President Donahue, Deans Holder, Maloney, and Kook, it is very much an honor and privilege to be invited here today. Thank you, Dr. Russell, for your words. Thank you fellow graduates, for following the call, or the passion, or whatever force drives your work and your vision. I want to read all of your theses and dissertations. Eventually. After I’ve read a few novels. Thank you to the faculty, family and friends who have come together to share this day. I am so grateful for my own family and friends who are here, or who are with us in spirit, because they have been such an essential, supportive part of a journey that is – students all quickly learn – very much a community effort. And I am eternally grateful to Virginia Stevens, my partner, my best friend and soul mate – who has been a wellspring of enthusiasm, support and encouragement.
I came to the GTU with a fairly narrow interest in protecting endangered species, and in compelling others to want to protect them, too. A divinity school is probably not the first place you think to turn when considering matters of conservation biology, but as most of you already know, and as Dr. Russell’s remarks demonstrate, GTU is no ordinary divinity school. It is an ideal academic ecosystem in which to work on a problem like this. Especially since it is increasingly apparent that what ecologists have long been calling a biodiversity crisis is every bit as much a moral and spiritual crisis. The reluctance with which many humans share space and resources with our fellow creatures reveals that – although we have mostly given up the idea that the solar system revolves around planet Earth – many of us are having a harder time letting go of the idea that the universe revolves around humans.
I came to the GTU, and in very short order, my narrow interests grew large and occasionally unwieldy. Project managers and foreign policy analysts call this "mission creep," and usually it's not a good thing. But in my case, mission creep happened because of the energizing conversations with classmates and professors, the challenging feedback on papers and presentations, and the mind-altering volumes of reading. So if mission creep is bad, I have all of you to blame. But you helped me reframe the questions I brought here – fitting the problem of how we co-exist with other creatures on a shrinking planet, into the larger context of how we think about social justice.
One of the things that quickly became clear is that our worldviews – our cultural perspectives on origins and destinies and the human condition (whatever that turns out to be) – have everything to do with how we think about justice. Especially about what justice entails, and who is entitled to it. The dominant Western cultures – of which I am a product - tend to think small about social justice. We think about it from the limited and not very imaginative perspective of our own needs. We treat it like something in short supply – a nonrenewable resource. And we consider it to be a sort of membership perk – for inclusion in a community we very carefully define, the borders of which we rigorously patrol. The membership criteria, not surprisingly, are based on the things we think most special about ourselves. In this human-centered worldview, that includes characteristics like our ability to use language, to invent tools, to plan for the future or hold regrets about the past…
It is unnerving when we discover that a nonhuman animal can do one or more of those same things. Our first response is to tighten up the membership criteria. Our second is to very grudgingly allow that maybe a few other beings are entitled to some kind of justice. We might talk about “widening our circles of compassion.” And to a limited and incremental degree – at a glacial pace – that does work: a few other beings get under the rope and into the protected community.
But it doesn’t change the human-centered worldview. The terms and rules are still ours. Most of our difficulties imagining justice for nontraditional recipients – including other animals – stem from our inability to step outside ourselves and our tight circles. And justice-at-a-glacial-pace doesn’t cut it in our times: climate change, overfishing, habitat conversion, factory farming, puppy mills, biomedical research… The rate and severity at which human demands are encroaching on animal lives is increasing, and with it, their need for justice.
Our challenge, then, is to think differently about justice. To de-center ourselves and imagine justice more expansively, more generously, more weirdly than our worldviews have taught us to think. Our challenge is to think about a polar bear, or a lamprey eel, or a salmon, or a chicken, as a being who deserves the considerations of justice. So, with all due respect for, and apologies to, the venerable tradition of centering prayer – my prayer for all of us is a de-centering prayer, and my hopes are de-centering hopes. That in matters of justice, we are always challenged to step outside ourselves, step outside our enclaves - and to the extent we can - even step outside our DNA, to get the view from the margins, edges, corners and liminal zones of our communities; to take the non-centric, and yes – even nonhuman view of what a flourishing life requires and what justice entails.
I am grateful beyond words for the preparation, the space, and the grace given us all by the GTU administration, faculty, and community. And I am grateful for your time, your attention, and especially for your fellowship today.