Commencement Address at Muhlenberg College

Allentown, PA | June 4, 1967

We have a new kind of humanism that understands the most important reality of our day -- the way to stop war is not to condemn the soldier, but to fight the conditions that make war possible: poverty, sickness, injustice.

Four years ago, when the class of '67 entered college as freshmen, the times were different and the country was not the same.

John F. Kennedy was president. He was loved by young people because he was a technician of truth who rallied the country to involvement and stirred the people to action.

Four years ago, few American campuses were in the civil rights movement. The problem of Negro suffering had not yet brought students to Selma or Grenada. Your minds may have been engaged, but your hearts were not yet aroused.

When you came to Muhlenberg as freshmen, Vietnam was only a place on the map, not an agony in our soul. Most of you were unworried about military service. Most of you had not yet given a serious thought to the American position in that war. Few of you dreamed the draft laws would be changed.

Four years ago, the voice of the poor was still being ignored. 35 million Americans lacked the necessities they needed — while the rest of America enjoyed whatever luxuries they wanted. Four years ago, the churches were still saying they had a mission to save the world — not a commitment to serve it.

When you came to this campus as freshmen, all of you were younger and most of you were merrier. Now, four years and 120 credit hours later, you are older and possibly not so merry. The world has changed — some of it before your eyes and some of it behind your back.

Yet that is not really the issue—the times change, but men do not. The human heart will always thirst for knowledge. The human heart will always desire love and the human stomach will always hunger for bread.

The issue that haunts me is this: Must these thirsts, desires and hungers forever go unsatisfied among men? Must ignorance always overshadow knowledge, must hate always be stronger than love, must there be more stones than bread?

The easy answer is yes. The world is in a mess and it will never get better. We are a deranged race of men, so why bother.

But that is defeatism. Nothing is simpler to do than find reasons to do nothing. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote:

"It is too easy to find an excuse for inaction by pleading the decadence of civilization. This the besetting temptation of our time."

But how do we resist this temptation? How do we avoid becoming dropouts from reality and holdouts from society? How do we answer the question the Jewish Philosopher, Martin Buber, asked:

"What does man need, every man, in order to live as a man?"

There is no simple answer. Our only hope is that we pay homage to these profound questions and begin seeking profound answers. Because until a few years ago, we were ignoring those questions and saying there were no answers.

The question of world suffering was too big for us. But in 1961, we formed the Peace Corps — and that has been part of the answer. The question of a separated Christianity was too big for us. But Pope John revived the ecumenical movement. And Christianity has changed more in the past ten years than in the first 2,000. That has been part of the answer.

The question of world trade was too big for us. But two weeks ago, world leaders met in Geneva for the Kennedy round. Tariffs were lowered and hopes have been raised. That has been part of the answer. The question of the Cold War was too big for us. But recently a dialogue has been started between Marxists and Christians. They are providing part of the answer.

And finally, the question of poverty in America was too big for us. We preferred to ignore it by having charity wards in hospitals, food stamps in grocery stores and goodwill trucks in slums.

Today, we know those answers have only forestalled poverty, they have not eliminated it. This is because poverty is not just being without money. It is not having an education, a job, a lawyer or a doctor, a skill or a hope. It is being out of work, out of school and out of luck.

That’s why 2 ½ years ago, we looked around for a new answer to poverty in America— not an answer that would sound pretty in the history books, but one that would work in the streets and cities where history is made.

Part of this answer to American poverty is:

  • VISTA - Which has had more than 100,000 applications.
  • Head Start - Which has had more than 1 million children enrolled, with 300,000 volunteers.
  • Part of the answer has been Legal Services, Health Centers, Upward Bound.

What does all this mean? What is happening? Is the fad-value of idealism suddenly the latest thing to be "in"?   

Are we on a brotherhood kick?

The answer is no.

Something else is happening. We are going beyond idealism, beyond politics, beyond even theology. We are helping to create a new kind of humanism in America — what Teilhard de Chardin called "A Crusade for Man."

This humanism is being practiced 50 miles north of here in Wilkes-Barre where 50 high school students from Luzerne County are enrolled in Wilkes College Upward Bound. These students are from poor families — some of whom have never sent a member to college: Not because they lacked intelligence, but because they lacked confidence and motivation.

At Wilkes College, this summer, 50 youngsters who were turned off will be turned on. They will be turned on to a new world — not our world of middle-class values, nor a make-believe world where everyone succeeds and everybody wins. But a world where every human talent can be used because every human person is valuable.

We need college students to help in Upward Bound programs. There are 242 colleges and universities enrolling more than 26,000 Upward Bound students this summer. That will be a kind of humanism that you couldn't practice 4 years ago when you entered college.

Another place we need college students is Head Start — as volunteers. 

I was in Chicago last week and Head Start in that city needs 3,500 volunteers — to help a few hours a week for summer classes. Every large city in America needs Head Start volunteers. Even every small town in America where children are living in poverty.

But college students are not the only Americans needed to fight poverty.

What about parents and grandparents. They are still a part of this country and they also can make a contribution. A thousand cities in America have community action programs where local needs are
met by local people.

For older people there is Foster Grandparents. This is not just a program designed to give old people "something to do," but is meant to give them something to create—a new life for a neglected child.

All of these programs have aroused a new national consensus, have a kind of humanism that no longer says to the poor man: "Can't you make it the hard way, like I did?"

Instead, we realize the poor can't make it the hard way— because progress and technology have changed the old and hard way into the new and impossible way. In the age of automation, it is three or four times more difficult to rise out of poverty as in immigrant times— because a man needs three or four times more training to qualify for a job.

We have a new kind of humanism that understands the most important reality of our day— the way to stop war is not to condemn the soldier, but to fight the conditions that make war possible: poverty, sickness, injustice.

In a world where millions of people live with no hope and millions more die because of no bread, in a world where a dog in America often eats better than a human being in Nigeria or Peru or India.  In that kind of a world, one fact is clear: You and I are either part of the problem or we are part of the solution.

If we claim to be part of the solution, we must listen to the words of Albert Camus:

"The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally."

The shockwave is felt daily of those who are speaking out and paying up, Though it is hard on the stomachs of many older people to witness the current changes, the fact is that countless young people are using their dissent and protest creatively.

For every renegade from easy street who goes to Haight-Asbury in San Francisco this summer, there will be hundreds who will go into the slums of Hunter's Point — not to get high, but to get involved. For every protest march Fifth Avenue in New York, there will be countless individual protest marches on 125th Street in Harlem — not to make noise, but to make progress.

For every college graduate who loafs away his summer at the country club, there will be hundreds who will volunteer for Head Start classes — not to become better off, but to become better. For every college graduate who joins the Dodge rebellion there will be thousands who don't dodge the rebellion — the rebellion against racism, nationalism, split-level dreams and supermarket hopes.

That is the kind of creative protest we need in America. It is the kind that echoes the words of Pope John XXIII: "see everything, overlook much, improve a little."

There is more creative protest in America than we realize. It is being made by people who want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Instead of telling everyone what's wrong with a world they didn't make, young Americans are helping to do what's right in a world they can make.

What is the reward of this kind humanism?

For one thing, it gets you out of the ghetto. I don't mean a city slum where unwarmed bodies live in unlit tenements. I mean the other kind of ghetto — an interior ghetto of the mind where we seal off those parts of Christianity that don't suit us, where we box off our obligations to love all men and where we shut out our commitments to serve all men. This ghetto of the mind is no less stinking and rotten than the ghetto of the city. Both kinds of ghettoes need to be escaped from.

The second reward for this new humanism is that you no longer must search out ways to use your talents. The ways are waiting for you —- the Teacher Corps, VISTA, Crossroads Africa, Peace Corps, Head Start, Job Corps, or any number of sabbaticals from boredom.

A few years ago, the world was full of people who wanted to "do good," but had not the slightest idea how. But there are no more excuses for being a queen-bee idealist. The work of humanity needs to be done — not just to make things work but make things better.

If you choose to become a part of this work, it means you will probably be ahead of the times — and in some cases, against the times. But it also means that social change will not only come from you, but also through you.