. As Karl Brautigam asked in his Charter Day speech, and as the Peer Education in Human Relation program repeatedly asks in the voice of Professor Donna Albro, “What are you willing to stand up for?” Be an extremist for Love. Be an extremist for Justice.
If I said being an extremist would be easy, you would not believe me. You understand that being an extremist is dangerous. People often seek the middle ground, moderation, out of fear. We shy away from extremism, or even involvement, out of fear. Radicals are vulnerable. They’ve stepped out of the main stream and are perfect targets.
It’s the herd mentality. Do you remember your first year, how difficult it was to chose to become involved in an activity that not “everybody” on your floor was doing? “Everyone” went downtown. Literal herds of students would walk by my house going north at about 10:00 and south at about 2:00. Only the daring few, however, would participate in any non-required activity until they ascertained that a minimum number of others were already participating. There was a period you’ll remember when since not “Everybody” wrote for the newspaper, then no one would write. Fashion seemed to work the same way. There were a few acceptable “looks,” “looks” that put you in the mainstream of your group (or the group to which you aspired.) It was a tremendous social risk to wear something gothic or something from the Salvation Army.
But as graduating Hobart and William Smith seniors, most of you have learned that you can risk being different. You have learned what Lao-Tzu taught, “It’s precisely because I’m unlike [everyone else], that I’m therefore able to be Great.” (Tao Te Ching 67, Robert G. Henricks, trans.) You might even have learned to risk being extreme – extremely brave, extremely funny, extremely smart, extremely generous, extremely articulate, extremely active in politics and social justice.
Or, and here’s the kicker, you might even have learned to live in the extreme center: to walk the via media, not out fear, but as a conscientious stand against the extremes of injustice and of fundamentalist violence. When you think about Dr. King’s own walk, he could certainly wear with pride the label of extremist for Love, extremist for Justice, but there were many who thought he did not go far enough, fast enough, powerfully enough. I believe Dr. King was just as proud to walk the middle path, to wear the label Peace Maker, Mediator and Advocate for the Poor.
Yesterday the faculty voted to recommend to the president that William Smith College and Hobart College grant degrees to its seniors who have completed all the requirements, including the eight goals of our curriculum, so I know that you have “an intellectually grounded foundation for ethical judgment and action.” (Goal 8) So take what you have learned. Have strong opinions. Be mediators and activists. Show the world that you know the difference between walking the middle path and standing in the middle of the road.
"A Double Yellow Line and A Dead Possum," Baccalaureate Address, Chaplain Lesley Adams
May 15, 2004