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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Jonathan L. Walton

Jonathan L. Walton:  I’m Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals here at Harvard University as well as the Pusey Minister here in the Memorial Church.

I have this honor, privilege and pleasure that the Nieman Foundation asks me to conclude tonight’s ceremony, which means, they took the preacher and made me the only thing between you and the bar, tonight.

I promise you, I’m not going to be long.

The first thing I want to do tonight, I would like to ask you to join me in once again celebrating these wonderful voices that presented to us tonight.

I was trained as a Christian social ethicist. I also work in the tradition or the field of homiletics, that is the delivery of sermon. That’s why I believe that we actually share a lot in common professionally.

When I think about our tasks, when I think about our roles, Brother Robinson, I think about how it is that we’re trying to corroborate the reality of others. We’re trying to be truth tellers, this thing called parrhesia, frank speech. We’re trying to document the human condition.

We’re trying to give voice to the pains, problems, perils, perplexities as well as the hopes, aspirations, joy, spiritual strivings of everyday people. That’s our call. That is our commitment. Whether we do it from a pulpit or whether we’re doing it with a pen. We have this moral obligation and ethical responsibility to tell the truth.

That is one of the reasons why in a class that I teach, that I had the pleasure of having some Nieman fellows in that class. As a matter of fact, I see you Sister Lolly. There’s an article I assigned by the towering literally giant formerly known as Chloe Wofford, now we know her as Toni Morrison.

She has this essay entitled, “A Sight of Memory.” In this essay she describes her work. She says, “People ask me all the time, is your work fact or fiction?” She says, “The dividing line between my work is not fact or fiction. It’s actually fact or truth.”

Facts, she says, “That’s too easy. Facts are ever before us. Facts are morally ambiguous and morally promiscuous, but truth, we have to look for. Truth, we have to dig down. Truth, we have find.” That could be the reason why it is said that the Roman Goddess Veritas, the Goddess of Truth. She was known for hiding in wells. Whenever one thought that you found her, she would disappear once again.

That sends us the message that truth is elusive. Truth, we must become archeologist of sorts. We must dig down deep to find it. There’s a difference between facts and truth.

I’ll give you an example, at Princeton Theological Seminary, there’s a plaque outside of the Mackay Campus Center. It says, “Dedicated to one of our alums, Elijah Parish Lovejoy who died defending freedom of the press in 1837.” That’s a fact. Unfortunately, that plaque obscures the truth.

The fact is, yes he did die defending the freedom of the press, but what they left out was the fact that he died defending his press that was publishing an abolitionist newspaper. It was a pro‑slavery mob that came in and lynched him on that day. That’s the truth of the reality.

When we think about where would we be as a society if we didn’t have truth tellers like you, truth tellers like Elijah Parish Lovejoy? Truth tellers like William Lloyd Garrison. Ida Wells‑Barnett, telling the truth about the lynching.

Dorothy Thomas, telling the truth about the rise of fascism. Marvel Cooke, telling the truth about laborers, particularly women of color that are on the underside and marginalized of the labor movement, where would we be?

Where would we be if we didn’t have those who captured the truth of Tiananmen Square, of apartheid South Africa? Captured those images on Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday?

It’s the truth that changes our experience, and have propelled and catalyzed this society forward. As we heard tonight, where would we be if we didn’t have the JeneÈ’s of the world telling us that “Fleecy locks and dark complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim.”?

Where would we be if we didn’t have the Isaac’s of the world who are telling the story of young people who wear the mask that grins and lies, that hides their fears and shades their eyes? Where, oh, would we be if we didn’t have, Brother Eli capturing the images of the people that the power structures of this society would rather render invisible because their very presence makes us uncomfortable?

This is who you are. You are warriors for truth. You are soldiers on the front lines, even when the facts of life may want to obscure your role, even when the facts of life want to say that your role is diminishing in society. When the facts of life tell you that there’s no more money and budgets are being cut, there’s still a truth that has to be told.

There’s still new stories that have to be unearthed. There’s still new wells that we have to dig deep down. On these walls are the names of 1,113 men and women from Harvard College in Radcliffe. Men and women who gave their lives, who paid the ultimate sacrifice ‑‑ World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

This is why I believe Ann Marie. This is why I believe Brother James. It was a beautiful moment that you held this event here tonight because, when this place was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1932, the Memorial Church, it was dedicated as a war memorial to signify service and sacrifice. That’s what we’re here to celebrate tonight.

Your service, your sacrifice for a cause bigger than yourself, that cause being truth. Up there on that wall there is a moral lesson for all of us. It’s under Harvard Divinity School, in fact. When you walk out of here, look. You’ll see the name up there of a gentleman by the name of Adolf Sannwald.

Adolf Sannwald, he studied at Harvard Divinity School during the 1924‑1925 academic year. He was killed in World War II on the side of the Germans. That’s why up under his name you will see in parentheses “Enemy Casualty.” Well, people have dug up some truths about Adolf Sannwald. Those truths have disrupted and overturned the facts of him being a enemy casualty.

In fact, we have found out that, far from being a Nazi, far from being a part of the Third Reich, this Lutheran pastor, Adolf Sannwald, was a part of the Confessing Church Movement. This was a movement of Lutherans that was led by their great martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

At his church, he spoke out loud and crystal clear against Nazism’s view of racial supremacy. As a matter of fact, in his congregation, he used to harbor Jews who were trying to flee. It was because of that that they would not allow him to serve as a chaplain in the German Army. Rather, they drafted him, and they put him on the front lines.

Within a year of being drafted, Adolf Sannwald was killed in a Russian air raid. That’s the truth of his existence. What’s the moral lesson that I want you to walk away from here tonight? The first thing is this. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you want that good feeling from doing the right thing from other people, sometimes you have to pay for it with abuse and misunderstanding.”

The second thing I want you to remember when you walk out of this place, that when you are a truth‑teller, when you speak up and speak truth to power and disrupt the status quo, when you give voice to the voiceless, when you give visibility to those who have been rendered invisible.

When you actually breathe life of truth into the dry bones of quotidian facts, you might end up being called an enemy casualty or enemy of the people. You better remember the words of James Russell Lowell, “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above His own.”

God bless you, Nieman fellows. Keep standing and telling the truth for that’s your call. That’s your commitment. That’s your charge. God bless you.