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  • Reverend James Squire

A Moral Compass

I received a message on Facebook Messenger from a former faculty member at EA who keeps in contact with our alumni. He asked, “Has Desmond Tutu spoken in our Chapel because there are alumni who think so?” My response was, “No, but I wish he would have!” You may think that this is a strange exchange because why would this moral compass to the world be speaking in a school in the United States. The school community would know that this was a realistic possibility as there were many well-known people who spoke in our chapel.

I had an unwritten policy that we never gave press releases when such as The Right Reverend Robert Runcie who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, a famous Hollywood film maker, or an actor such as Morgan Freeman, or even the present President spoke at our school in chapel. That was for a simple reason that I wanted the message of the person not to be diminished by their celebrity. A perfect example of this was the disappointment that some in our student body had with the words of Morgan Freeman. When I asked why they were disappointed their response was a classic, “He is just like us!” I think that the students were listening for his memorable lines in his classic movie, The Shawshank Redemption. His humanity showed through in his remarks which is what I felt was most important as he spoke particularly of social justice issues. That was an important message for our students to understand as well.

Recently deceased Desmond Tutu was an Anglican Archbishop whose name could be said in the same breath with his life-long friend, Nelson Mandala. For some time, they both lived on the same street. He won the Nobel Prize for his struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa and continued throughout his life to fight against oppression. He confronted all challenges. Former President Barack Obama said, “he was a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and many others. He never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”

If he came to our school chapel, I would be interested in having the community hear his words that focused on his moral direction for the world such as: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights. If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies. When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the bible and they had the land.”

Tutu was certainly recognized by world leaders such as Presidents Biden and Clinton and other figures of a religious and political affiliation as well as the common man and woman who felt his spiritual presence in other parts of the world.

But I noticed something. I could be wrong but the recognition of his life and death seemed to me to highlight American centrism. Betty White, a gift to our nation as a comedian, actor, and woman who made her path forward in a male dominated world was mourned and celebrated in a manner that far overshadowed the celebration of the life of Desmond Tutu, a compass for the moral life of the whole world. I say this as someone who has the highest regard for Ms. White.

One of the things that has been revealed during the recent spread of Covid around the globe is that the United States could have been better prepared particularly when it comes to vaccines and testing. What has also come to light is that we and other nations have not reached out enough with help to underserved nations to deal with the pandemic.

I have been fortunate to travel beyond America to places in many corners of the globe. I always learn the same lesson. America is not the center of the world. At one level we are an after-thought as you read foreign press or listen to people around the world. Certainly, I noticed the posters of American celebrities such as Brianna and Lady Gaga as we made our way through Paris. Our celebrities are known but recently not so much our greatest gift which is our democracy. I know that the world is now more interested in that aspect as the heartbeat of our culture particularly after January 6 last year and the anniversary of that attempt to overthrow our government which is just a few days away.

There is a caricature of the American tourist as described in the title of “the ugly American.”

We got that title because travelers seemed to not put their best foot forward in making our way through other countries. Paris is notorious for having this attitude, however, that was not my experience there.

While traveling through the Greek islands on a working sailing ship, we would have an address by an expert on the islands to teach us about our destination the next day. The vast majority of the people were not Americans. One night we added an additional experience beyond the education on what was coming next. We would play a form of Jeopardy. The teacher introduced the game by telling those gathered in the room that “I understand that we have a few Americans on board so I will dumb down the questions to give them a chance.” He said it tongue in cheek, but the passengers laughed out loud. He touched a nerve. In the interest of full disclosure, the questions had a lot to do with “European” issues. Vicki and I did not know as much as the children or their parents who knew the answers with the greatest of ease.

This may be a metaphor for us Americans to become more centered on a world that has become increasingly our global village.

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