Commencement addresses are tricky things. Most speakers go in knowing that expectations are at once very low and very high. People would love to hear a remarkable address, but they know they are unlikely to hear one, the best efforts of the speaker not withstanding. But sometimes a commencement speaker rises to the occasion, captivates an audience — and is remembered — if for no other reason, than for having done so.
Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International broke through the summer haze with just such a speech last weekend at Oberlin College in Ohio. His remarks are not only available on the college web site — but they are now lighting up the blogophere. A member of the class of 2005 was so moved that he posted the speech on The Daily Kos where it is at the top of the “Recommended List” and much discussed. As one commenter wrote: “All that I can say is that I wish my days were blessed with more words that could leave me feeling like I feel right now after reading that.”
Dr. Schulz has been much in the news this week, due to Amnesty’s release of a report on human rights abuses and torture of prisoners by the United States at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Amnesty has called for an international investigation and the prosecution of any U.S. government officials found responsible.
But Schulz, a 1971 Oberlin graduate was at his alma mater to connect the values of the college to his hopes for the mission of the students as they enter the world beyond. Along the way, he told a story that I will never forget.
“In the midst of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda,” Schulz recalled, “a group of machete-wielding militiamen attacked a girl’s school in the middle of the night. The teenagers were rousted from their beds about 2:00 AM and forced to line up in the dining hall. They were ordered to separate themselves, Hutu from Tutsi, so that only the Tutsi would die. But the girls refused. A second time the commander ordered them to divide up by ethnic group. But still they refused. And finally one of the girls found her voice and, though very frightened, this is what it was reported later that she said: “We cannot separate ourselves, you see, because we are not Hutu; we are not Tutsi; we are Rwandan” at which point every one of them was slaughtered.”
“But what a legacy they leave! ‘We are not Hutu; we are not Tutsi. We are Rwandan.’ In that simple sentiment that young girl bespoke a graciousness upon which depends the salvation of the world.”
Here in the United States we do not face such unspeakable horrors. But we do live in difficult times, with much at stake. For those of us who did not happen to graduate from anything this year, and even for those of us who did, let’s adopt Dr. Schulz as our commencement speaker, and as we go forward to face the challenges of our time — let’s have the courage to be Rwandan.