Tim Shriver addresses the Georgetown College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2022.
Love your enemies—the new requirement for citizenship
Editor’s note: On May 21, 2022, Tim Shriver delivered the commencement speech to graduates of Georgetown University’s College of Arts and Sciences. The following is the text of his address, lightly edited for publication.
In July of 1995, the International Special Olympics hosted its annual World Games. These events are huge, and the opening ceremonies for this one, at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, was a typically joyful extravaganza. Over 5,000 athletes were on the field and nearly 80,000 attendees were in the stands for the festivities, where then-President Bill Clinton was to give an address.
Clinton was positioned at a podium at the top of the stadium, a long way from the assembled athletes. As he began to speak, one of the professional photographers down on the field noticed that a group of athletes were trying to take pictures of the president. They were using the disposable cameras all athletes had been given on their way in to record their triumphant moments. But they were holding their cameras backward – the lenses were pointed at their own noses.
Clearly, the photographer thought, these athletes had never used cameras before. He didn’t want them to waste their film, so he hurried over to help them.
“If you’re trying to get a picture of the president,” he said to one of them, “you have to turn the camera around, look through the viewfinder, and then push the button.”
The athlete responded, “Oh, thank you so much. But if you hold the camera backwards and look through the viewfinder, it works like binoculars, and you can see the president very clearly at the top of the stadium.”
You see, the photographer—a good guy—had gotten the situation wrong. He had the wrong brand. He saw the athletes through a lens of deficit, of disability, and it led him to assume, “They’re weak, and I’m competent.”
But what he saw was not accurate.
This is just one example of how millions of people with intellectual disabilities have suffered for hundreds of years at the hands of most of us who do not count ourselves amongst their number. They are labeled in ways that point out only difference, which creates misunderstanding.
This has led to marginalization, institutionalization, oppression, and worse, all because of a misread based on bad branding, and all the result of being seen through the wrong lens.
Having a flawed view separates us from each other, and it is one of the greatest bad habits of humanity.
We have assembled here today against a backdrop of, in many ways, great sadness. We are constantly reminded of the terrible ways that division wounds us via horrific tragedies like the shooting in Buffalo, the war in Ukraine, and even here in our nation’s capital, where our nation was complicit in the enslavement of human beings. In all of these sadness’s we can recognize the same pattern—one group demonizes and diminishes another one, creating an excuse for the violence, aggression, and marginalization that result. I invite you to recognize that this formula of “othering” is too often missed in our own consciousness.
The crisis we find ourselves in is more than a political or economic crisis, although those dimensions are certainly part of our experience.
It is also, profoundly, a spiritual crisis. And you have been trained here at Georgetown—perhaps better than any community of young men and women in history—to bring to bear both the power of your minds and the strength of your spirits to help support, save, and transform a country facing a spiritual crisis.
So, here is what I think we can learn from those long-ago athletes with their makeshift binoculars: Let’s try to change the way we see. Let’s try to change the mindset that created the contempt and hatred that too often dominate the country in which you are now assuming leadership roles.
Now, I can hear you saying, sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, that’s all nice. That’s good.”
And I can’t help but think of how Desmond Tutu would respond. Years ago, I was in the audience when Tutu—the late, great archbishop of South Africa who lived the horrors of the brutal injustices and violence of the apartheid regime—was asked, “Archbishop, don’t you have to admit that evil is more powerful than good? Because in the back of many of our minds, we’re worried that that’s the case.”
And he flashed his smile—he had a beautiful smile—and said, “No! Evil is not more powerful than good. But it is better organized!”
So, my invitation to you is to recognize that these buildings that have surrounded you have been organized for good: for your good, for the good of your hearts and your minds, and the good of the world around you.
If we are trying to figure out what it will take to organize for good, I say embrace the Georgetown mindset—the cura personalis, the magis—and take it seriously into the world in which you live.
Now, I have a rule of thumb you might want to use as you try to create the new mindset our country needs. I’m not going to tell you it’s original. But I consider it the greatest peace and justice strategy never tried.
It’s called “love your enemies.”
I know—naïve, right? I don’t know about you, but if I was back there editing the Gospels in 66 A.D., I might have said to Matthew, “You know—no disrespect, pal—but love your enemies? It’s a bit much. I think you’re going to lose people. I mean, I know Jesus said it, but he didn’t have a publicist, and you know how he went off sometimes. He got radical. And if you get radical, people don’t listen. So, I suggest, Matthew, just stick with ‘Do not kill.’ It’s a really good one! Moses had it. Sinai had it. It’s been around for a long time. No one complains about it. I suggest you edit out ‘love your enemies.’
Well, I wasn’t there to make the edit, so they put it in. And here we are, 2000 years later, and a lot of time we just laugh when we hear it. We think, “love your enemies? That’s for saints. That’s for Ignatius. And, more importantly, it’s really not for the hard-edge reality I live in.”
I can hear some of you saying, “Look, I want action. I want change. I refuse to abide injustice.” And I agree.
Fredrick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I agree. And “an injustice is in our country, and we need to end it.” I agree.
And there are those of you who are saying, “Where are the values? Where is the fight for the heart and soul of this country?” I agree.
Nothing about “love your enemies” says you should not fight for justice, you shouldn’t fight for equity, and you shouldn’t work for peace. But it does say you will not get there with hatred and contempt.
You will not win the battles which your generation must win for our country with hatred and contempt for your fellow country men and women.
I don’t believe we need only critics; we also need creators. I don’t believe we want more people who humiliate one another; we need people who want to heal one another. And we don’t need voices of shame and scorn from those who use the guise of “telling the truth” to shield us from the venom of hate.
We need change, meaningful, heart-felt, serious, compassionate change of the whole. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from people on the margins and people who are often forgotten—the athletes of Special Olympics, and I hope that’s the lesson you’ve learned while at this university.
Now, you don’t have to love everybody by saying you like them. And you don’t have to love everybody by saying you agree with them. In fact, that’s not even desirable.
But you do have to commit to the energy field, the consciousness, the openness of love to unlock the anger and the hostility and the injustice of oppression.
Because I don’t believe that “love your enemies” is any longer a strategy for saints. I believe it is the new requirement for citizenship.
So, I know some of you are saying, “Well, I’m not a Christian.” And some of you are saying, “I’m not religious.”
That’s fine, I’m not suggesting a dogmatic conviction. I am suggesting a transformation of the heart.
I’m suggesting that the best in religion teaches us a consciousness of love, an openness to others, a lack of judgment, a willingness to listen, a compassion for the entire human family. And those dimensions of all religions are needed now more than ever.
And if you think to yourself, “Well, yeah, but there’s evil in the world,” and “Yeah, but there are examples where it wouldn’t have worked.” I say that’s not evidence that it doesn’t work. I say it’s evidence we should have started earlier.
So, if you will consider this kind of crazy message on your graduation—it’s pretty simple; you can remember it, anyway—I want to let you know that you will be mocked. You will be dismissed. You will be told you’re naïve. You will get to big businesses and big organizations and NGOs, and you’ll be told “That’s not realistic.”
But that’s the thinking that’s landed us where we are. We need rebels with a new strategy.
So, here’s what I suggest as a few of rules of thumb to guide you, from the athletes of Special Olympics.
First, if you want to be open to others, you can’t do it with your head; you have to do it with your heart. So, practice. Practice, every day, something that opens your heart. In our spiritual tradition, one of the great saints says, “God’s first language is silence.” I suggest practice opening your heart every day with silence.
Second, get help! We are all struggling. Get therapy. Get a coach. Get a spiritual director. Getting help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of bravery. It’s a sign of being smarter than the rest of us who are afraid of it. Hang a sign on your refrigerator. One of the skills we teach kids is called “help-seeking skills.” Well, I have a sign on my refrigerator that says “Help! Seeking!” So go get the help you need.
Third, take a chance! I know a lot of us have written off others. You have decided they are hopeless. You have named them as the problem. Don’t give up on the human spirit. Take a chance. Cross divides. This is what the Special Olympics’ athletes do every time they walk in front of you to run their race.
They take a chance on you. They take a chance on all the forces that have said “no” to them, all the places where they have been called names, all the times they’ve been labeled and mislabeled. And they run their race, and they put their arms up, and they say, “I’m taking a chance on you again! Give me a chance. See me. I don’t need you to welcome me; I need you to join this world.”
So, I exhort you now, this moment, don’t give up on those people you’ve put away.
Finally, tell the story. We don’t have to wait for the news anymore. Tell the story. Don’t fall into the contempt trap. It’s easy to tell the story of contempt. It’s easy to repost something outrageous, hateful, egregious. Be storytellers of the surprising gifts you discover in others that no one expects you to recognize or see.
I encourage you to brand “love your enemies.” Make it famous on your social channels. It’ll have much more effect than anything I ever say.
And then, finally, I suggest you get role models. Maybe it’s St. Ignatius. Maybe it’s your mom. Moms, dads, you have a lot of people who are looking to you as their role models. They could never get better ones than that. Maybe it’s your best friend. And if it’s none of those, I encourage you to look for your role models in the athletes of Special Olympics.
They’re running their races. They’re giving their all. They’re crossing divides. They’re loving—it seems to me, over and over again, even in the face of scorn—that which has rejected them and trying again. Their example can change all our lives, and yours can too.
So, I encourage you, Hoyas. We need the fierce determination to make us all better with the radical conviction that the job you face right now in the world is too much for any force other than love. We can try every trick and every tactic known to humankind to heal our world, but our history and our destiny are all tied up in one truth:
We can’t heal what we don’t love.
So off you go: to work, to win, to rise to many hilltops, to create a new America the possible—and I hope, with all my heart, to welcome those on the outside with love.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.