Commencement speaker Archbishop Desmond Tutu spread his arms wide as if to embrace the more than 20,000 spectators at Commencement on the Ellipse, with only the gentle sound of flags flapping in the wind and a few hushed voices as competition.
“There are no outsiders,” he said.
Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work to end apartheid in South Africa, was the lead speaker at Sunday morning’s ceremony.
In 1995, he was appointed by South African President Nelson Mandela to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization established to investigate human rights violations from 1960 until 1994.
After retiring as archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1996, Tutu was named archbishop emeritus. Tutu said much of the inspiration for his speeches comes from the injustice he witnessed in South Africa.
“We have listened to some extraordinary stories in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.and you are overwhelmed by the extent of our capacity for evil,” Tutu said. “And just when you are feeling awful about that, you are exhilarated.”
Tutu cited many conflicts present in the modern world, such as the war in Kosovo, and “forgotten conflicts” in places such as Sri Lanka, Burma, the two Congos, Sierra Leone and Angola.
Tutu also touched upon the ongoing strife in places like the Middle East and Northern Ireland and domestic problems, specifically the shootings at a high school in Colorado.
Tutu said these problems can often lead people to question the existence of God.
“Looking at the state of the world, sometimes we might be tempted to ask: `Did God have a plan at all?,’ ” he said. “You’d have thought that if God was looking for providing people with the evidence to deny the existence of God, then God would have done a better job of it.”
While looking at the world, Tutu said, one can wish that God would dispatch those who cause the strife in the world. But Tutu said this is not the nature of his God.
“But you see, we have an extraordinary God,” he said. “This is a God who doesn’t send lightning bolts to destroy those who are war mongers. No. It is a paradox that you have a God that is omnipotent but who becomes powerless.”
Tutu said God does not relinquish control of the world because he does not care about the outcome of events on the Earth, but because he recognizes the human duty to be God’s hands on Earth.
“God waits on such as yourselves to be God’s partners – to seek, to bring out the great good that there is in all of us, for even when, yes, we have the capacity for some of the most ghastly awfulness, we also have the capacity for an incredible goodness when you thrill to be human,” he said.
Tutu said graduates must help realize what he refers to as “God’s dream.” He said God’s dream world is “more caring, compassionate and gentle.” Tutu said God waits upon people to be his partners in helping bring his dream to fruition.
“It was inspiring,” said Doug Casey, who received a master’s degree in information systems. “He brought together his own experiences with experiences of the present day.”
Student speaker Cynthia Gee, who graduated with a degree from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, agreed with Tutu and encouraged graduates to do something positive with their lives.
“Be the change you want to see in the world,” she said.
Honorary degree winners, including Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, six-time Olympic medalist Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee and Arthur Levitt, chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, also briefly focused on the important role Sunday’s graduates will play in the future.
Drawing together all the other messages at Commencement, Tutu closed his speech with all-encompassing words.
“All of us belong in a family, in God’s family,” he said. “You are those whom God says, `Can you help me bring about this kind of society where we draw all: black, white, gay, lesbian.'”
-Steven Postal contributed to this report.