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Review by Brenda Brown Schoonover


A Review of Saved for a Purpose: A Journey from Private Virtues to Public Values, By  James A. Joseph. (Duke University Press, 235 pages )

The author, James A. Joseph defines his book,Saved for a Purpose: A Journey from Private Virtues to Public Values as an ethical autobiography.

James Joseph, an African American, was born in 1935 in the Deep South in the small rural segregated community, Plaisance, Louisiana, a farming region, home to several generations of the Joseph family. He describes it as an “ethnically mixed area in southwestern Louisiana….All of us, despite our differences in color, reflected in some ways the fusion of Cajuns and the Creoles with equally varied cultures of American Indians, Spaniards, French, German, Scots, Irish, English, Caribbean Islanders” – known by the locals as “cultural gumbo”.

The author’s depictions of the strategies the black community had to employ in order to survive in the white-dominated segregated environment are enlightening. “We grew up knowing that we faced the daily threat of death for simply being black, but we disliked even more the ongoing disrespect for our humanity…. but we refused to be consumed by fear or hate. Our primary passion was the drive to succeed, to transcend and someday transform the barriers around us”.

We learn that Joseph was strongly influenced by his religious upbringing, his parents, his father, Reverend Adam Joseph, founder of Starlight Baptist Church and his mother, Julia Joseph, who both instilled in Jim and his brother the importance of education and service. He explains, “But while I had my own sense of ethics and was absolute and more broad in scope, I must credit my father for developing within me a sense that I was not here alone, that I did not exist for myself alone that I was an integral part of something bigger and more mysterious than myself.”

Southern University in Baton Rouge was the “black alternative” to Louisiana State University which was off-limits to Negro students. Joseph did his undergraduate at Southern. The real turning point in his education and outlook occurred during his subsequent years as a seminary student at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. He recalls, “The period of Yale for me was an age of belief. I was trying to anchor my faith in something that answered rather than simply raised, critical questions about Sunday school stories.” His time at Yale Divinity further developed his skills as social and civil rights activist.

Many years later, 2013 to be exact, James Joseph would be invited back to Yale Divinity School to receive the Lux et Veritas Alumni Award for “excellence and distinction in applying compassion to the diverse needs of the human condition through the wider world of government, business, academia.”

James A. Joseph’s rich and varied career spans a myriad of  leadership roles—to name a few: college chaplain, cooperate vice president; and, advisory positions to four U.S. presidents most notably, Undersecretary in the Department of Interior in the Jimmy Carter Administration (1977-1981) and American Ambassador to South Africa in the Bill Clinton Administration (1996-2000).

He characterizes his autobiography as “a personal account of a moral journey through a fascinating period of American history.” The title was prompted by his harrowing August 1978 experience in a plane crash during a visit to Micronesia in his capacity as the Department of the Interior’s Undersecretary. Fortunately, Jim Joseph survived the crash with only minor injuries—describing his near-miss as, “a defining moment in the South Pacific when my rescue from a crash in deep and distant Micronesia waters left not so much an emotional scar as a sense that I had been“saved for a purpose.”

Ever the theologian, Joseph explained, “I had chosen the world as my parish, where everything I did, I saw as a form of ministry, seeking to infuse values into all sectors of society, promoting justice and compassion.”  When he was head of the Council of Foundations, he helped develop the philanthropic sectors in South Africa, the Soviet Union, and Costa Rica and continued those efforts in South Africa in his capacity as U.S. Ambassador.

Serving in South Africa as the U.S. Chief of Mission in the late 1990s placed him there at an exciting pivotal point in the nation’s history. He defines it as “an incredible time, the dismantling of legal apartheid” noting that he was particularly inspired by Nelson Mandela’s and Bishop Desmond Tutu’s approach to reconciliation in South Africa’s post-apartheid transition, “What was really unique about South Africa was the way in which the country was tackling some of the most profound moral and ethical questions facing the world then and now: questions about truth, forgiveness, justice and community.”

Joseph reminds us that it was an era when “South Africa was an especially important country to the United States. We were committed to helping Nelson Mandela and the new democracy succeed…” Joseph saw substantial increases in USAID (Agency for International Development) programs. A Peace Corps program was started. During his tenure, the embassy grew from 182 representing seven U.S. agencies to 300 representing twenty-three agencies—and, the locally hired staff grew to 400. In addition, American non-governmental funding and programs exceeded $50 million a year.

Subsequent to his four years as ambassador, Joseph was appointed honorary professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a professor of the practice of public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he established the United States-Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values. Splitting his time between South Africa and the United States, he developed a platform for helping “prepare emerging leaders to cope with the moral challenges of an increasing complex world.”

On Mandela
Ambassador Joseph’s admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela is a major recurring theme of his work. In my opinion, the most compelling portions of Saved for a Purpose are Jim Joseph’s tributes to Mandela and his invaluable insights into Mandela’s outstanding leadership throughout his incredible life from a young anti-apartheid revolutionary to his 27-year imprisonment and his presidency of South Africa and beyond. He sees Mandela’s combination of hard and soft power, his emotional intelligence and ethical principles as traits we should all strive to emulate—traits Joseph emphases in his own teachings.

He speaks of Mandela’s regal bearing reflecting his African “tribal chieftancy.” As for the aura of the dynamic leader, Joseph recognizes that “It is not easy for an objective observer to get beyond the icon. The myth is usually so powerful, it blurs the reality, but I often found the reality to be even more appealing than the myth… Mandela never lost either his common touch or sense of connectedness with all of humanity. He was African with great respect for his tribal tradition, but he was driven by the ideas that the individual comes into full humanity only when there is acceptance of the full humanity of others.”

And yet, Joseph acknowledges that, “Nelson Mandela certainly had his own failings in diplomacy as well as a person.” Joseph refers to Mandela’s official biographer, Anthony Sampson, who identified Mandela’s “stubbornness, fixed loyalties and princely detachment.” As the U.S Ambassador to South Africa, Joseph admitted that occasionally some of these traits surfaced in his interaction with Mandela with regard to American foreign policy.

But as for the Mandela legacy, the author waxes eloquently, stating that “in the arena where history and legend merge with reality, he (Nelson Mandela) stood for millions of people around the world—as few others have—for triumph of dignity and hope over despair and hatred, of self discipline and love over persecution and evil and for principled democracy over the idea that anything goes.” Joseph praises Mandela for his international and domestic leadership, who while seeking to appeal to higher purpose… was also a practical man who understood the imperfections of humanity as well as its potential.”

Adding to President Mandela’s charismatic effect, Joseph quotes President Bill Clinton, “Every time Mandela walks into a room, we feel a little bit bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we would like to be him on our best day.”

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18,1918, He died on December 5, 2013. As we approach the 100th year of Mandela’s birth, James Joseph’s thoughts on this historic figure are especially meaningful and fitting.

Beyond his tribute to Mandela, throughout Saved for a Purpose, James Joseph sprinkles nuggets of wisdom mostly his own and others he deems worth quoting. Here are a few examples:

On religion: “Religion can both open and close minds. It can lead to remarkable demonstrations of love and it can also lead to hatred of the other”.

On Morality: “Why do people who claim the same moral grounding, appeal to the same moral authority, and use the same moral language arrive at all together different conclusions about right and good?”

On Philanthropy: “Giving and caring are not only public values that need to be tempered with humility. They should also give rise to an ethic of giving in which how you give matters as much as what you give.”

On this subject, he quotes distinguished scholar, Jacob Neusner; “Responsible philanthropy requires consideration for the humanity of the recipient who remains no different from the donor. Those who receive are not less than those who give. They have not only needs but feelings. They welcome not only benevolence but respect.”

Ambassador James A. Joseph’s Saved for a Purpose: A Journey from Private Virtues to Public Valuesis a thoughtful and dignified analysis of moral and ethical leadership, timeless life lessons—nuggets of wisdom we would be wise to consider. We can hope that a more humanitarian approach and a cohesive code of ethics and morality would make for a less volatile world.white star

About James A. Joseph 

– Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Public Policy at Duke University.
– Founder of the United States—Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke and the University of Cape Town;
– United States Ambassador to South Africa from 1996 to 2000;
– Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior from 1977 to 1981;
– President and CEO of the Council on Foundations;
– Vice President of the Cummins Engine Company;
– Chaplain of the Claremont Colleges;
Among his Honorary Awards: the Order of Good Hope, South Africa’s highest award to a citizen of a foreign country.
Yale Divinity School Lux and Vertitas Alumni Award

Other publications by James A. Joseph
– Leadership as a Way of Being
– Remaking America: How the Benevolent Traditions of Many Cultures are Transforming Our National Life,
– The Charitable Impulse: Wealth and Social Conscience in Communities and Cultures Outside the United States

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageBrenda Brown Schoonover is a retired career American Foreign Service Officer and former U.S, Ambassador to Togo. She was President of American Diplomacy Publishers. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from the Philippines, Group One, 1961-1963, she is a charter member of the Corps and held several staff positions in the Peace Corps including associate director of its program in Tanzania from 1965 to 1967.  For the 50th Peace Corps anniversary, Schoonover contributed to a volume of essays by Returned Volunteers from the Philippines, entitled, Answering Kennedy’s Call, Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines, edited by Parker W. Borg, Maureen J. Carroll, Patricia MacDermot Kasdan and Stephen W.Wells. Answering Kennedy’s Call won the Independent Publishers 2012 Book Award, the IPPY Award, in the category of Peacemaker of the Year and is included the Library of Congress’ Special Collection for the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary. Both Schoonover and editor Parker W. Borg’s essays in the collection have been republished in American Diplomacy.

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