Friday, August 31, 2012


There is a cartoon in a recent New Yorker that has two dogs speaking to one another as their owners are using plastic bags to pick up after them. One dog says to the other, “I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel special.” It should! Right before our eyes the habits of Americans across the country have embraced a change that is remarkable. They walk their dogs, carry plastic bags, and when the dog does its business they gingerly pick up the feces depositing the bag in the trash when they return home or leave it in a trash can on the walk back.

This is behavior that seems to cut across social strata. The young do it; the old do it. I have seen men and women bending over to pick up poop. Blacks do it. Whites do it. Latinos do it. There are signs of course that ask you to pick up after your dog and I am sure there are some laws that are on the books that make it a crime not to do so.  I have, however, not heard of anyone being called a scofflaw for his or her failure

This change in behavior seems to have swept the nation without much attention being paid. There are no warnings on dog food cans or bags that remind us that used dog food should be recycled or you may step in it. There has been no public relations blitz, no plethora of bumper stickers, no demonizing of those who choose not to carry plastic bags. And apparently there are few who have given up dogs because of the expectation that they clean up after them.

The sea change in tobacco use has taken more than a half century since the Surgeon General said it was dangerous for health and he had facts and figures to back up the claim.  Congress has passed laws about discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation and push back continues.  The Supreme Court will hear arguments about affirmative action in college admissions this fall.
Maybe there is a secret thread of resentment coursing through the country that I have missed. It could be that this is the key to the Tea Party.  People who talk about “taking back our country” are really angry because they have been forced by a rising tide of opinion to bend over and pick up dog poop. Enough is enough!

I am speculating of course. Maybe the wave of clean is what people hope would happen with issues like discrimination  and seatbelts. Let the tide of behavioral change rise as does competition and there will be fewer smokers, less opposition to buckling up, less resentment to being told how to behave.
Or maybe we love dogs more than we love our neighbors, our families and humankind in the aggregate.

There is resentment to policies that make jobs one could once count on more competitive and over the course of my career I have felt the impact of a broader competitive pool more than once. We have all been challenged to change our ways of thinking about leadership, about how work is done and about how our experiences shape us in the work we do. Learning to be part of a more diverse work force has to be easier than learning to bend over and pick up warm feces. And, over the course of human history, which practice has had the greater social return?

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on Violence

The recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin have created again an appropriate conversation about guns and violence. When Rap Brown declared in 1967 that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” some people were taken aback.  They ought not have been. Brown was/is right and only the context seems to change and that allows us to think we are seeing something unusual. The real issue is why can’t we find a way to deal with our willingness to wreak havoc on one another?

We process civil unrest differently than we do the actions of individuals and react to Arvada because we see our children in the deranged perpetrator and his victims.  At Janesville, we are afraid we see our own darker side striking out against the stranger.

The attacks on 9/11 were horrific. It was a relief to have someone to blame and to hit back at.  Few remembered that in Oklahoma City we had at first thought we knew who to strike and were chagrined to find the enemy lived among us and was in fact striking back at an act of violence  unleashed by our own government ignorant of the apocalyptic dimensions of the Branch Davidians.  Janesville seems unique in the US, but is it?
The constant is not that guns are too available, although they may be or that ammunition can be bought too easily.  The constant is that when we are angry we strike out at others  rather than take responsibility for our circumstances and make the effort to turn the other cheek. Sometimes that may be due to illness, but often it is due to other factors.

It would have been political suicide to not strike back after 9/11. It is not cool to be patient when everyone wants action. We all felt better when we went after the Taliban, but ten years later it is hard to find anyone who feels good about how the war has unfolded in Afghanistan. The momentary respite from grief has given way to the reality: How are we going to care for those damaged by the war?

There has been a lot of talk about identifying with the Sikhs in the aftermath of Janesville. I am sympathetic with that notion and applaud the picture of the governor of Wisconsin  head covered at a memorial service. The object himself of anger because of his political initiatives, Governor Walker knows something about being held accountable.

It may be that we are wiser when rather than focusing on guns or anger at strangers, we focus on creating communities where violence is never tolerated or rewarded.  Those seeking their fifteen minutes of fame need to know that we ignore them rather than putting their pictures on the front page of the paper. A ticket to oblivion may be the most appropriate response.

This is work our religious communities can do, but it will take focus and courage. When angered we all respond with clinched fists. Remember how hard it would have been to say in the aftermath of 9/11 that we would send aid to Afghanistan rather than missiles.  More than two thousand Americans have died there and it will be a long lifetime before we see the last of those who are the walking wounded. They are the cost of getting even with our enemies. Today anger is the emotion de jour. May there come a time when peace making has the same cachet.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Johnny Cash Taught Me To Think For Myself

Lately I have been listening to a lot of Johnny Cash. He has been dead for nine years so it may be a bit surprising that I am listening to his music. The reasons are pretty simple. A whole raft of compilations recently appeared in the market and my old/new car has a six CD changer. Oh, and when I was in high school, Johnny Cash changed my life.

Cash was a new voice in the 1950’s. He was not Elvis Presley and he was not Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Where I grew up in southern California his voice and style appealed to the Dust Bowl émigrés that later turned Bakersfield into Nashville West.

On the other hand Cash had little or no appeal to the teenagers of the day who were my peers. They were stuck on Elvis or sampling “race music” as it filtered into the mainstream. “Work with Me Annie” had become a hit for Etta James and Georgia Gibbs when it morphed into “Dance with Me Henry.” Groups like The Crows and later The Platters were recording music that you could dance to even if you could not dance.

You didn’t dance to Johnny Cash and I knew only a few others who knew who he was. The new compilations remind that Cash’s range was limited and included lots of gospel music hardly a turn-on for the teen crowd. Some of the semi-pop recordings were drivel even then; “Teen Age Queen” comes to mind. Then there was “I Walk The Line” a hymn to fidelity, which implied that one day you might have some one to walk the line for. And there was the driving beat of Luther Monroe Perkins and the Tennessee Three who backed Cash. By then LM and Cash were sampling drugs of various sorts and for Luther the end was tragic.  Others who came to know Cash reported on the price he paid for his dalliance. But you do not forget their music and a single chord announces their presence even today.

Sometimes Cash sang of loss. “I Still Miss Someone” touched the heartstrings in ways we may forget when we are 50. “Give My Love to Rose” spoke for a dying father who wanted his boy to know “his Daddy was so proud of him.” “Folsom Prison Blues” spoke of the anger that sometimes welled up. Then reminded that some might  “shoot a man just to watch him die”. There was mindless violence in music long before Gangsta Rap came along.  I guess not just white boys ignored their mother’s warnings not to take their guns to town.

In high school we played a potpourri of music each week on Friday at lunch. You had the chance to suggest music to be played and we heard the emerging top 40 hits week after week. I suggested that we might listen to Cash. “Who?” was the reply from the young women who ran the record player. They were so cool, so lovely, and so distant from the world I knew. I nearly said, “Never-mind” but I didn’t and one Friday with a disclaimer blaming me, Johnny Cash broke the sound barrier. Few noticed, fewer commented and I realized that it was ok to break the predictable pattern.  It is a learning that has served me well.
I continued to listen to Cash who along with friends like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson gave bad behavior a country gloss. Luther Perkins fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and set himself on fire and died in August, 1968. The Tennessee Three became the Tennessee Two and the bad behavior continued through most of Cash’s career. The music they made came with a high cost.  But at a safe distance, I learned that taste and tastes in music lie on a spectrum and it is hard to move from one end to the other, but you can do it if you try.

The same is true here at MIT. There are the pressures to please and the desire to be part of the in-group whoever that may be at any given time.  There is also the opportunity to step off the edge and do the unexpected. We value those who go against the tide and sometimes we are honored for breaking new ground. But sometimes we just listen to Johnny Cash and are fed by music that reminds us of where we come from and where we might be going.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Remarks for Alumni Memorial Service
The MIT Chapel
June 9, 2012

This service falls between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day by accident, but it is no accident that my mind turned to the nature of families and what MIT means to families.  This is always a bittersweet day because this is sacred space where new families began when parents were married, families grew when children were baptized, and families changed when memorial services were held for departed family members. You may remember as well that yesterday the speaker at graduation spoke of MIT as a family.

I think often about MIT as a family. A few years ago I was stunned to hear a student describe the Institute as “the home we thought we would never find”.  That is why students so jealously guard the MIT they know from changes they do not understand or endorse. Yesterday at lunch members of the Corporation told me that when talking to students about the new President, students told them they wanted a president who would recognize and honor MIT as their home.

I have degrees from five colleges and universities. I have been part of those communities to lesser or greater degrees, but nowhere have I found a community where the institution occupies the place in the hearts of graduates that MIT occupies.
Many of you regard your dormitory or your fraternity as your home of choice.  Your brothers and sisters reach across the globe coming from distant cultures as well as familiar hometowns. So it is not surprising that you come back here to remember and celebrate those you have loved and lost. This is where it all began.

As a result there are a couple of notions I would like to think with you about. In the Judeo-Christian tradition being part of a people, a family if you will, is an important concept. The notion that the Jewish people were called into being as a nation by God is foundational.  “How odd of God/to chose the Jews” was not a compliment when first used by Norman Ewer in 1924, but it passed in common use as wit.

This self-understanding was a mixed blessing. The nation was never able to live up to expectations as the prophets of Israel constantly reminded them. The notion of their choice led to the response: “Not so odd, the Jews chose God.” (Cecil Brown). It led as well to their being the objects of envy and resentment. Tevye’s response in Fiddler on the Roof resonates: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You chose someone else?”

Christians redefined the nature of community. Jesus defined his community not by blood but by those who did the will of God. (Mark 3:35) In the Gospel of John (19:26) Jesus spoke to one of his followers, thought to be John, and told him to care for Mary as he would for his own mother and for Mary to regard John as her son. He redefined family and running through later Judaism and Christianity and is the notion of humankind as one great family. It is a notion honored in the breech. We too often treat the other as a stranger.

In our history as a nation we had a chance for a do-over; we could have done things differently. Religious communities were given a level playing field. We talked about a nation of equals and have spent a large portion of our history fleshing out what that might mean.  Sometimes we seem to be doing a good job working out the implications, but often we have more in common with ancient Israel than we do with our ideals.
We put out the welcome mat for those who have come here for the opportunity to better themselves.  America provides lots of such chances but we have not thought clearly about the implications of our welcome. We would do better if we remembered our sacred texts and our political texts parsing what it means to be a chosen people and a people who reflect the desire of the Divine that we bring into being a kingdom where the values of heaven are made real. We are familiar with the notion of being a City set on a Hill, but less familiar with what that image challenges us to be.

To be sure, it is hard work to bring into being an exemplary ethic that treats others as we would like to be treated. We live lives dedicated to the needs of the moment. It may be that today we can acknowledge that one of the reasons we are so lax is that places like MIT often do the hard work for us. At its best MIT has created a family that knows no boundaries of class, gender, race and it is a family that asks only that you use the tools you have been given or the cards you have been dealt (to use a phrase MIT folk especially appreciate) to do your best work.

Even here particularities and needs that come with communities create boundaries and dorms, fraternities, departments make their demands on us.  But the Institute pushes back and the kind of family idealized in our sacred texts, religious and political, becomes real. Note that the first woman to be president of MIT has just passed the baton of leadership to a Latin American immigrant who grew up in a family speaking Yiddish.

So be proud that when we gather to reflect, celebrate and mourn,  the words we sing are true.:

“Thy sons and daughters, MIT, return from far and wide.
 And gather here, once more to be renourished by thy side.” Across years, cultures and talents we know that we are one family, we are all of MIT.

May the God of grace
bless you all and comfort
you as we celebrate
the bonds of family
and the grief we share.