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‘If anyone can do it, you can’

At commencement, McCormick Theological Seminary graduates experience the prophetic voice of the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, who co-wrote the Confession of Belhar, led what’s now called the World Communion of Reformed Churches and has lived a hope-filled 75 years despite facing down apartheid and other lesser challenges, asked the McCormick Theological Seminary Class of 2021 a pointed question Saturday during his address celebrating McCormick’s 187th commencement service: What does it mean to be the church on the inside of an empire in decay?

“The American empire is more and more acknowledged as a dying empire,” Boesak told graduates celebrating online the completion of their studies — Certificate in Black Church Studies, Master of Theological Studies, Master of Arts in Ministry, Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry. “We do well not to forget we live in an age of empire” and that empires “demand absolute submission.”

Coronavirus has wreaked devastation “not seen in our lifetimes,” but for 500 years, people in the global South and Native Americans “have endured plagues of other pandemics,” including invasion, colonial oppression, the theft of resources and the “almost complete annihilation of our culture and history,” Boesak said. Captured Africans endured the “unspeakable horrors” of the Middle Passage and the “social death of racial inferiorization.”

“Coronavirus has destroyed the myth it is the great equalizer,” Boesak said. “It has exposed inequalities and the incessant comprehensive war against the poor.”

A sign of hope for the pastor and theologian, who’s professor of Black Liberation Theology and Ethics at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, is what he called “the global Black Lives Matter” that’s spread all over the world. It’s an indication of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called “an inescapable network of mutuality,” Boesak told graduates.

“It’s not whether there’s a revolution going on,” Boesak said, “but what side we’re on.”

Boesak said he was “overjoyed” by last year’s announcement that the seminary would partner with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference to form the Center for Reparative Justice, Transformation and Remediation to, as McCormick President David Crawford said, “engage the national and global conversations on reparations and justice and ensure a sustained and sustainable institutional commitment to addressing these issues.”

“You have no idea,” Boesak said, “how powerful, transformational and revolutionary this will prove to be for you at McCormick, America and the world.”

But reconciliation won’t be possible without taking a number of actions, he said, including acknowledging alienation in the past, confronting evil both in the past and present and expressing remorse and repentance. It’s also not possible, he said, unless it occurs “amongst equals.”

“That is what equity means, and that’s what the Center is all about,” Boesak said, suggesting a fourth mission — redemption — for the Center’s name.

“Your work is the work of redemption, redeeming America after 500 years” of sins that have included invasion, enslavement, discrimination, exclusion and thousands of lynchings.

He suggested rereading the Exodus 3 account of Moses and the Burning Bush not as a “magical” acknowledgement of the presence of God, but “as a fire burning for justice in the heart of God, a fire of outrage made visible for Moses to see and understand. It is God’s burning desire for restoration, God’s flaming anger against the arrogance of the oppressive power.”

“The heat Moses is feeling,” Boesak said, “is the heat of God’s love for God’s people. The bush isn’t consumed because God’s love for justice and reconciliation will never burn out.”

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” That, Boesak said, is “a moment of revolution.”

When Jesus is handed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah to read in the synagogue, it’s little wonder he finds Isaiah’s 61st chapter: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“This image of God is entirely convincing prose,” Boesak said. “I the Lord love justice. Loving the Lord is loving justice, and looking at Jesus, we know what justice looks like. That’s prophetic fire, and it’s the fire God wants to see burning in the hearts of those fighting for justice. God’s love for justice makes the struggle for justice and freedom holy ground.

“It’s in this revolution I see hope,” Boesak said. “It is hope anchored in the image of God. The revolution for the creation of a new humanity retains its grip on us … We must work to give the world the greatest gift — a human face. That is the prophetic gift of tomorrow’s children. God bless you this day and every day,” he told graduates, their families and friends, and seminary staff who helped students work their way to the culmination of commencement.

Faculty members and McCormick took turns wishing the graduates continued success along their journey. The last well-wisher was the Rev. Dr. Anna Case-Winters, a Professor of Theology who joined the McCormick faculty in 1986.

“Now you just go out and change the world,” she told the graduates. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

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