Rumi Forum's blog on Hizmet, Fethullah Gulen, peacebuilding, education and interfaith efforts.

Monday, February 13, 2012

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Dr Roberta Rosenberg - “The meaning of Friendship during troubled times” Norfolk Rumi Awards and Friendship Dinner

“The meaning of Friendship during troubled times”: Keynote address at Norfolk Rumi Awards and Friendship Dinner, Norfolk, Virginia,   November 17, 2011
Professor Roberta Rosenberg, Christopher Newport University

***watch full video - below text***

When I was asked to speak on the subject of friendship and solidarity, my first response was to think about the word “friend” in our modern world.  Much to my distress as an English professor, “friend,” a once proud noun has now become the renegade verb “to friend” —at least for the millions of young people who live online through Facebook.  People now “friend” each other.  But the Facebook “friend” is also troubling as a noun:  what does it mean, in a modern context, to have 650 “friends” on Facebook?  What can one possibly do with 650 friends—indeed what does it mean to be a friend to the other 649?  

And yet many modern philosophers would argue that today, with dissolving kinship ties and families scattered throughout the world, “friends” are more important than ever as our non-biological alliances replace the traditional family.  But what do we know about the concept of friendship when we can’t even decide whether it is a verb or a noun!  When “sharing” with friends means exchanging our likes and dislikes with corporations phishing our facebook page in order to sell us something—how can one find solidarity with “friends” such as these?

As I usually do in these situations, I decided to look back through history in order to understand how we have arrived at this rather perplexing juncture.  And on the way, I also learned something not only about modern friendship, but also something about the reasons that we are honoring the three people who sit here with us this evening.  All of these gentlemen understand what it means to be a true friend and all three have had the courage to enact the quality of friendship during both good times but, even more importantly, during dangerous and troubled times.  It is this quality of friendship that we need now more than ever, and I would like to share with you tonight my journey of discovery.

In his famous treatise on Ethics, Aristotle describes three kinds of friends,  and makes important distinctions among them.  According to Aristotle, friendship can be based on pleasure, on utility and on virtue or shared commitment to the “good.”  

The first two kinds of friendship—based on pleasure and utility—can be fleeting since they are often prompted by self-interest and transient emotions:  we are friends because we like to ski together or are infatuated with each other or financially benefit from the alliance.  Once I no longer desire to ski, once the romantic thrill is gone or the deal completed, however, our friendship may wane.  Networking (as it is now called in our cyber age)—whether in person or online—does not really constitute friendship:  Change my job, hobby or passion and the friendship may evaporate: profile deleted!

But Aristotle’s third definition of friendship—based on a shared commitment to the good—is the kind of friendship that all of our honorees know intimately.  And it is this kind of “friendship of virtue” that we need more than ever in a modern world that the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once described as a place where “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full with passionate intensity.”  

Let me explain what I mean by a friendship based on virtue or commitment to the good because it describes the actions of Judge Doumar,  Bishop Sullivan and Mr. Nusbaum:   in this sort of friendship, one must be committed to civic virtue—often at great personal and professional risk—for the benefit of society.  These three men all have devoted themselves to selfless actions which include the important traits of  empathy, caring and concern for the less fortunate.  Ironically, as virtuous friends, they were even willing to make adversaries of an erring society.  As the French philosopher Montaigne argued, “Those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.”  It is within this kind of friendship that people do not necessarily ask “are we having fun yet?” nor do they speculate “what am I getting out of this?”  Instead, friends of virtue forge courageously ahead, often braving adversity and danger in order to accomplish what they feel is their responsibility to the just society.  

Likewise, Fetuallah Gulen, the inspiring leader and intellectual, praises those friends who act responsibly in the world.  Gulen writes in The Statue of Our Souls that the courageous friend will say `I have to do this myself.  If I do not do it now, to whatever extent I can, then probably no one will do it,’ and they will run forward to be the first to do it, to bear the flag high” (qtd. in Carroll 99).

Our three honorees have all, in their individual ways, held the flag high, running forward into controversy when they needed to act as the good friend to an errant society.  Our honorees have become what Gulen calls “genius minds with iron wills” because as  Gulen explains, “we need refined minds and an iron will which will embrace and interpret creation in its depth and entirety and humanity ” (qtd in Carroll 99).

To illustrate:  Even in an anxious post 9-11 world with its war on terrorism, Judge Doumar felt that American citizens should have due process and, in his legal decision which would eventually go to the Supreme Court as Hamdi v Rumsfeld,  Judge Doumar supported the rights of Mr. Hamdi, an individual named as an “enemy combatant.”  In addition, Judge Doumar  worked tirelessly in many lawsuits on equally controversial cases, including the Government of Sudan’s complicity with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.

Likewise, Bishop Sullivan spent ten years as the President of Pax Christi, the national Catholic Peace movement and has been a supporter of alternatives to the death penalty for which he was honored by Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  Never one to shrink from controversy when he believed that issues of social justice were at stake, Bishop Sullivan is an example of a true friend to Virginia and people everywhere.  Furthermore, Bishop Sullivan’s commitment extends to women and men of all religions.  His experience at a World War II death camp in Poland had a galvanizing effect on him.  After viewing the camp, Bishop Sullivan remarked that "these things become a part of your psyche and convictions of what you should be about."

No stranger to controversy, Mr. Robert Nusbaum has been described by Howard Gordon, a partner in his law firm, as “unwavering” when confronted by social injustice.  As  one of Fetullah Gullen’s “genius minds with an iron will,”  when Mr. Nusbaum takes a position or gets involved in something,  he is, in the words of Mr. Gordon, “in it all the way” (qtd. in Walzer).
When Norfolk public schools closed in the 1950s rather than admit black students, Mr. Nusbaum raised money for the legal representation of black families who wished to reopen the schools.  With his leadership, businessmen across the region paid for newspaper ads demanding an end to “massive resistance” to integration and the opening of public schools to all children.  "Massive Resistance was just plain wrong," Nusbaum told a reporter from the Virginian Pilot recently.  "I did what I could" (qtd in Walzer).  Like all of our honorees, Mr. Nusbaum has a special commitment to religious freedom, a belief which prompted him to work for the establishment of a Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan.

All three of our honorees demonstrate how true friendship acts in the world:  it is unafraid of controversy, courageously working for the public good and founded on a commitment to social justice for all people.  This friendship requires us to work in solidarity together—despite our cultural, social or religious differences, even at great personal, financial and political risk.
And this notion takes me back to my opening comments about Facebook and modern “friendship.”  I must now confess that I have a Facebook page and am in possession of 116 “friends.” And although I seem critical of the concept I would like to explain how I got started.  Several years ago, I was asked by my university to be one of the faculty advisors for a U.S. State Department project that paired 20 students from Morocco and Algeria with 20 Christopher Newport undergraduates for a month long summer experiment in cross-cultural friendship on our campus.  This post 9-11 experiment was a success and the bonds of relationship forged in the summer of 2006 have continued until this day.  At the conclusion of the summer, the North African students asked me to create a Facebook page where they could check in with me online.  One student in particular, Khawla, who adopted me as her “American Mum” has been a faithful Facebook “friend.”  So, when I was fortunate enough to be sailing in the Mediterranean last December, I was able to stop in Casablanca and renew my friendship with Khawla, Khadja and several other students after a 5 year absence.  Khawla’s family invited me to dinner and when we arrived, we were welcomed as friends by her large and hospitable family.  We didn’t have a mutual language nor did we share the same religion or nationality.  But we had what good friends must have in our world—a commitment to international understanding and justice.  And as we left the dinner and returned to the ship, my husband, Terry, said to me, “You know no one but Khawla spoke English, but it didn’t seem to matter.  And he was absolutely correct.  We all had a desire to connect in a meaningful away—transcending linguistic and cultural differences and distances —in order to arrive at a place of friendship.

The true basis of friendship transcends nation, religion and economic circumstances.  It is a meeting of people whose ultimate goal is the creation of a peaceful and just society.  American author Henry David Thoreau said it quite well over 150 years ago when he analyzed the importance of the virtuous friend:  “The language of friendship is not words, but meanings.  It is an intelligence above language.”  And it is to that “intelligence above language” that we and our honorees tonight are dedicated.  

The poet and philosopher Rumi also speaks eloquently about friendship and thus I would like to conclude my remarks by reading a few lines from his poem, “The Community of Spirit”:  “There is a community of the spirit /Join it, and feel the delight/ Of walking in the noisy street And being the noise/Drink all your passion,/ . . . /Close both eyes/To see with the other eye.” May we all continue to see the community of the spirit through the “other eye” of virtuous friendship.    Thank you.

Works Cited
Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII.  Translated by W.D. Ross.  Web <>
Carroll, B. Jill.  A Dialogue of Civilizations:  Gulen's Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse.  Clifton, N.J.: The Gulen Institute, 2010.  Print.

Rumi,  Jalal ad-Din.  "A Community of Spirit."  Web.
Thoreau, Henry David.  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  Web
Walzer, Philip.  "Longtime Lawyer gets a Celebration for his 60 years,"  The Virginia-Pilot & The Ledger-Star.  12 August, 2008.  Web October 2011.

Yeats, William Butler.  "The Second Coming."  Web.