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Reflection on Recent Events

Dear Emerson community,

As we all know, during Shabbat morning services at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, eleven people were massacred and several more were critically wounded by a gunman, who shouted “all Jews must die.” We are struck nearly senseless by the irony of the name: Tree of Life.

What occurred at the Synagogue was horrific. And, sadly, it is increasingly common, one of a growing list of unspeakable acts of hatred. A few days earlier, pipe bombs had been sent to democratic leaders and an attempt was made to send the same to CNN headquarters. And before that, a man who tried to enter a predominantly black church with intent to kill, senselessly murdered two people in Kentucky.

These events – whether they go by the name of Sandy Hook or Parkland or now Tree of Life – have become too commonplace in America, so much so that domestic terrorism is a greater threat to the safety of our nation than threats beyond our borders.

If you are like me, you are made bone-weary and debilitated by the insidious and violent contagion that has gripped our country.  It is soul-debasing.

I recall one official, as all others have done before him, say ritualistically, “This is not our community. This not what we stand for.”

But the unalloyed truth is that this is indeed what we have become, as all of the other previous acts of domestic terrorism have shown us. Increasingly we seem to live on Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain that “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

As I remind my children, fear and ignorance – not hatred – are the world’s great twin evils. After all, hatred is born out of fear and ignorance – not the other way around.

I have written to this community too many times before in response to murderous acts, motivated by fear and hate. I have said that as a nation committed to equality and social justice, our hope is that, out of the rich diversity of human experience, we can create communities of learning, communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism, communities of learning that will turn the tide of human want into a sea of joy and light.

We must find what binds us all together in common hope and need, not what divides us. We may or may not all come to love one another, but to be part of the best of this place, we must have the moral courage to respect one another.

Of course, all of us recognize our obligation – each in our own way – to honor the dead and wounded and call out and root out racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, sexual assault and all of the other behaviors and structures that harm people and corrupt and undermine our national values.

This is our duty as individuals. There is no other way because our leaders have not taken the action needed to protect the people they swore to serve.

My faith in the future is in our communities of learning and my belief that our nation’s needs may be met by people like those who teach and study at Emerson.

Education is a powerful instrument of change that renews and strengthens true quality in the world’s life and asks us to make an honest appraisal of our culture, recognizing both its strength and its weakness, so that we see these aspects separately and fairly, and who then, not complaining, or criticizing unreasonably, or turning away in supercilious indifference, we set about working where we can – first of all perhaps with ourselves – to improve that culture and to make not its shabbiness but its goodness available to others.[1]

This is what we do. This is what we must do. Our nation needs you more than ever.

So, let’s help change the national narrative – each in our own way. Here at Emerson we are educating filmmakers, writers, journalists, marketing specialists, speech pathologists, theater artists, and more. It is our responsibility to think critically, to reflect, and to add our reasoned voices and diverse perspectives to the most pressing problems of the day.

This is our moment. This is our time – our time to put a stake in the ground and declare boldly, proudly: We are Emerson. We are a creative force for righteous change in the world.

This is our time to contribute to the world in a way we’ve never done before.

This is my challenge to you – and to me.


Lee Pelton

[1] Nathan Pusey, The Quality of Life, Harvard Baccalaureate Sermon (1962), quoted in Values and the Elite Residential College, Peter J. Gomes, Daedalus, Winter, 1999.


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