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Finding your voice

Robert C Koehler
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

There’s something happening here... Consider, for instance, the recent announcement by Union Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with Columbia University, that it is divesting from “companies profiting from war in Palestine/Israel” – and, not only that, fully supports the student encampments (at Columbia and all across the country) and condemns the arrests and police violence wreaking havoc on the peaceful, culturally diverse protests.

Indeed, the seminary released a statement that scrambles the quiet certainty of those in power – ie, that money matters more than anything else: “Over the decades, we have developed what are called ‘socially responsible investment screens’ to express our values and not financially support damaging and immoral investments.”

Values over profit? Over the years, the seminary has pulled its investments away from such industries as weapons manufacturers, for-profit prisons and fossil fuels. But not only that...apparently it understands, and values, education itself – a remarkable phenomenon indeed.

Seminary president Serene Jones, in an interview with Democracy Now!, pointed out that the school has opened up its campus “to all the surrounding campuses when students were being expelled, events weren’t allowed to happen. ... Our doors are wide open, which is what a university should be in times like this.”

She also said: “We support students learning what it means to find their voices, to speak out for justice and freedom.”

Those are the words that stunned me the most. This is what education is, for God’s sake! It’s not just a matter of attending lectures, taking notes, absorbing data. It means finding your voice – finding your deepest values and expressing them in real life, putting them forward not as abstractions but as principles to live by. Entering the world as a grown woman, a grown man, means more than simply finding your place. It means challenging that world as you enter it and, by God, creating it – creating the future.

I certainly don’t mean this simplistically. I speak as an aging boomer, who entered adulthood as the civil rights movement was shaking and shattering the national norms, and as the Vietnam war was bursting into our consciousness. What an injured and deeply flawed world! Something was wrong. Growing up meant finding our voices and addressing – challenging – this flawed world.

In October 1967, for instance, I boarded a bus, along with many of my friends, and participated in the first antiwar march on the Pentagon, which included pushing the edges of social and legal propriety. We did more than listen to speeches. We determined to occupy the Pentagon, thousands of us walking across the grass, coming face to face with the soldiers guarding it.

At one point, out of the blue, it seemed, a contingent of soldiers came rushing toward us; I wound up getting clobbered in the head with a rifle butt. I was knocked down but wasn’t hurt and stayed with the protest for several more hours, eventually leaving the Pentagon sit-in shortly before the arrests started happening.

My friends and I made it back to our school – Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo – with a sense that our lives were no longer the same. We immediately took matters into our own hands. We dropped out.

I wound up delaying my eventual graduation by a number of years, and no, I didn’t “change the world” in some idealistically imagined way, but I have no doubt whatsoever that this period of my life – full of protests, drugs, a few arrests, a lot of mistakes – was at the core of my college learning experience. At the same time as all this was going on, I was also finding myself as a writer and, eventually, a journalist. I value the support – indeed, the mentorship – of a significant number of professors at Western. Continually creating the world isn’t simply a matter of us vs. them: young vs. old. It’s a multigenerational effort.

All of which brings me back to the present moment, and the words of Serene Jones, who has not abandoned – or grown cynical about – the values emanating from the student encampments across the country. Much of the mainstream coverage of the protests simply defines the phenomenon in us-vs.-them terms. The protests are “pro-Palestine,” seeming to imply there are two equal (equally brutal) sides in this war, and being pro-Palestine means being anti-Israel, which can easily morph into anti-Semitic. But the protests aren’t simply pro-Palestine; they’re pro-humanity (and anti-genocide).

And the participants are culturally and religiously, but not spiritually, diverse. As Jones writes at Religion News Service: “First and foremost, these encampments are filled with students from different religious traditions – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, unaffiliated as well as spiritual but not religious students. They are finding solace and courage among themselves. ...

“It is simply who these protesters are: a community bound by a greater common cause to stop the mass killing of besieged Palestinians.”

Jones’s essay is called “What we have to learn from students leading the charge for justice” – which is itself compelling. The university system – the financial system, the political system – has something to learn from the protesters? Love thy enemy or whatever?

The world these protesters are entering is a world hardened by cynicism. In such a world, aka, the real world, ‘love’ and other values are appropriate to be uttered in a religious setting with pews and fancy windows, but they’re hardly relevant in the day-to-day world of win-and-lose, gain-and-loss. That’s why the cops are barging in, beating and arresting the protesters and tearing down the encampments. But Jones is daring to tell us that this is not the real world – simply the current one, which is still under construction.

Excerpted: ‘This Is What Education Is, for God’s Sake!’

Courtesy: Commondreams.org