Birmingham-Southern College awards Bishop Willimon honorary degree

May 28, 2006

This past weekend, Birmingham-Southern College awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree to Bishop William H. Willimon.  Bishop Willimon was cited for his contributions to higher education, his scholarly work, and his church leadership.  The college also named Bishop Willimon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion.  Last fall Bishop Willimon taught a course on Contemporary Theology at Birmingham-Southern.

Bishop Willimon also preached the Baccalaureate Sermon at the Baccalaureate service at BSC.  A copy of that sermon, "Disrespect," is below.

Baccalaureate Sermon at Birmingham-Southern College
  May 27,  2006

Shortly before he was tortured to death, Jesus issued this short sermon to the youth of his day,

Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, and to have the best seats….and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation! (Mark 12:38-40)

If you ever wondered why a wonderful person like Jesus was murdered, it was because of his baccalaureate sermons! Just for a moment I want you to overlook that when Jesus condemned “scribes” he was talking about people like me, religious authorities, people in power who sit at head tables. You will note that -- despite Jesus’ condemnation of such attire -- I stand before you in a “long robe.” Though Jesus loved the poor, he despised religious authorities, people who have the “best seats” and wear long robes and offer long prayers.

Yet despite all that I beg you to overlook Jesus’ condemnation of long robed, long winded people like me and allow me just a few moments to condemn people like you.

I come before you today, on the eve of your graduation from the Hilltop, to say a word of praise for the virtue that Jesus so well and so often embodied – contumeliousness.

I know, your mother told you that contumeliousness is a vice, not a virtue, no matter what Jesus said. I know that “human dignity,” “respect” have been themes of your senior year at Birmingham-Southern. We have had panels and symposia where you were told that respect and dignity were what you most owed us and what we most wanted out of you. As Jesus says, this is what people who wear long robes always want from the young – respect for us and the world we are handing you.

But now, on your way out, this long robed, long winded preacher, taking Jesus as my model, would like to put in a good word for disrespect, even insolence. I taught a class here last fall and in that class I was confirmed in one of my earliest impressions of your generation. You are noted by people of my generation for your unfailing politeness. Back when I was a student, in the Sixties, we were mad at our parents and we told them so. Our parents had deceived us about Viet Nam and Civil Rights and we didn’t like it and we were determined push them out of the way, take charge and to do better than they.

You, on the other hand, are generally respectful and deferential to us old people. I know what you are thinking: “One reason why we appear to be so civil and kind to you faculty in class is not only that many of us are polite Southerners but also because you, as faculty, have power over our lives, our futures in your hands. We had to act like we liked you in order to get out of Organic Chemistry!”

But now that you are graduating and, because you have a degree from a first rate college, we are handing the world over into your hands. I beg you to overcome your inbred graciousness toward us, the aging infirm and the often inept, and let youthful disrespect blossom.

True, the Bible says that we should “honor our father and mother” and we in Alabama are very big on the Ten Commandments, even if we don’t always know or follow them! Still, I want to say a word on behalf of disrespect of your parents.

The world we’re giving to you is not what we intended it to be.  We are handing you not only a bright future but a future with huge problems – global warming, national debt, energy shortages, terrorism, governmental ineptitude, poverty. We, your elders and your superiors, have shown you time and again that we little inclination, courage, or creativity to address these problems. (President Bush is my age, as is ex-President Clinton.) We need you therefore to show less deference and politeness toward us and more determination to run the world better than we. That’s one of the things that I have difficulty respecting about your generation – you have too much respect for my generation. An excess of politeless, a surfeit of civility can be just another sort of slavery, a totalitarian attempt to keep you pacified and unthreatening to the status quo. Is that why a national survey of college students, taken your freshmen year, indicated that yours was the most politically apathetic generation since the peak of political engagement in the 1960’s?

In his day, Thoreau, (in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) said a truly great education ought to cultivate among the young less respect for the law and more respect for the right. Claiming that respect for the law tends to go hand-in-hand with injustice, Thoreau said that a good education is one that teaches us to respect the good that is always higher than conventional, received standards of what is good. Perhaps that’s what a higher education should be about – the glorification of the good that is higher than present arrangements coupled with a disglorification of where we happen to be right now.

Take therefore, as your motto as you go forth, that which the hip-hop subculture rendered into a verb, the word “disrespect.” Or as it is often abbreviated “to dis.” The New Oxford Dictionary says that “dissing” specifically means “failing to show sufficient terror in the face of intimidation.” That’s what I’m pleading. Don’t be intimidated by the achievements of my generation, nor by our unaddressed and even unacknowledged global problems.

Idealism, vision, hope, these are all noble virtues.  But maybe for your generation, at this time and place, the engine that will drive you into a better future is disrespect, malcontentment, dis-ease with the inherited world. When asked to comment on the genius of the artist, Joan Miró, the Spanish poet Tristan Tzara said that Miró brushed off “the history of art with a disrespectful wave.” (1948) The basis of Miró’s genius was in his determined, creative disrespect, his unwillingness to be bound by the art he inherited. And when the great Southern Catholic novelist, Walker Percy went into a funk, he blamed his writer’s block on his now being, “Fresh out of malice….the love of God, hatred of things as they are….” In short, the things that are essential for any artist to make great art.

I’ll admit that for many of you, merely by accidents of birth, the world we’re giving you looks fairly good. A recent survey of your age group (according to Natalie Davis who knows so very much about these things) 65 % of you said that you think, “Alabama is basically headed in the right direction.”

When I read that, I’m thinking that maybe the blessings that you have inherited have become a kind of curse, lulling you into a false contentment with things present when you ought to be just dying to get out there and do better than we have.

I say this with some nervousness, recalling that even someone who spoke as well as Socrates was executed on the charge of “corrupting youth,” which by that the long robed Athenian establishment meant making the kids discontent with Athens.

One of you was telling me about a summer internship that you had in the office of some legislator. You were thrilled to get the internship because you respected him so much. Well, by the end of the summer when I asked you how it went, you replied, “He’s in over his head. He doesn’t know what he is doing.” I predict that experience may give birth to a new breed of politician. What passes for “reality,” or the “way things are” may be considerably more pliable and responsive to your touch than you think.

When asked how he became a humorist, Stephen Colbert said that the night his father and two of his brothers died in the crash of an Eastern airlines jet, he turned to humor out of disrespect for those who thought they were in charge of the world.

The great Christian apologist, Narnia’s C. S. Lewis, said that our greatest sin is not that we do great wrong but rather that “we are far too easily pleased,” too satisfied with things as they are, too adjusted and accommodated. Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and couldn’t stand the way things are now.

As an aging long robed person, I yearn for your respect, admiration, and deferential obeisance. However, in my better moments I know: What we most need from you to today is to dream dreams that we forgot how to dream, to think of things that we haven’t thought of, to come up with ideas, in a society that has a shortage, not only of light sweet crude, but also of dreams and ideas. It’s healthy for there to be a gap between what we’ve done, and what you hope to do. That gap is a free, liberating space within which you can work your wonders.

I respect you because I believe God has given you all we need to address the problems that lie before us.Cultivate in yourself a holy discontent with present arrangements, and practices.

The great anarchist, Emma Goldmann, when she was not trying to overthrow the government or organizing labor, worked as a midwife. It was said that when Emma Goldmann assisted at a birth, if the baby was a female infant, as the babe was being born, Emma would whisper in the child’s ear, “Rebel! I apologize for taking almost twenty minutes to tell you what Goldmann said in less than one.

So tomorrow, at Commencement, if we should bump into each other as we parade about in our long robes, I shall not take offense if you greet me not with your typical deference and respect but rather with, “Old man, get out of my way. It’s my turn now to clean up your mess. God has sent me to take over!”

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