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.