Real Moral Courage

Mark 11:1-10;John 18:33-38


          In the real world, you don’t have to look far for examples of moral cowardice. They don’t usually look as pathetic as Saddam Hussein being pulled out of a hole in the dirt or the madman Mommar Ghadafi being dragged from a drain pipe after killing tens of thousands of their own people. It rarely as sensational as the limp body of Jeffery Epstein swaying lifeless in the lonely cell of a detention center in Manhattan rather than face his accusers, along with all of his cronies.

          Most of the time, in the people right around us, moral cowardice looks more like Manny Ramirez, who retired suddenly from baseball after testing positive for steroids for the third time.[i] He could have been quite a story, moving to the United States from the Dominican Republic, the kid from Washington Heights, a terrific athlete that was one of the best hitters to play the game ever. But he was given to tantrums from childhood and never quite got over them. Surly, wouldn’t talk to the press. Wouldn’t really play defense. Stopped running when he hit a ground ball to second, sat alone in the clubhouse. From a distance he acted entitled.

          He made millions, had two World Series rings, and when he was going to have to answer to steroids- Nah, he said, and he decided to just take the money and run. No Manny Ramirez foundation for the kids, no role model at all… He just kind of fizzled out, “Manny was just being Manny” they say. God gave him so much talent. He didn’t do much with it, so you forget about these people because nothing memorable, nothing honorable is attached to them. Only the baseball geeks among us even remember Ramirez just 5 years after he left the game. It is just not enough, it is not nearly enough.

          I’ve known men like this and they scare me. They invariably don’t get it. They don’t have it in them spiritually to see what they could have become. They don’t see how their vision was too adolescent, too focused on just them. They don’t realize how little they settle for and how unfulfilling it is, perhaps especially because they were still pretty successful by the world’s standards.

          We worry that our kids might turn out like this. Parents of teenagers find themselves reading the details of articles in the paper where our kids take the lower road, like the Lacrosse team at St. Paul’s school in Baltimore a few years ago when one of the guys showed a video he had taken of him having sex with a younger girl and all the other boys just sat there and watched.

 It is true that teenage boys will just sit there if porno is on, but you know that there comes a moment for all of them when they think, ‘this is not a good idea…’. And it is worrisome that none of them voice that. More worrisome when they evade and feign ignorance upon direct interrogation. “What do you want me to do…  I mean, I was just sitting there.”

          It is worrisome because we know that in just a few years, they will be older and the will become bigger. We don’t want to see them going along with what everyone else is doing, what Dan Pat Moynihan so aptly described as “defining deviance down”.[ii]

          In a few short years, we know that they could well find themselves, low on the totem pole of some organization that is running a less sensational version of the breakdown of normal discipline and protocol like what happened at Abu Grahb prison in Iraq. True, it is unlikely they will be in a war zone or engaged in outright humiliation, but the culture that decides to suspend the rules momentarily, that cuts corners in this particular circumstance because we really need to, the culture that evades accountability structurally, it is out there… It is all around us in most every field.

          We know that in a few short years after that, they may well be sitting around a table at the investment bank listening to a slick presentation from the latest incarnation of a deal that can’t fail, like the guys at Enron explaining how shells upon shells upon shells earn assets without liabilities. We know how hard it is to be one of two voices in a group of 25 expressing some reservation when everyone else is saying ‘this is a sure winner’.

          We know that when they are fully grown and in top positions of leadership, you can always take advantage of the intern in your White House, and your unresolved contradictions can lead you to compromise your whole reputation and that of your Nation in some scheme that is so avoidable and not worth the fleeting titillation of self-indulgent power.

          We know how tempting and small it is to evade responsibility, to just go along to get along. We know it is not enough.

          At the moment, our national leaders are defining deviance down week in and week out. We know about this all too well.

          The Gospel of John has this wonderful exchange between Pilate and Jesus. It is set up as a contrast between the Loveless power of Pilate and the powerless love of Jesus, the moral cynicism of a Roman governor used to dispatching versus the moral courage of a man sent to save.

          Jesus tells him, “my kingdom is not of this world” or as God says in Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways”. Jesus is depicted as pure and almost innocent. He says, “I was born… to bear witness to the Truth.”

          And then the line that all of you have heard so many times in the corridors of power… It echoes down the decades that turn into centuries… It is a line that you hear regularly with lawyers aplenty in the room, sometimes in the middle of difficult deals, sometimes late at night after too many drinks, by the men and nowadays the women who grind the sausage of actual power, who mainly deal with the real compromised people and the actual ironies imposed by Trenton and Washington-  “What is the Truth?”

          Legal truth you talking about? Contractual truth? The spun version  of the truth for public relations and marketing, because you surely can’t be asking me to morally parse all of the perq’s and payoffs, all the compromises that had to be made to get around the obstacles, all the vanities and motivations of the clients involved, all of the filler that goes with the meat that makes the sausage of this big deal. Please, that would be an interesting philosophical exercise, as complex as the World Trade Towers itself, but really, “What is the Truth?”

          You don’t have to live very long in the marketplace in any major city to learn to live with a certain ironic detachment, let alone doing business or living in countries like Greece, Syria, Pakistan or whole regions like Afghanistan, the Sudan, Libya, Russia, Egypt…- Good God this list is long-. And you struggle to keep ‘ironic detachment’ from degenerating over the years into a soft jaundice that can morph into a slow deadening cynicism. “What is the Truth?”

          Against all of the sophisticated, studied ambiguity that surrounds us in the actual exercise of power, we are occasionally confronted by some prototype of the Christ. And there are seasons where we might not even seriously engage the confrontation because we are so immersed in actually managing our hectic-demanding careers that it is simply not wise to step back and reflect. We can’t get removed enough…

          But there comes the day (or perhaps the days), when we can reflect on the question because we are asking ourselves the question already. I remember being at a birthday party one of my fraternity brother threw for his wife in our early forties. All of these guys bragging about being Masters of the Universe and one of the elderly uncles turns to us before he leaves the room and says, “I just hope that when you are old you can sleep well at night because you can live with your conscience.”

          All of us hot shots just smiled. World War 2 generation was speaking to us, their grandchildren… We didn’t know what he knew… but we already knew that he was probably right.  At some point you find yourself asking yourself the question: “Life is short and we can’t take our assets with us, just control and enjoy them for a few decades, so what exactly is our motivation? What exactly are we doing this for? What really is the point of being here?”

          You see these people like Jesus and they seem to have tapped into some deeper well of meaning. They can live with privations; they endure setbacks; they get very few perq’s that we indulge in routinely AND you are pretty certain that they don’t have any problem sleeping with their conscience. They are clearly living out of a bigger mission. Maybe it is too big a mission? Maybe shooting too high is the way to go, you aren’t sure?

But, there is something beguiling-no compelling– about their conviction… You are pretty sure that they are not fretting about ambiguity in their past. You are pretty well sure that having the courage of your convictions is just more fundamentally important than a lot of other things, a more grounded, stable way to live.

Right now, we are struggling as a nation to understand the intersection of gun violence and hate speech.

The shootings in El Paso and Dayton are the latest iteration in a very old challenge- the humanitarian option towards all in the midst of violence and division.

I think of Edith Cavell who lived 100 years ago, a nurse that elevated nursing to the medical profession it is today because she also lived in a violent time, what evolved into World War 1.

          Edith Cavell was English but trained at a cutting edge hospital in Brussels around 1910. At the time, some of the leading physicians in the world practiced medicine there.

          In August of 1914, the Germans invaded and this is what one of the nurses who worked for her wrote about that experience.

          “I shall never forget the evening before the Germans entered. We went up to the roof of the clinic and saw the sky toward the east fiery red… It was an awe-inspiring sight, its effect greatly enhanced by the thunder of the guns, the concussion of which was so great that windows were broken around us. We were all trembling with fear. Madame Cavell found me sitting on the landing weeping. She peered into my face with that powerful gaze of hers…and bade me not give way to my fears [original text says feelings], telling me that my life no longer belonged to myself alone but also to my duty as a nurse. And she finally succeeded in calming me, as she did all the others… she always seemed to know the proper thing to say…”[iii]

          As you might imagine, this event was very stressful for the English, French and Belgian nurses. They felt a moral duty to treat all wounded. But with the Germans over-running their city, they had to treat their enemies who had just blown up their city.

Edith Cavell made the decision to make the hospital a Red Cross hospital and treat all wounded and in the beginning of the campaign, the hospital was full of both Germans and Allies.

          As you know, nothing stayed fixed in that war, and shortly the British counter-attacked and the Battle of Mons ensued. As is so often the case in the fog of war, soldiers were cut off from their units, stragglers found themselves behind enemy lines, things got a lot more complicated very quickly.

          Edith Cavell organized her nurses and others to sewing clothes in their spare time. It was becoming obvious that extra clothing would be necessary when the winter set in and she wanted to provide. At one point, she even decided to take up a voluntary collection among her hospital staff to start a small fund to help with special requests for food that were happening all around her. No one was anxious to part with their salaries but they did so out of a sense of mutually shared sacrifice.

          People often ask whether that kind of sacrificial giving is taught or if it is just inside some people. In Edith’s case, her biographers would later discover that when she was a child, her very modest Anglican family would regularly take a portion of their Sunday meal and take it to the poor. Her very modest Anglican family would regularly take a portion of their allowances and earnings, and put a portion of them in a piggy bank to help those in greater need. She was raised with the values of giving to a wider good, with practices that grounded them in care, compassion, and making a difference with what you have been given.

          Shortly, the humanitarian challenges of the war became more difficult. A woman came to see Edith Cavell one night with two English soldiers that were behind enemy lines. They needed to escape and they asked for her help. Long story short, she gave them civilian clothes, a small stipend of money, and arranged for a guide to show them a route towards freedom.

          Of course, English soldiers kept coming. The nurses helped them with clothes, with a small stipend, eventually false document papers and coordinated the guides. Of course, the Germans searched the hospital for clothes, sometimes frisking the nurses on their way to work. Shortly, the Germans started arresting any nurse found carrying clothes. The stakes became very high personally.

          Edith would sometimes give the soldiers her mother’s address and ask them to write and tell her she was well. Her mother got a lot of letters like this one from Lance-Corporal J. Doman:

          “I am a wounded soldier and was taken prisoner in Belgium where I escaped… Your daughter kept us in hiding from the Germans for 15 days and treated us kindly. She got us a guide to bring us through to Holland and finally we arrived safely in England. She wants you to know that she is well….”[iv]    Well, but not safe, not wealthy, not powerful, not at leisure.

This work became riskier. Some thought it too risky and suggested suspending it. What do you do in these situations? What do you do with people coming to you? Every week, it was getting more dangerous and the questions kept being raised. Edith Cavell finally said (according to a witness) “Nothing but physical impossibility, lack of space and money would make me close my doors to allied refugees in need.”

          It is believed that the Germans had spies in the hospital that she was treating. No one will ever know the exact story but she was arrested, along with a number of other nurses on the staff. This was an active war zone, so she didn’t get a fair trial. Allegations were presented as fact. Interrogation was harsh. She eventually confessed to aiding and abetting the enemy, but it is believed that her confession was substantially exaggerated by her German translator- it looks and feels like a caricature.

          She was jailed, awaiting sentence, with only the Bible and a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. She underlined this passage: “I labor in the sweat of my brow. I am racked with grief of heart… and there is none to deliver and save me, but Thou, O Lord God my Savior, to whom I commit myself and all that is mine, that you may keep watch over me, and being me safe to everlasting life.”[v]

          Nothing else would save her as it turned out. The sentence came back, “death”. A chaplain came to deliver the news in her jail and asked her for a final statement for the nurses at the hospital and her friends. Among other things, she “wished all her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country” and said, “I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me.” She concluded, “But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realize that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.”

          And she penned one last word to a friend in which she said, “try to find something useful to do (with your life), something to make you forget yourself while making others happy.”

          The next morning, the German chaplain led her from her cell to a pole outside the prison where a guard blindfolded her, handcuffed her to a pole, and she was shot to death. The soldiers later reported that her eyes were full of tears. In light of the fact that she had reached a point of equanimity before her death that in effect forgave those around her, even as she lamented everything about it, her tears have that humane compassion, so to speak, the Heart of God that breaks for the ironic tragedy that so characterizes our broken world at these moments.

          We can always take the low road. Jesus points the way towards the higher road. And the Edith Cavell’s of the world, they too stand in the breach on our behalf, internalizing the more profound, the richer way of living. She embodied the moral courage of living by your convictions. She had true grit.

          It is believed that some two hundred soldiers directly owed their lives to her, mostly identified by letters of gratitude that they wrote to her family. It is hard to say what radial effect it has on these boys when they became men, that they took a new lease on life to raise their families and shape them in deeper appreciation, but it can only be better, more healed…

          We have that power too, more than we know. Rushworth Kidder interviewed a group of thirty year-old African-American men for TV show that he was doing on moral formation. These men all had the same story. They grew up in the Ghetto. They grew up in incomplete, dysfunctional families. They grew up surrounded by gangs and criminals and should have been prime candidates for prison at a young age. But they didn’t go to prison.

          In fact, all of them became financially successful. All of them became leaders. All of them got out and made it. Professor Kidder just asked them ‘how they did it.’. Everyone had a quite similar response. They would mention a teacher from 4th grade, a coach, a youth minister who had inspired them not only by their wisdom but the fact that they quite obviously lived what they were talking about. They embodied compassionate moral integrity.

          Professor Kidder said, “But wait. You’ve just told me about your schooling, where you had dozens of dreadful teachers. You’ve just told me about your large and dysfunctional family, where hardly anyone seemed to care. You’ve just told me about your scores of friends- many now in jail, others now dead- who set the wrong examples. And now you’re telling me that, in the face of that relentless down drag of depravity, Mrs. Smith alone from 4th grade lifted you up?”

          They each said, “That is what I am telling you.”[vi]

          My brothers and sisters, the gospel of John said about Jesus, that he was “the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” He had an integrity and purpose that was inspiring to behold. The Romans could shred his body with torture but they could not extinguish the light of integrity that was within him. The Romans could kill his body, but they could not stop the light from illuminating the darkness, even of death.

          You can tap into that light. You can embody that light. You can reflect that light. Set your life on something better, something higher. Find that more useful way, something that will “make you forget yourself while you are building others around you”. Amen.

[i] I am presuming that this article is largely accurate as several were written quite like it. See “In the end, Manny was just being Manny”, by Bill Reynolds The Providence Journal Apr 12, 2011 01:16PM

[ii] See his article from The American Scholar, vol. 62, no. 1, winter 1993, pp. 171-3

[iii] Brown, Gordon, Courage (New York: Weinstein Books, 2008), p. 20. The book is written by the Prime Minister of England, a profiles in courage, featuring the lives of King, Mandella, Aung Sang Su Kyi, etc.. I haven’t yet read enough of the book to recommend it, but the idea is a good one.

[iv] Ibid. p. 27

[v] Ibid. p. 31.

[vi] This was a fairly good book, Kidder, Rushworth M., Moral Courage (New York: Harper, 2005), p. 275

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