International School of the Sacred Heart
The Class of Ninety-two
On Friday evening, June fifth
Nineteen Hundred and Ninety –two
At five –thirty pm
Meiji Gakuin University
I was expecting an invitation for this graduation ceremony, but not quite in this form. This invitation to be guest speaker came as a pleasant surprise. I find myself in the uncommon role of a former member of the faculty being invited to give you a message today.
I would like to consider this invitation as an act of appreciation by the class of ‘92 to all the members of the faculty past and present .I would also like to think of this as a recognition of the role of” the third world teacher “.There are not many teachers from the third world here in Japan. I have had the rare privilege of teaching in this school and in several other institutions in Tokyo, with excellent facilities in the midst of a stable and peaceful environment .There are tens of thousands of teachers and children out there in the countries of the third world, dedicated and committed teachers in the remote areas of the globe…. Living and working in ill – equipped schools under extremely difficult, unstable and dangerous conditions. On an occasion like this I would like all of us here to remember those teachers and millions of students in the less developed countries of the world engaged in this essential task of education.
To look at the world from a Third world perspective has become a deeply ingrained second nature to me. Invariably the theme of my speech today is in many ways concerned with the Third World .
In one of the many beautiful passages in the Bible (and I refer here to the book of Ecclesiastes) We read there is a time for everything …a time for sorrow and a time for joy, a time for mourning and a time for dancing.
This is your day, a day for rejoicing and a day for celebration. A day that you have completed an important stage in your education and begin to look forward to another, when vital choices have to be made. You will enjoy more freedom and with that will come responsibilities as you enter a world in which women are demanding more rights and are increasingly taking their rightful place in various walks of life.
You are going out into a world in which events have been moving so fast that it is almost impossible to cope with, understand and analyse the changes that are talking place. The Daily Yomiuri (May 5, 1992) recently carried the following editorial comment:
“….the world keeps revolving at a dizzying pace …. The ongoing rapid upheavals in world history are forcing social studies textbook publishers to rush supplements and modifications for now outdated textbooks to primary and middle school teachers.”
The Power of the Powerless
“The Power of the Powerless” is the theme and title of a book of essays by the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann. It is also the title of a long essay by Vaclav Havel , presently President of Czechoslovakia, published in two separate books one called “Living in Truth” and the other “Without Force or Lies – Voices from the Revolution in Central Europe in 1989-90.” Both Moltman and Havel are men who have suffered imprisonment. Moltman ‘s theology is also referred to as the theology of hope. As I look back at the changes that have taken place over the last five decades I find this theme “the power of the powerless” significant and thought provoking and will dwell on this theme today.
As we reflect on the changes that are talking place in contemporary times my mind goes back to the 1940s and 50s when the world changed dramatically. It began with the year of Indian independence. That memorable day August 15th, 1947 set in motion the decolonisation process in Asia and Africa. Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of free India summed up the hopes and aspirations of millions when he said:
“A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance.”
It was a time of great joy and celebrations as country after country became independent. Songs of freedom, hope, equality and justice were heard everywhere. In South India and in northern Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) the poems of Subramaniya Bharathi the great 20th century Tamil poet were set to music and sung by India’s famous singers of that time including the renowned singer M.S Subhalakshimi whom Nehru once dubbed the nightingale of India.
Those were times of glorious aspirations and expectations. The world was going to be a better place ... that is what we thought. We held on to Gandhi’s vision for India and the world. He once wrote:
“The Swaraj of my dreams is the poor man’s Swaraj ... I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of peoples; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony.” (Young India 1931)
But with freedom came sad and tragic events. I have vivid memories of the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948.The news was unbelievable, shocking and there was profound sadness everywhere. That evening we gathered around the one and only radio we had in my school, Jaffna College, which Gandhi had visited in 1927, to listen to Nehru deliver another of his memorable speeches “The light has gone out.”
The second major period of change occurred in the late 60s and 70s. We became conscious of the reality that decolonization did not necessarily mean social and economic justice. The liberators of yesterday had become the oppressors of today, perpetuating structures of domination that resulted in injustice, violated human rights and failed to eradicate poverty. Concepts of development and under-development, neo-colonialism, ethnicity, a New International Economic Order and the very terms ‘Third world’, or ‘North and South’ became common usage.
This period also saw the emergence of Liberation Theology … a major contribution by Latin American theologians. Gustavo Gutierrez’s “The Theology of Liberation” (1973) and Paulo Freire’s ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1968) were widely read, studied and discussed.
These scholar-activists stressed that study must lead to ‘praxis’ which meant action orientated to the transformation of society, the making of history on behalf of the poor.
Now the cold war is over and we are at another turning point in history. The number of member states in the United Nations has increased from 159 to 178 within the short space of one year. An uneasy peace has returned to Lebanon, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Major changes are on the agenda in South Africa. The Palestinians and the Israelis though not quite at peace are at least engaged in discussions for the first time in decades.
Seize the Day
A time of rapid changes and crisis is also a time of opportunities. It is in this context that I would like to relate my speech to your theme for this day. “Seize the Day” not only to make your own individual lives meaningful, but also to make the world a better place to live in. Seize the day to bring justice to the poor, the powerless and the oppressed, peace to the conflict ridden lands in the world, and above all foods, clothing, shelter, health care and education to the children of the least among the less developed countries of the world. Expect great things, attempt great things.
Here in this school you have received an education for a meaningful life in a well integrated programme that relates what you study in the classroom to the total life of the school and the community. With students from over fifty countries you have been prepared for world citizenship ... to rise above the narrow confines of nationality and ethnic divisions and to affirm our common humanity. Here you have been charged with the responsibility to study and engage in action. Soon it will be your duty to give back to the world something of what you have received here. I hope you will respond to this challenge.
Awareness about the destruction of the environment came not from the powerful but from the powerless – the indigenous peoples and environmental activities. You in this school can say with some satisfaction that you have been a part of this global process. The Earth Summit that is now taking place is a direct outcome of the pressures exercised by these movements.
You have participated in the Amnesty International Campaigns for human rights in South Africa and more recently in Myanmar. You have been involved in actions for refugees. I know that you are concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka and the struggle there for peace, human rights and justice. It is your duty and responsibility to carry forwards this message of peace and justice wherever you are.
Protecting children- First Call on Societies’ Concern
Last year Sr.Sheehy spoke of the ‘Unfinished Agenda, a New Vision for child development and Education ‘One of the great failures of the 20th century has been the failure to educate the children of the world, especially female education - education of the mothers to be. Today concerned scholars perceive a direct linkage between poverty, increase in population, military expenditures, third world debt and environmentally sustainable development. The United Nations Children’s fund (UNICEF) has asserted that:
“Protecting the growing minds and bodies of children should have first call on societies’ concern in good times and in bad, in boom or recession, in peace or war. Entrenching that principle of “first call” is the challenge of the 1990s.”(The State of the World‘s Children, 1992, UNICEF, Oxford University Press, p.26.)
In the last decade, UNICEF further stated, more than one and a half million children have been killed in wars. More than 4 million have been physically disabled … through bombing, land-mines, firearms and torture. Five million children are in refugee camps; a further 12 million have lost their homes. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has reported that hundreds of millions of children worldwide work and toil in fields and factories utterly exploited and for pitiful wages. (Japan Times, June 3, 1992). The “War on Children” is a 20th century invention (UNICEF). Always the heaviest burden is felt by children. They are the most powerless among us.
The 1980s was a disastrous decade for education. Out of over 100 developing countries surveyed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), two thirds saw a decline in expenditures per pupil and half saw a fall in the proportion of their children enrolled in primary school. The cause in most cases was the debt crisis. In most countries 50 or more children can be provide with primary education for the cost of one university student (UNICEF,1992) or if I may add for the cost of educating one Sacred Heart student.
By the time we have completed this graduation ceremony 10,000 additional babies would have come into this world. 250,000 born every day. In the 1980s every minute 15 children died for want of food and inexpensive vaccines while the world’s military machine absorbed another $1,900,000 from the public treasury.
If there is a direct linkage between population growth and environmental destruction - and this I may add is a highly controversial issue - the solution lies in reducing infant mortality and child deaths. The ultimate solution lies in educating the mothers to be. The 1990s will be the crucial decade. Population is expected to rise at a rapid pace in this decade but will slow down later if the children of the world are educated.
When posed with a challenge of such magnitude students and others often say what can I do. I am only one individual. I have to find a job, earn my living in a world in which jobs are becoming scarce, and competition is stiff. It is true that there is not much we can do as individuals. In addition your primary task as students is to study and equip yourselves for your life in the years to come.
The pursuit of excellence is important be it in the world of learning, sports, music or the arts. But let not the pride of achievement lead to self-indulgence. You cannot insulate yourselves from the sufferings of the poor. The problems of poverty are integrally linked with the destruction of the earth. We will all be destroying ourselves if we do not address the problems of poverty with a sense of urgency. It is today a matter of survival for all of us.
Solidarity with the First Victims
What then is to be done? This is the age of peoples’ movements and NGO’s whose representatives, an estimated 10,000 have gathered together this week in Rio de Janeiro. To resolve the problems we face Vaclav Havel in his essay “The power of the Powerless” takes us back to the idea of community … And adds that the issue is the “rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity and love.
Moltman ’s reflections are biblical and he speak as a Christian theologian. He too stresses the values of community and solidarity:
“The helpless have only one strength: their solidarity. Individuals can do nothing. But together they build a counter-force, and in solidarity with one another they become unconquerable … When everyone looks at himself we are afraid. But hope springs up in the community of solidarity.”
“Solidarity with the first victims, solidarity with the weakest among us tomorrow. So their skins are our own. Solidarity means compassion, suffering, with others, bearing our burdens together.”
Here we have a convergence of views by to two outstanding men of our times. Today several peoples’ movements and NGO’s are in the forefront in the struggle for justice for the poor and an ecologically sound earth. These movements concerned with and in solidarity with the poor and often composed of small dedicated bands of people. They range from movements concerned with human rights such as Amnesty International to the Friends of the Earth, from Civil Liberties Unions to Bread for the World. These groups need financial support but more important than money is the publicly expressed support and solidarity that you can give them.
They need volunteers who will give their time. We should discipline ourselves to set apart a small portion of our time every week for one or more of these movements. When we go on vacation to the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America we should take the trouble to discover, identify, visit and express our support to voluntary organizations engaged in the vital task of eradicating illiteracy, improving health care, and providing shelter to the poor and helping to save the forests. Some of you may be called upon to give your lives in total commitment to such causes.
The Light that Shines
I began this speech with references to India and Nehru. On that sad day in 1948 Nehru began his speech with the words, “the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere”. But that was not the main theme of his speech. He ended that speech with a note of hope;
“The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light.” In years to comes, he predicted, “that light will still be seen….the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate present; it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path (and) drawing us from error … ”
Forty years later it was one my profound experiences to see that light shine in this school. At the opening Liturgy, in the adjoining university chapel, I heard the voices of you the students of Sacred Heart sing:
There’s a full moon over India, and Gandhi lives again,
Who’s to say you have to lose for someone else to win?
In the eyes of all the people, the look is just the same,
For the first is just the last one,
When you play a deadly game.
It’s about time we realize it, we’re all in this together,
It’s about time we find out, it’s all of us or none.
It’s about time we recognize it, these changes in the weather.
It’s about time, it’s about changes and it’s about time.
There’s a man who is my brother, I just don’t know his name,
But I know his home and his family, because I know we feel the same
And it hurts me when he’s hungry, or when his children cry.
I too love the children and that little one is mine.
In many ways we are going back to and are being reminded of the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their’s was the power of the powerless. Their visions inspire us and will continue to inspire humanity for ages.
We are being called to action, action based on sound knowledge and values that are permanent and unchangeable. We have to take a stand against “oppression and injustice”. You have to develop “a critical sense which leads to reflection on our society and its values.” Above all you must believe that “there is meaning in life” that “fosters a sense of hope.”
(See “Goals- To Educate To: School Handbook and Directory, International School of the Sacred Heart.)
As you graduate and go your several ways to different parts of the world we wish and pray that you find joy in living courageous, fearless and meaningful lives, so that some day in the future you can look back – you can look back at your lives - and say at least I tried, I did my best. I wish to conclude with a well known poem by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore which is both a message and a prayer.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.