Saturday, November 05, 2011

Courage


I once was fortunate to hear Maya Angelou speak at a SACS conference.  The fact that I say fortunate is a compliment, on two fronts.  No one considers a SACS conference all that exciting to attend, only higher ed geeks like me, or an administrator looking for another job.  But they do get some good speakers, to whom they have to pay ridiculous sums, which come from the exorbitant fees we have to pay to go to the conference.  Last year the conference was in Louisville, about as far north as you can go and still be in the Southeast; this year it’s in Orlando.  It was bitterly cold and snowing last year.  I expect 80 degrees this time around. 

The second reason I am slow to say “fortunate” is that I am not a big Angelou fan, for a number of reasons, but she does have some interesting poetry.  However, she said something that day that I often quote and that has been a huge inspiration and challenge to me.

She said that courage is the basis of all other virtues.  In other words, to live virtuously, one must first be courageous.  I find this extremely profound and counter to what so many of us might think about virtue and courage.  Many would put courage as the pinnacle of the virtues; she is putting it as the seed of virtues.
Let’s talk first about virtue, however.  Most people confuse virtue with, well, sexual purity and virginity, etc.  And that may be part of it, but only part.  Yes, I don’t think a Christian can be virtuous if that part of his/her life is not under control, but it is a branch of the tree, not the tree.  Some people can be “virtuous” in that respect simply because there is no temptation available to them, but they lack virtue in other areas. 

Two scriptures focus on virtue
2Pe 1:5  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with, virtue and virtue with knowledge,
And Philippians 4:8, in the KJV, says, “if there be any virtue . . . think on these things.”  The ESV translates it as “if there be any excellence.” 

In Greek, two words are translated as virtue in the New Testament, Agatha (also goodness, excellence) and arête, manliness, praise.  In the Roman times, virtue had more to do with the integrity of a public life.  In the Renaissance it had to do with being a person of many, well-rounded talents, as seen below.
“These three concepts (classical humanism, scientific naturalism, and individualism). were designed to achieve the quality most admired in the Renaissance individual, virtu (the word comes closer in the modem sense to virtuoso than virtuous). Virtu revealed itself the boundless vitality and extraordinary ability that led to the multitalented achievements of a Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. With virtu, the Renaissance individual could no longer confine himself to a single specialty but sought to become the universal man.” (from http://www.peninsula.wednet.edu/classroom/robisonp/RENthoughtarticle.htm)   

One can see the connection to the Greek and Roman view, which the Renaissancists were trying to enliven, and the Renaissance ideal. 

Now, back to Maya Angelou.  How can one achieve any of this without a basic drive, need, desire, or characteristic of courage?  Especially today, when our culture prizes conformity, apathy, affluence, going along to get along, materialism, moral compromise, and it excuses lack of integrity, unless you happen to cross the line in a few politically incorrect ways. (I am thinking of Herman Cain, who allegedly said something inappropriate to three women several years ago and is being treated as an ax murderer, whereas Bill Clinton was the world’s biggest womanizer and people fell at his feet.  Figure that one out.) 
(Let me just throw this in that I don’t understand why women don’t have the courage to tell a man who are saying inappropriate things to take a hike to the man’s face, instead of sneaking around behind his back and getting a lawyer.  I like to think I am old enough to fight my own battles when it comes to lewd jokes.  However, there are times when physical force is used, and that’s a different matter.  Men will always be physically stronger than women, across the board, no matter how intellectually or emotionally stronger the woman.)

All that said, in listening to recent events in the lives of Christians under persecution in other nations, notably the pastor Joseph in Iran, who is being unbelievably pressured to convert back to Islam, I have been thinking about my own lack of courage.  It is shameful.  What would we do in a case like Pastor Joseph’s?  I cave so often, just by not saying anything, after forty years of following Christ (and maybe I can’t even say that I am following Christ, because I am such a blatant coward.)  Following Christ demands courage as the foundation, just as Maya Angelou says.  I excuse not taking bold and courageous steps by saying those steps are “not wise.”  Wisdom is not the antithesis of courage, either.

Now, where do we get this courage, if we are by nature horrid wimps?  Ah, that is the question.  To paraphrase James, who in speaking of wisdom, said, “Let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally, and upbraideth not” (old timey word for “God doesn’t reproach us for asking for wisdom, or courage, or any spiritual fruit). 

I work in a secular environment, surrounded by many people who would disagree with my views, so I see the need for courage on an everyday basis, but also wisdom to pick my battles.  I am willing to suffer for my country and convictions but not for very many of my political views (such as that the OWS people are wasting their time), but I really have no choice but to endure persecution for being a Christian if it comes to that.  Yet, it is easy to type “I am willing to suffer” when it’s not around the corner. 

But courage is not just a matter of dealing with persecution.  It’s needed whenever radical obedience stares us in the face.  The need for courage, for some of us, even confronts us when we write our check to the needs of ministries and the truly poor (I have a hard time with the idea of truly poor people in the U.S, but I am not proud of that feeling).  When we don’t turn the computer on to look at porn or even the timewasters of Facebook.  When we have to choose between what’s easy and what is hard necessity. 

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