Kindness Is “a Powerful and Subversive Thing”

The Divinity School, which is celebrating its bicentennial, held a service that drew from texts from the Qur'an to Harry Potter. 

Graduating students carry streamers into Memorial Church.
Kristen Lovett, M.T.S. ’16, and Sasha Weisse, M.T.S. ’16 carry streamers, leading the graduating class into Memorial Church. Photography by Justin Knight/courtesy of Harvard Divinity School
Kimberley C. Patton
Professor Kimberley C. Patton, giving the faculty address Photography by Justin Knight/courtesy of Harvard Divinity School
Sonia David
Standing in front of an image by Corita Kent's Love is hard work, Sonia David, M.Div. ’16, gives a vocal performance of "Alabaster Box." Photography by Justin Knight/courtesy of Harvard Divinity School
Dean David N. Hempton and a graduating student
Dean David N. Hempton stands with a graduating student. Photography by Justin Knight/courtesy of Harvard Divinity School
Students pose outside of Memorial Church
Students pose outside of Memorial Church Photography by Justin Knight/courtesy of Harvard Divinity School

Reverent and self-deprecating—but always eclectic—the Harvard Divinity School’s Multireligious Commencement Service might well have been the loftiest, and yet the least pompous, celebration on the University’s calendar. As guests entered Memorial Church, ushers distributed fans printed with the school’s crest, which were gratefully accepted: within two days, the temperature had swung up by 28 degrees. Then, preceded by rainbow streamers and a gentle drumbeat, the faculty and graduating students filed in. The chorus encouraged all to “Enter, rejoice, and come in” (and, in a later stanza, coaxed, “Don’t be afraid of some change”). 

Calling for two invocations, three musical interludes, four benedictions, and eight readings, the program also issued a mild-mannered instruction: “Since this is a service of prayer, meditation, and worship, we respectfully request that you refrain from applause.” Though cheers from the crowds outside occasionally broke into the church’s quiet, the well-wishers in the pews generally abided by this. (Twice, they couldn’t resist—after Sonia David, M.Div. ’16, sang “Alabaster Box,” and then after the faculty address—but the mood was too celebratory for any reproach.)

“In True HDS Fashion” 

In his opening remarks, Dean David N. Hempton  quoted the wistful last lines of Middlemarch—“Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?”—and then poked some fun at the graduation speech subgenre. “I have to say that I'm a sucker for commencement addresses, even though I think that most of them are absolutely terrible,” he said, with good humor. “They tend to go in phases. First there was the ‘shoot for the stars’ phase. Then there was the ‘be true to yourself’ phase. The most recent phase is to celebrate one's failures, where incredibly successful people tell us how their small-scale failure did not get in the way of their very successful lives. Well, thanks,” he added, to general laughter. “For some of us, failure took a lot of hard work and investment, and we don’t want it trivialized by hyper-successful people. Just saying.”

His welcome also acknowledged that—“in true HDS fashion”—“This service will not look like any liturgy or ritual that many of you have experienced before. Rather, it’ll look and feel, spiritually, like the class that is before us today: varied, eclectic, vibrant, and decidedly diverse.”

According to its most recent accounting, HDS now draws students from around 28 religious affiliations. The school, which will celebrate its bicentennial next September, was originally established with the aim that “every encouragement be given to the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth.” Nonsectarian for its time, HDS then considerably expanded its scope over the past two centuries.

Some 15 ministries—Islamic, Quaker, Urantia Book Readers, and others—were represented in the afternoon’s service, woven together through prayer and song. The graduating students read from the impressively old or startlingly recent texts of their diverse traditions, from Buddhist (“For all who wish to go across the water, may I be a boat, a rock, a bridge”) to Catholic (“Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope you might have baked it or bought it, or even kneaded it yourself”) to, perhaps most surprising, no religious affiliation at all (“Remember, if the time should come, when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort”).

“This Changes Nothing. But It Also Changes Everything”

Kimberley C. Patton, professor of the comparative and historical study of religion, gave remarks that briefly reflected on the founding of the divinity school, and its ever-expanding multicultural identity. HDS was the first nondenominational seminary in the United States, she noted, adding that the definition of “nondenominational” has changed considerably since then, from “different kinds of Protestantism” to “traditions including paganism, humanism, and atheism.” “Like a bumblebee,” she joked, “we definitely should not be able to fly.” 

“‘What is it like to teach there?,’ I'm sometimes asked. I usually answer, wearily or humorously, depending on the day: ‘God bless them, they're all trying to save the world.’ How weird and wonderful to see you world-savers today, and tomorrow, not as independent self-actualizing graduate students, but instead as tenderly encumbered, trailed by your nearest and dearest. Your makers. Today your tribesman are not only in your thoughts as you toil far away in Cambridge, but now in plain sight, like dreams suddenly manifest in the waking world, loving you, annoying you, photographing the life out of you. And sometimes, asking—behind your backs, or maybe right in front of you—what on Earth will she do with a Divinity degree? Especially in this economy.” 

Later, Patton helped answer that question: “You've spent years of training to become scholars and ministers, to become activists, to become writers, to become literate in what has always been one of the oldest and most persistent realms of human experience, the one that calls the shots for all the rest of them. There is no chronic injustice or pernicious evil in this world that can be solved without understanding the profound role that religion, culture, and ideology, intertwining as they do, play in its action.” Relating the school's history, she quoted Emerson’s famous Commencement address in 1838, which instructed the graduates to “cast behind you all conformity,” and the more recent, lesser-known speech delivered by Hollis professor of divinity emeritus Harvey Cox during Convocation last September, in which he reminded students, “Theology by its very nature is, or should be, troublesome.” 

This brought Patton to the major theme of her address: that as the HDS graduates went out in the world, seeking to save it or make some trouble, they should also be kind. She began with the dry comment, “Now, ‘kind’ is not the first word that pops up in my mind when I think of any part of Harvard.” But that changed, if only briefly, when one day an Extension School student of Patton’s came to her office, after asking multiple passersby for directions. He described them just that way: “Everyone is so kind here.” 

“This is something to be proud of,” said Patton, “something to continue to aspire to while we are saving the world in synagogues, hospitals, prisons, mosques, NGOs; while we are including the excluded into our theorizing; while we are rewriting the histories.

“Kindness is so often dismissed as the anemic, saccharine twin of its more robust siblings in the terminology of world religions: compassion in Buddhism, mercy in Judaism and Islam, love in Christianity. Worse, kindness is often seen as a cowardly way to duck agonizing dilemmas that involve a surrender of power, privilege, or capital; of systematic violence against female, brown, child, or gay and transgender bodies; as a way to hack the gnarly challenge of injustice while racking up gold stars for being nice. But kindness is not niceness. It is, instead, a powerful and subversive thing. It is something that anyone can practice, even if she cannot bring herself to feel compassion, or mercy, or love.”

She cited the examples of the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, as well as that of her students; she also quoted the Arab-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” At the same time, she wondered if the etymology of  “kindness,” rooted to “kinship,” might limit its practice to relatives’ regard for one another. “Can only like-minded people treat each other tenderly and sacrificially? That is the way the world seems to feel today. Religious traditions, clans, and classes coalesce, political parties draw in wagons, protecting their own, often while condemning their counterparts or even politicizing comments themselves.”

Yet research in human genetics, Patton added, has found that all living Homo sapiens sapiens are descended from a common ancestor, mitochondrial Eve. “We are all kin. This changes nothing. But it also changes everything. It’s a valuable notion, that troubles and queers every division our species insists on creating and so savagely controlling.”

Patton added, “May all of us leave this beautiful chapel not as those who tolerate one another like doses of poison, but as relatives, however unruly. Let us give up, in the words of Jane Bennett, ‘the futile attempt to disentangle ourselves’ from one another. Let us surrender ideas of profiling or hatred. And even when we differ to the point of breaking, to the point when we can only say with Tevye [of Fiddler on the Roof], ‘no! There is no other hand!’ Let us nevertheless practice kindness, the gateway to compassion, the gateway to justice.”

After the chorus sang Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around,” the graduates proceeded out of the church, to the sound of organ.

This post has been corrected on May 27, at 8:45 A.M., to add the surname of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and at 2:28 p.M., to more accurately reflect Professor Patton's  remarks on Emerson and etymology.

Read more articles by: Sophia Nguyen

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