Sunday, July 8, 2012

For If The People Will Lead, Eventually The Leaders Will Follow

It's sort of a shame Sr Joan can never wear one of the pointy hats, carry a crozier, and wear lots of lace.

There are graduation speeches and then there are graduation speeches.  The following is the speech given to the 2012 graduates of Stanford University by Sr Joan Chittister.  I would have loved to have heard her give it in person, and yet I was inspired just reading it.  Here it is in it's entirety as posted on Sojourners:

Sister Joan Chittister's Stanford Baccalaureate Address

Bertolt Brecht, German dramatist and poet wrote: "There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two."

And Walter Lippmann said: "The final test of a leader is someone who leaves behind themselves – in others – the conviction and the will to carry on."

But how do we know what it means to really be a leader and how do we know who should do it?

There are some clues to those answers in folk literature, I think. The first story is about two boats that meet head on in a shipping channel at night.

As boats are wont to do in the dark, boat number 1 flashed boat number 2: "We are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees north."

Boat 2 signaled back: "Yes, we are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees south."

Boat 1 signaled again: "I am an admiral in her majesty's navy; I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees north."

Boat 2 flashed back immediately: "And I am a seaman 2nd class. And I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees south."

By this time, the admiral was furious. He flashed back: "I repeat! I am an admiral in her majesty's navy and I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees north. I am in a battleship!"

And the second boat returned a signal that said: "And I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees south. I am in a lighthouse."

Point: Rank, titles and positions are no substitute for leadership.

You are all graduating from this great university this weekend because someone has seen leadership potential in you at a time of grinding poverty and gross inequality. At a time when we have never needed leadership more, someone saw in you the possibility to be a powerful presence in the public arenas of our own time. The question is, then, what will you inspire in this world now?

The motto under which you have been educated here – the "the wind of freedom blows" – is exactly what a world struggling between the challenges of the present and the ideals of the past requires.

It requires the freedom to question and the freedom to rethink absolutes.

It requires the freedom to confront what does not work and to rebel against rigidities that mask as unassailable traditions.

It requires you to re-energize the kind of courageous initiative that opened the frontier in one century and reached the moon in the next.

It requires the vision that freed slaves and empowered women, that preserved the spiritual but honored the secular, as well.

What the world needs now are those who will commit themselves to free that kind of energy everywhere and lead others to do the same.

First, though, you must realize that the world did not send you here simply to get itself another engineer or business manager or computer science programmer. No, your world sent you here to be its leaders.

But note well: The world you have been given to lead is both glorious and grim. One right step and the whole world can become new again. One more wrong step and the globe itself is in irreversible danger.

Indeed, we need a new direction; we need another point of view. We need a more complete human agenda. And it is yours now to lead.

No, the world does not really need the skills you learned here. Today's skills will all change in the next five years and change your life with them.

The world does not need answers either. Answers are easy to come by: You Google them.

No, what the world really needs from you now is the courage to ask the right questions without apology, without fear, and without end.

It needs those who will lead from the vantage point of new questions, not old answers. From the point of view of enduring values, not denominational politics; from the perspective of global needs, not parochial interests.

Two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women. Two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women. Two-thirds of the poor of the world are women.

That can't be an accident; that has to be a policy.

Where are the leaders who will change these things?

The ozone layer, the placenta of the earth, has been ruptured. The polar ice cap is melting and raising the water levels of the world. And, at the same time, the lands of the poor are turning to dust and stone while the industrialized world goes on choosing short-term profits over long-term global warming treaties.

Nuclear weaponry threatens the very existence of the planet and they have the effrontery to call it "defense."

The question is, then, how shall you lead this next generation, so that the errors of this present generation do not simply become even more death dealing in the future than they are now?

If you really want to be a leader who leads your city, your country, your world down a different path, there are three stories you should know, I think. They may say more about the kind of leadership needed for our time than anything any MBA leadership manual can begin to explain to you:

The first is from the western fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, which you may have learned as a child but which is, in fact, about a very adult problem.

In the first story, a village is preparing for a visit from its king. He will come regally dressed, his courtiers tell them. Never, they say, has a king been so finely outfitted as ours.

So, on the day of the king's arrival people cheer and cheer as the king strides by. "You, O King, are the finest king of all." Except for one small child. "No," the child shouts. "No! He is not splendid. He is not honest," he says. "In fact, the king has no clothes on at all." Then the crowd went silent. Then the farce was over. Then everyone snuck away ashamed of what they had allowed to go unchallenged. Only then did the dishonest emperor resign the throne.

Point: If you want to really be a leader, you must be a truth-teller.

If you want to save the age, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly writes, "Betray it. Expose its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes."

Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever.

The lie that there is nothing we can do about discrimination, nothing we can do about world poverty, nothing we can do about fair trade, nothing we can do to end war, nothing we can do to provide education and health care, housing and food, maternity care and just wages for everyone in the world. Nothing we can do about women raped, beaten, trafficked, silenced yet, still, now, everywhere.

If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies.

You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.

The second story is about the Buddhist monk Tetsugen, who determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese.

He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he'd raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.

Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade's work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.

The second lesson of leadership, then, is that no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.

The third lesson of leadership comes from the Sufi master who taught disciples one thing only: "If you want to smell sweet, stay close to the seller of perfumes."

The heroes you make for yourselves, the people you idolize, will be the measure of your own character, your own ideals, your own legacy.

If you want to lead the world to compassion, you must surround yourself with the compassionate, rather than the uncaring.

If you want to lead the world to wholeness, you must follow the peacemakers, not the warmongers.

If you want to lead the world to the freedom you learned here, equality for everyone must mean more to you than domination by anyone.

Justice must mean more to you than money. People must mean more to you than fame. Ideals must mean more to you than power or politics or public approval.

If you really want to inspire those you leave behind with the conviction and the will to go on doing good, doing justice, doing right, like the child in the village, like the wise old monk Tetsugen, like the Sufi saint of perfume sellers, choose reality over image, choose people over personal profits and projects, choose your heroes wisely.

Speak up loud and clear to the powers of this world that use their power for themselves alone.

The great leaders of history are always those who refuse to bend to naked kings: Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman.

The great leaders of history have always been those who refused to barter their ideal for the sake of their personal interests and who rebelled against the lies of their times.

If you want to be a real leader, if you want to give a new kind of leadership, you cannot live to get the approval of a system, you must live to save the soul of it.

"As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs," Clarence Darrow warned us. "And if no leaders object, and no leaders rebel, those wrongs will last forever."

If you really want to lead, you must rebel against forces of death that obstruct us from being fully human together.

"The purpose of life," the essayist Rosten writes, "is not to be happy. The purpose of life is to matter, to have it make a difference that you lived at all."

To save this age, use your education, use your freedom, to make a difference.

Inspire in those who follow you the conviction and the will to denounce the lies, to reject the greed, to resist the heretics of inhumanity who peddle inequality, injustice and the torturers' instruments of oppression and social violence.

To be a real leader, by all means make a difference!

Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel!

For if the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow.


One of my favorite lines in this speech, and there were quite a few, was this line: 
If you want to be a real leader, if you want to give a new kind of leadership, you cannot live to get the approval of a system, you must live to save the soul of it.

While our Bishops are attempting to enshrine the 'conscience' of the Catholic system in secular law, they are selling it's soul.  A Catholic religious system with out a soul is just another competing secular system dressed up in different uniforms and saluting different ranks.  Sr Joan's message is relevant to all Catholics of any age or education.  It's time to stop attempting to get the approval of Church leadership and past time to start living to save the soul of the Church.  Eventually the leaders will follow.


  1. Sr. Joan is the kind of leader that the world needs now; she describes herself in her speech. I would rank her right with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and all of the others who have brought light into the world, at a great personal sacrifice all.

    1. Although I agree with you, the kind of leadership Sr Joan will engage in is mentoring the next class of leaders. It is after all their future and their children's future that my generation is now talking about. It's a rare system that insists on it's really old elders actually taking on the responsibility for day to day leadership. Catholicism happens to be one of those that tramples on youthful leadership because the old lions won't give it up.

  2. What happened to Occupy Wallstreet? That seemed to offer hope of change for the better.
    There are so many areas that need to be addressed: the Country, the Euro nations, Syria, Iran, etc.
    But one thing needs to be addressed and soon....the transparency of the Church MUST come and soon or the Church will be a footnote of history. Transparency may expose an institution more concerned about money and power than it's mission of leading people to Christ. We have recently seen some glimpses of how corrupt the Church is and, I fear, that's only the beginning. Time to exhume some bodies and examine documents. What gives any religion the right to break the law, steal from people, kill them without accountability?

    1. Occupy Wall Street is trying to figure out how to best deal with Police tactics. The Church will never be transparent about it's corruption unless it's exposed for them. The powers that be are utterly wrapped up in the notion of avoiding scandal to see that they are on the way to losing their credibility. Secrecy and the elitism it fosters is an addiction.

  3. Sr Joan's voice is as desperately needed in the same measure it is desperately being silenced.

    So many things failing all at once and the bodies and souls of humanity are in desperate and immediate action, resources, not to mention leadership.

    And what are the Bishops doing while everything crumbles around them?

    US Bishops auction off everything that is not nailed down and use the proceeds to shine the light away from their criminal activity and neglect an ever thinning flock all for the purpose to-"ENSHRINE THE 'CONSCIENCE' OF THE CATHOLIC SYSTEM IN SECULAR LAW”…they are already setting themselves up as the "Would Be" Saviors Of Western Civilization, which will crumble in spite of and partially because of their efforts.

    But, by god, they will write themselves into history as the 'last light burning' (as they make sure it is being recorded into congressional records, all manner of media, and especially in the minds of the mindless passed down from generation to generation) as we head into a new Dark Age...And then all the work to amass power, riches, influence will have them ready and waiting for whatever emerges on the other the self-appointed Keeper of All Truth, they will rebuild on the same flawed foundations, the same flawed 'system' that will again boast-Not even the Gates of Hell have been able to prevail against Us.

    Am I cynical?
    No, I was just born and raised a faithful fated Catholic.

    1. Interesting scenario, if just a little pessimistic. I was in the same boat for a long time and then I had a down load of sorts that informed me, 'it's not who controls the Vatican, it's about who sends the love, who sends the wisdom, who sends the empowerment." I think the Holy Spirit is operating from the sending side of things, not the controlling side of things.

      Hence, the Vatican thinks stamping out the witness of the LCWR will leave them in control of the 'simple people'. It won't. I guarantee you the 'simple people' are far more interested in their own culturally determined views of spirituality than they are the rules coming from the Vatican. The Vatican has no control over the Virgin of Guadalupe or The Lords and Ladies of Light. And never will.

  4. "A Catholic religious system with out a soul is just another competing secular system dressed up in different uniforms and saluting different ranks."

    Colleen, I love this quote from you. As I have been saying the only way an ethical person can remain a Roman Catholic is to understand and lead or follow the non clergy leaders out of the mess of a leadership that has gone wrong in its own autocracy. JP II the great enabler of our time and the great autocrat has lead us away from the holiness of John XXXIII and the holiness of Vatican II. The murder, yes murder, physically and intellectually of Jon Paul I must be understood. John Paul II understood what had happened and relished the power. If the Church is to make JP II a saint, then what would a person of the laity have to work toward? Nothing. Secularism. more greed?????

    1. Dennis, understanding is the first hardest step. It is so hard to break through conditioning that began when one's brain first started opening up the higher learning centers. Let's face it, most of that conditioning our generation had was fear fear and hell hell. No wonder scrupulosity became an issue.

  5. Excellent Speech!

    The words of a prophet are written on a blogger's wall.

    Thanks for finding the speech, am using it on my blog as well. Words worth repeating.

    1. Interesting blog Michael. I hope you don't mind if I link it on the side of this one.

  6. I think every line of Sr. Joan's speech is food for thought for the journey and I am energized by it, as if it were daily bread from the Lord to feed the hungry.

    "I am a lighthouse" .... May we each be a lighthouse of truth and not let the status quo lord it over us with their frilly titles and lies.

    Thanks you Colleen for posting this enlightening speech.


  7. It starts around 25:30. Not sure it's all in the clip.

    1. It's all there. Thank you for this link. It made the written words come alive.

  8. Rebellion can be fine and admirable.

    The question, which is not adequately addressed in the speech, is 'against what ought we to rebel and why?'.

  9. Sr. Joan is a prophet, that is why the bishops treat her without honor, as did the people treated Jesus in hometown Nazareth.