A commitment to peace and reconciliation
April 29, 2004,
Vol. 30, no. 1
By Michael Stevenson
I add my warm welcome, on behalf of Simon Fraser University's faculty,
staff and students to this extraordinary convocation. Extraordinary because of the impact on human history made by those we honour here today. Extraordinary because a still very young and secular university honours those who have worked within ancient religious traditions - Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. And extraordinary because, in our own tradition of outreach and response to the community, we have chosen not to confine this ceremony within the precincts of the university, but to share an historic occasion with the whole community in the heart of this great city.
Today, we celebrate these individuals who have played leading roles in struggles for human rights, and for peace and reconciliation in the process as well as the aftermath of those struggles. Their leadership has defined some of the most important movements for human freedom in our time. Before citing greater detail about their individual achievements, let me comment on what is common to the causes they have espoused, and what is common between them and the cause of the university.
Each of the individuals we honour today has made truth the measure of their life and politics. To borrow concepts from Vaclav Havel, who would have been amongst our honourees today had illness not prevented his presence with us, each of these individuals has pursued the idea of living in truth, the idea of anti-political politics, and the idea of politics subordinated to conscience.
Each of them has spoken truth to the powerful, exposing the official lies that justify the trampling of human rights. Such lies translate occupation as liberation and police state practices as democratic. They blasphemously declare racism to be consistent with the laws of God and justify the exploitation of women in the same way, and they portray the quest for human rights as the subversion of law and order by foreign agitators and enemies of true religion.
Each of those we honour today has made peace and reconciliation an overriding commitment in the struggle for human rights. Against the overwhelming reality of violence in modern politics, and in the face of their own personal experience of official violence, these individuals have never wavered from a commitment to the cause of peace, to dialogue with opposing parties, to the mediation of disputes, and to the reconciliation of formerly hostile foes.
Such commitments mean that despite their deep convictions, rooted in diverse religious traditions, these individuals have pioneered in the ecumenical rapprochement between peoples of different faith, the construction of institutional mechanisms for the reconciliation of divided peoples, and the advocacy of human rights in their own countries and around the world. Above all, they have shown that the integrating powers of tolerance and truly open communication and dialogue are effective counters to the deadly power of violence.
Finally, each of these individuals is a giant of our time because they have shown extraordinary courage in support of their commitments to truth, peace and reconciliation.
Each has had the courage to endure imprisonment for championing human rights. Each has had the courage to put their life at risk in the prevention of violence, whether by physically intervening to stop militants in their own cause from attacks on others, or by non-violent passive resistance to unjust laws, or by courageously speaking out against official dogma.
Above all, these individuals have shown that real courage comes not from self-righteous conviction that we know the truth, and that others who do not must be attacked as evil. Rather, theirs is a courage that comes from the profound awareness that our apprehension of truth is limited. The true nature of things cannot be fully observed, no matter the powers of science and technology. Human consciousness, social institutions, cultural expression and values are shaped through history by a freedom of action not otherwise known in nature. As a result, the changes wrought by history and evolution cannot be grasped by frozen formulae that spring from our quest for certainty or our hope for salvation.
Knowing this, these great leaders of our time have shown the irony that true courage is founded in humility - a humility that recognizes the marvelous complexity of the world and the infinite diversity of human experience and capacity. They have shown also that courage is founded in another irony: that power is sustained only by the powerless, and that empires, totalitarian states, theocracies, and racist autocracy all fall when their claims to truth are contradicted by the experience and action of those they rule.
Simon Fraser University is delighted to honour the extraordinary life and work of the Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi, and Desmond Tutu. Like any great university, we are committed above all to academic freedom, to the discovery of truth through disciplined dialogue and scholarship, and to an autonomous, open and inclusive community which sustains the search for truth. Those we honour today have done more than any to reinforce these commitments by their great example. They have given us strength and inspiration by the courage of their convictions. And they have given us hope that in the very high stakes of modern politics the cards of peace and reconciliation will trump the ace of clubs.
This is the text of President Michael Stevenson's address to the special convocation on April 20 at Christ Church Cathedral. The Dalai Lama, Professor Shirin Ebadi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were awarded honorary degrees at the ceremony.
View the archived web cast of the special convocation ceremony at: