Gary Dorrien gives the 151st Baccalaureate address

Social ethicist Gary Dorrien gives the 151st Baccalaureate address in Packer Memorial Chapel.

Social Ethicist Gary Dorrien Delivers Baccalaureate Address

Dorrien, a theologian, references Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama in talk about social ethics.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Inside a filled Packer Memorial Church Sunday, social ethicist Gary Dorrien used text from the Bible to discuss social ethics and help frame his nearly 40-minute-long remarks that referenced Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama.

University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen introduced Dorrien, the 151st Lehigh Baccalaureate Speaker, and explained that social ethics refers to the idea that societies should seek ways to promote the welfare of all, put checks on the powerful and advance the common good. 

Steffen reminded graduating students, their parents, and faculty and staff in attendance that social ethics is also something that is studied. In the United States, he said, social ethics has been confronted through such issues as slavery, civil rights, war and peace, poverty, education, voting rights, women’s rights and health care.

Sarah Stankus '19 speaks at the 151st Baccalaureate

Sarah Stankus '19, representing Christianity, praised the Christian fellowships on campus for helping her, especially during her first year of college.

Though Americans have lived that history, Steffen said, it wasn’t until the arrival of Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and professor of religion at Columbia University, that the country “had a deep study of the history of methods of social ethics.”

To preface his talk, Dorrien asked Steffen to recite John 4:7-24, “The Woman at the Well and the Crack in the Wall.” In the text, Jesus, a Jew, comes upon a Samaritan woman at a well and asks for a drink. The woman questions this because Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus says if she knew who was asking, she would have asked him, and he would have given her living water. She notes he doesn’t have a bucket and the well is deep, asking where he would get that water. He responds that those who drink the well water will be thirsty again, yet those who drink his water will never be thirsty. She requests the water he offers.

Emily Weston '19 speaks at the 151st Baccalaureate

Emily Weston '19, representing Judaism, spoke about how significant the Jewish community's role has been in her life at Lehigh.

Jesus tells her to get her husband and come back, and she says she doesn’t have a husband. He replies that she is right, she had five and is now with a man that isn’t her husband. She believes Jesus is a prophet and wants to know where she should worship.

“This story features the longest piece of dialogue in the entire Christian testament, and it has puzzled scholars for centuries,” Dorrien said. He also noted that hardly anything happens in the story, but called attention to the fact that it begins with silence, “a wall of silence” that existed between Jewish men and Samaritan women. The wall was built, brick by brick, over centuries, through prejudice, resentment and rival stories. However, just one question, asking for water, brought that wall crumbling down. That one question changed an “entrenched entity.”

Dorrien related that one silence-breaking, wall-crumbing moment to Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That moment helped spark the acceleration of the civil rights movement, which helped define King, who stood up against racial prejudice, condemned economic injustice and opposed the Vietnam War, only to be assassinated.

Nayantara Chasson '19 speaks at the 151st Baccalaureate

Nayantara Chasson '19, representing Indian traditions, said she is grateful to Lehigh for helping her explore Indian holidays.

“To me, this story surpasses all of them—American stories,” Dorrien said. “It crashed through my lower-class white world and put me on a very unlikely path.”

Dorrien also spoke of his father’s Native American roots, and how he appreciates the changes in American society that allowed his father to reclaim his racial identity. Without the civil rights movement, it wouldn’t have happened, he said.

He pivoted to Barack Obama’s presidency, a period that current students experienced firsthand. He said Obama, whose presidency began as those graduating from Lehigh were in middle school, faced backlash “merely by living in the White House and doing his job.”

In an apparent reference to today’s political division in the country, he said, “Those of you who are graduating from college came of age when idealistic talk about [an inspirational] future gave way to anxious talk about losing our way. Then you started your college years when it became undeniable that we have lost our way.”

Dorrien wrapped up his remarks by relating back to the Bible story of the woman and the well, specifically when Jesus referred to her husbands. He said Jesus wasn’t accusing her but naming her wound. “He touched the issue in her life.”

Maryam Khan '19 speaks at the 151st Baccalaureate

Maryam Khan '19, representing Islam, spoke about the importance of education in Islam and how "education breeds tolerance."

The best pastors, he said, have that knack to find the key issues in a person’s life. His wife Brenda, a Lehigh graduate, was one before she lost her 10-year fight with cancer, he said. Sometimes there is a word that people need to hear, even if they try to change the subject, like the woman did when Jesus identified an issue in her life.

Jesus in that story said it didn’t matter where the woman worshiped, just that she did. What mattered was the woman, her spirit and the truth, Dorrien said. Dorrien also mentioned the capacity to care for others and sharing the world with others.

“In desert societies, water is so precious that it is money,” Dorrien said. “People fight and die for it. Marriages were arranged to secure it. Empires rise and fall [over it]. Entire societies stretched over several millenniums have taken for granted that fighting over water is ingrained in human nature. Many such deserts still exist, deeply conditioning the human beings that live within them. Yet, we do not fret of dying of thirst.”

In society, he said, water is shared, but there could be more advancements.

“Imagine societies in which everybody has food, shelter, health care, education and a chance to know their value,” Dorrien said. “And if we move that way, we might not have to retrogress over fighting over water.”

A Spiritual Tradition

As Steffen welcomed attendees, he explained the origins of the Baccalaureate service, noting the first was held in 1432 at Oxford University and was intended as a final exam. Perspective graduates had to deliver a sermon showing their mastery of religious communication in Latin before faculty.

Instead of an exam, today most universities honor the religious heritage of Baccalaureate by holding “interfaith religious services that honor the spiritual traditions of the community.” In addition to a farewell address in their honor, graduating students heard from four students from various faiths, who shared something of meaning for them. The four students, introduced by Rabbi Steven Nathan, director of Jewish student life and associate chaplain, were:

  • Sarah Stankus ’19 (Christianity), who graduates with a dual degree: a bachelor of science in earth and environmental science and a bachelor of arts in English. Stankus said she was raised in a Christian household but didn’t fully understand until college what following Christ was all about. The deciding factor in attending Lehigh as a freshman, she said, was the Christian fellowships on campus, which she said helped her when she felt lost that first year. “After that year I continually understand who Jesus is and what Christianity is all about. It’s about love, plain and simple.”
  • Emily Weston ’19 (Judaism), who graduates with concentrations in computer science and history and a minor in science, technology and history. “The Jewish community has been one of the most significant parts of my life at Lehigh,” she said, adding that her experiences helped her become more independent because she knew even as she branched out in other areas of her life, she would always be a part of the Jewish community. That has also helped her do something she never would have considered four years ago: become part of a Jewish community in Philadelphia after graduation, she said.
  • Nayantara Chasson ’19 (Indian Traditions), who graduates with a major in electrical engineering and a minor in German, told a story of her father moving to America, abandoning his Indian roots and her parents raising both her and her brother on tolerance, understanding and a variety of perspectives. Because of that, she said, however, she thought she was missing a piece of her background. At Lehigh, she joined the South Asian Students Association when group members reached out to her, and while she was going through a tough time as a transfer student, she realized how welcoming Indian culture is. At Lehigh, she said she was able to celebrate Indian holidays such as Holi. “I watched as this holiday, a product of my culture, united a campus that has so many different perspectives and backgrounds,” Chasson said. “And I was just filled with pride over the fact that I was blessed to have been born into this culture, and I’m grateful to Lehigh for allowing me to explore it.”
  • Maryam Khan ’19 (Islam), who graduates with a major in bioengineering and minors in both computer science and economics, said she saw a lot of people from different faiths and backgrounds in attendance. They came together to celebrate those graduating and their hard work pursing an education. She shared how important that is, stating the first words that are revealed to the Prophet Muhammad were to read in the name of the Lord. “It wasn’t to pray, it wasn’t to give charity, it wasn’t to fast, it wasn’t to go on pilgrimage but it was to go out and seek effort in acquiring knowledge.” Khan wondered as a child why that was, but now realizes the impact education can have. “Education breeds tolerance,” she said. “It’s the reason why we believe that we should peacefully coexist with everyone, respect each other, despite our differences. In a world filled with hate, education teaches us the importance of understanding differences and respecting different perspectives.”
Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Related Stories

Lehigh graduates process into the Donning of the Kente ceremony

Donning of the Kente: A Personalized Celebration of Student Success

The annual pre-commencement celebration honored 44 students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Stephen Prothero

Religion Scholar Stephen Prothero Delivers 2018 Baccalaureate Address

Prothero emphasized to graduates the importance of wandering.