COURAGE; MORAL AND OTHERWISE.
I love stories of courage, of sacrificial bravery, of someone knowing they are going up against terrible odds and being willing to stand in the gap at the crucial moment, no matter what it costs them. I have always wanted to have that potential, that readiness, and to be that kind of person. I find myself crying at patriotic songs and movies where the hero, especially historical figures, take a valiant and often fatal stand against evil and for a righteous cause.
When I was in high school we had to study Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I wrote one of my first poems in response to it and I can barely remember it but one line I think I can recreate, “A man would rather the seas incarnadine than find something inside himself to struggle with.” I was really taken by the word “incarnadine.” To make bloody the ocean with guilt was the idea I was working off of and I used it to ponder the issue of how we would much rather fight outward battles, destroy those whom we consider to be enemies, rather than to fight inside ourselves against our own faults and sins.
I think “moral courage” starts with the quest for individual integrity, and it continues in the quest for social and moral justice. For some it has been easier to fight the social and political battle while compromising in their own character, maybe it would be more accurate to say “most” rather than “some,” maybe it would be reality to admit to “all.”
The quest for moral courage is fraught with the scandal of hypocrisy along the way. It attacks from two directions. Those who become heroes against social and moral injustice are often found out to have clay feet while those who are paragons of moral rectitude, especially in religious circles, are often silent in the day of injustice and say and do nothing to stop it. The religious moralists are quick to point out the moral hypocrisy of a social justice advocate who has been caught in sexual misbehavior, but often seem to have no social moral conscience. We can be self-righteous in either or both arenas; that of our own personal morality and that in the cause of social justice and morality.
Since the spiritual reality is that none of us is perfect before God, (not perfect in our thinking, not perfect in our performance, and not perfect in our desires,) honesty forces us to admit all heroes have faults. Not all faults result in tragedy so we cannot call all our weaknesses “tragic faults.” It seems to me that one of the most tragic of faults is to consider moral perfection essential before we can consider someone a hero in the area of social morality, and another tragic fault is to consider social morality a fight not essential to pursue
What I just said was that if you seek holiness without also pursuing love for your neighbor, which is what social morality and justice are built upon, then you have a “tragic fault” and you are a hypocrite. I speak here of loving your neighbor in the sense of caring for the oppressed, broken, and abandoned as well as that of feeling warm about fellow church members, and forgiving the person next door who lets his dog out too often, doesn’t cut his lawn, or plays his music too loud.
I don’t like my own hypocrisy, my own ability to allow or lightly consider my own spiritual tendencies of being proud, angry, lustful, resentful, ambitious, jealous, envious, hateful, etc. to continue without crying out to God for the grace of repentance. I hate my sin, and I only wish I hated it more, and please God kill these sins in me. Yet, may God also kill the inertia when good needs to be done and I do nothing, because that is as nasty a sin as the rest of it.
We, that is, the whole world, needs both kinds of heroes who are heroic in both arenas. We need men and women of integrity, people who keep their marriage vows, who keep their word, who are honest in their financial and legal dealings, who don’t use other folks for their own gain. We need people we can trust. We also need people who we trust to do good in the world and stand up for what is right.
Right now there are medical staff and volunteers treating patients with Ebola and there is a pretty good chance they will catch it even as they try to help the few who have it to survive, or at least die in dignity. This disease is scarier than HIV/AIDS ever has been. Some of these health care workers have already died. Right now there are people trying to help those caught in the Hamas versus Israel war, and they may or might not have a political commitment to either side, but they are under the bombs and missiles while they try to relocate refugees, feed those without food, heal the wounded, and speak out against violence and persecution. This is true of some in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria, and in Ukraine.
There are smaller arenas of justice, which nevertheless become significant for institutions and communities. Will a person hire a minority when it is so convenient not to do so, will an institution create a program for diversity, will a business or municipality invest in a poor community when they could make faster money somewhere else or satisfy the demands of the affluent for better political return? Will they make the harder choice for justice sake? Will some leader step out of their ideological tribe and speak truth in spite of political cost to help righteousness prevail?
All of these people also have temptations, internal conflicts within their souls and personalities, and sometimes abandon the easy and pleasurable option for the harder and holier choice; heroism in two ways in the same person. I think we need that two way heroism, in all of us, and I think we need God’s grace for us to be able do either one; but maybe amazing grace to do it in both directions at the same time.