Section of a Commencement Speech at Northeastern University – May 10, 2012
“I spent thirty years being a soldier in the Cold War. I stood watch on the Iron Curtain in Germany, as a corps commander and as a lieutenant. I fought in Vietnam for two years—an extension of that conflict. I served in Korea, on the demilitarized zone. It finally ended for me—finally!—on a day in 1988 in the Kremlin. I was National Security Advisor to President Reagan, and he was getting ready for his first trip ever to the “Evil Empire.” He was going to go to Moscow. And he sent me to Moscow first to talk to this interesting new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and to see what he was really planning to do.
It was a very difficult meeting. President Gorbachev kept beating up on me, and criticizing my role as a soldier for all of those years, and criticizing the right wing of the party that Reagan represented, thinking they didn’t understand the changes he was making. He was opening up his country. He was reforming his political and economic systems. And he didn’t think we understood.
And I just sat there watching him, impassiveness on my face. Finally he realized he wasn’t getting to me, and he stopped. He paused. He looked up. And then he had an idea and looked back down. Then he stared unsmiling across the table at me. His eyes were twinkling. And he gently says to me, “Ah, General, General. I’m so very, very sorry. You will have to find a new enemy.”
And I thought to myself, “I don’t want to.” I have a whole career invested in this enemy. Thirty years! Just because you’re having a bad year, why do I have to change?
But he was having a bad century. Within two years of that meeting in the Kremlin, the Iron Curtain was gone. That border I had guarded so many times. The Soviet Union was gone. Germany was unified. The Warsaw Pact disappeared. And Gorbachev had to step down, because he was a reformer, and they needed a revolution.”
The general as a Christian saw the theological dimensions of the General Secretary’s remark. It occurs to me that this is the “shift” at the core of the Gospel. It is no mistake, I think, that the central Christian symbol is a cross, one of the cruelest ways to die devised (so far). That Cross is a sign of contradiction that if held long enough (and we are willing) turns into paradox: the way of death is become the way to life! To focus just on the horrible sufferings of Jesus (though worthwhile to contemplate) is to miss the deeper mystery.
This is the mystery at the very recesses of our feeble intuition of God. It appears, since Jesus came to clearly reveal God what is important to know is that God is like Jesus! That being true then there is in the God-head a kind of power that transcends the transactional power of force. We are comfortable with this especially when we have the power but we find in familiar even as we cringe.
What Jesus tells us, I think, is that the power of relationship is greater than the power of force. Robert Farrar Capon helped me learn this when he wrote of the difference. He pointed out that the most important things in life cannot be willed.
- You can will people to eat but you cannot will hunger.
- You can will people to drink but you cannot will thirst
- We cannot will people to love us, though we can make them afraid.
This is also the reality, I believe, that makes Alcoholics Anonymous work. No one has ever gotten into recovery by the will. Oh, you can quit drinking by will power. It is what AA folk call a “dry drunk”. You will find them among the most angry people you will ever meet. The profound irony pointing toward contradiction and beyond to paradox is that what cannot be willed into being can be surrendered into being. Giving up willfulness releases the energy to accomplish the very thing that the will can never do.
No one can make another person their enemy if that person is unwilling. As Gorbachev said to General Powell, “I’m taking your enemy away.” In someways the West has been looking for a replacement ever since.
Think on these matters. This way leads to life though it go through the valley of the shadow of death. JWS