Commencement speaker Abigail Disney asked the graduates of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) to support a greater role for women in the political arena, particularly in peace negotiations. If more women were at the negotiating tables, suggested Disney, wars would likely end sooner and on terms that permit faster healing.
She cited a United Nations study that found that less than 3 percent of the signatories to 21 major peace agreements in recent years have been women.
Addressing thousands who gathered for EMU’s 94th commencement, Disney referenced Julia Ward Howe, the 19th-century writer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She spoke of how the carnage of the Civil War caused Howe to move from rallying the North to fight against the South, as exemplified by the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to being a pacifist for the rest of her adult life.
Howe was the first to lobby for the declaration of an annual day of recognition for mothers, but she linked such recognition to her view that mothers understand “the interdependent nature of life” and therefore are more likely to work for peaceful resolution of conflicts.
“Women, in critical mass, in places where decisions are made, reduce the value of force and masculinity as political and social currency,” Disney said. “By introducing alternative modes of problem solving…., they make spaces hospitable not only to other women, but to all kinds of men.”
The graduation ceremony occurred outdoors under a brilliant blue sky with ideal temperatures, a fairy tale ending to a weekend forecast of rain and cool temperatures.
Disney, who co-produced “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (Fork Films, 2008), offered her support to the values of social service and peace that EMU teaches: “I feel I’ve spent years trying to teach my sons about charity and mercy and patience. More often than not, I feel like I’m forced to teach them these things against everything they see, in politics, popular culture, in school, in the public discourse and even in certain aspects of the religious sphere.”
Disney encouraged graduates to emulate the “moral wavelength” on which Howe operated: “What Howe originally proposed was an international Mother’s Day of peace, because she felt down to the deepest part of her soul, that a woman brings a commitment to peace with her when she talks about politics that is visceral, and uncompromising, and functions on a moral wavelength that is nearly impossible to counter.”
Disney closed with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XII.”
Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.
What locks itself in sameness has congealed.
Is it safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.
Pour yourself out like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.
Every happiness is the child of a separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.
EMU President Loren Swartzendruber conferred 426 degrees and certificates: 306 undergraduate, 97 graduate degrees, 11 certificates in pastoral ministry studies, 10 graduate certificates in conflict transformation and two graduate certificates in peacebuilding and conflict transformation in educational settings.
The undergraduate class had 99 people who graduated with honors, finishing with cumulative grade point averages between 3.6 and 4.0.
Some of the administrators, faculty and students wore bailing twine pinned to their robes in remembrance of farm-raised Theodore (Theo) Brian Yoder, who would have been among these graduates if he had not died at age 22 on April 12, 2012, after a 12-year battle with various cancers.
The undergraduate class raised funds, including matching funds from Bibb and Dolly Frazier of Frazier Quarry, to install Wi-Fi printers in the residence halls as their class gift.
To listen to the full commencement exercise visit emu.edu/now/podcast/category/commencement/.
A full gallery of photos from commencement is posted at emu.edu/photos/commencement-2012/.