David N. Hempton: Belonging at Harvard

David N. Hempton speaks at Morning PrayersDavid N. Hempton, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School speaks at Morning Prayers, Sept. 7, 2017. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



Colossians 3: 11-14

“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

As most of you know our President, Drew Faust, has commissioned a university-wide task force on Inclusion and Belonging. The presidential charge delivered to the committee, under the title “From Diversity to Belonging,” states that “A community that draws on the widest possible pool of talent, one that fully embraces individuals from varied backgrounds, cultures, races, identities, life experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and values, is a more just community. It is also an environment in which learning, creativity, and discovery can flourish. Harvard aspires to be such a place. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are not incidental concerns; they are fundamental to Harvard’s mission and identity.” The Charge goes on to state that “across and within its twelve Schools, Harvard offers its students, faculty, and staff many different experiential pathways but also elements of a common culture. What are the defining characteristics of Harvard’s common culture? That is, what is the lived experience of diversity, inclusion, empowerment, and belonging among students, staff, and faculty? How can we transform that culture to achieve not just inclusion but full belonging and empowerment for all members of our community?”

That question got me thinking. What does belonging to, or at, Harvard mean for all the members of the Harvard community – students, staff and faculty? What does belonging to anything mean? I can easily see why people want to come to Harvard, connect with Harvard, network at Harvard, exploit the corporate brand of Harvard, boast of being at Harvard, revel in the prestige of Harvard, or even make money from Harvard credentialing. But what about belonging at Harvard?  I can easily see how diversity and inclusion are vital parts of belonging, but I can also see that the belonging word resonates with something even deeper in the human condition. You know that when someone says to you, as they have to me every now and again, “you know, I feel that I really belong here” that they are talking about something more than diversity and inclusion, though obviously not something less than that.

In the Christian tradition, belonging is often interpreted as being part of the church, the body of Christ, which is characterized by equal value before God and commitment to the values of the kingdom of God, which in the passage we read together from Colossians focus on compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, and love.

To belong, in this Christian sense is to become part of a collective body of mutually dependent people of equal value who commit to a community values statement rooted in the values we have just mentioned. Now, even Divinity School deans can sometimes be realists, so I know from forty years’ experience of academic life that academic communities are not always exemplars of humility, kindness, forgiveness and love. Rather, the commodities we most value are smartness, intelligence, innovation, competitiveness, and success.

So, back to belonging. Although we are in a church, Harvard is not a church, and should not be one, but here is my stab at the five most important aspects of belonging, which may be rooted in faith traditions, but don’t have to be.

1. First, that to which we belong, not just affiliated with, should have some morally compelling reason for its existence beyond the exercise of privilege, cultural power, and the generation of resources for material comfort. I call this the ethical component of belonging.

2. Belonging to an institution, as with belonging to a family, involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance, even when we fiercely disagree with and irritate one another. There is no belonging without self-acceptance. In the words of Sarah Ban Breatnach, “It doesn’t matter whom you love or where you move from or to, you always take yourself with you. If you don’t know who you are, or if you’ve forgotten or misplaced her, then you’ll always feel as if you don’t belong. Anywhere. I call this the human component of belonging.

3. We cannot belong anywhere where we know people in our community are being humiliated or diminished or treated with disrespect.  Desmond Tutu calls this ubuntu. “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” I call this the social justice component of belonging.

4. A true sense of belonging comes only with a sense that our deepest longing for belonging is shared by everyone. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that that is “part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.  You belong.” That quote is not only about the importance of belonging, but is also a ringing endorsement of why the arts and humanities matter at Harvard just as much as the big battalions of science and technology, which at their best are informed by the same values. I call this the universal longing of belonging.

5. Finally we can’t belong anywhere if we don’t want to belong, and take on the responsibility and commitment of belonging.  As long as we are content to stand aloof from community with a critical spirit of detachment and disengagement we will never belong. We may achieve a kind of smug self-satisfaction that way, but we will never discover the warmth of heart and spirit that belonging brings. I call this the responsible component of belonging.

Belonging is a powerful word. It resonates with self-acceptance, with community, with a sense of home, of somehow being where we are meant to be, and where we can flourish individually and corporately. Belonging is deeply ethical, transformatively human, connected to social justice, rooted in a universal longing, and is something which every one of us must take responsibility for. Belonging it is a beautiful word.It is worth striving for. It should be who we are.