The Virtues: Courage

Deuteronomy 31: 7-8

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

Sermon Text

 We will be spending Lent looking at seven principles for a good life. I’m not pulling from a self help book or Ted-talk to draft this list. Instead, our list will come from two sources – the first is called Nicomachean Ethics and the second the Summa Theologiae, the first by Aristotle and the second by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Thrilling, I know. The good news is, I’m not going to be reading from them at all, in fact I’ve mostly just stolen the list and a few general principles from them. While we will certainly learn some things over the course of our Lent together, my goal is not to have us all be philosophers by the end of the season. Instead, I hope we understand a bit more about what we all agree makes people good.

Since ancient times we have described our positive aspects as human beings as “virtues,” and our negative tendencies as vices. A virtue is, at its most basic, a positive quality of a person which they improve through effort and practice. We are not born with virtue, even if we are predisposed one way or another toward them. No one is born brave, they have to learn what bravery is. No one is born knowing self-control, they have to learn what is too much and what is too little. In every way that a person can be good, that goodness is something they develop over time, with only God knowing the work that was done ahead of time in their unique personality and mental dispositions.

Goodness is also universally understood to be between two extremes. If I am, for example, trying to truly be good at stewarding my money, it will not do any good for me to never spend what I earn. At the same time, it would be horrible if every dollar that entered my palm immediately found its way into a cash register or an online payment system. A person who wants to be good at spending, saving, and giving money must not be a spendthrift or a miser – they have to find the perfect space between the extremes.

I say the perfect space, because seldom is the middle of two extremes the right place to be. Sometimes it is possible to be equally prone to one thing or another, but as I wrote this down I could not think of a single thing where that would be a good thing. In a moment we are going to be talking about courage, which sits between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. If we are as likely as not to run away from something that challenges our safety or general wellness as we are to run directly into danger, then we are not going to dependably respond in an appropriate way to any conflict we face. You want someone who is brave to be willing to take risks, but not to be in anyway cowardly, so the perfect space between is closer to recklessness than it is cowardice.

With those ground rules underneath us in terms of understanding what virtue is and is not, we can begin our Lenten focus on the seven virtues acknowledged by the Christian tradition – the classical virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and justice as well as the three theological virtues faith, hope, and love. We begin today with the easiest to understand, courage – also known as fortitude – and make our way down through the harder ones, culminating in the three virtues revealed to us in the writings of Paul and the life of Christ – faith, hope, and love.

Courage is an easy thing to imagine. Closing our eyes, we can think of the heroes we have lifted up in fiction and in history for being willing to stand up in the face of adversity. Our Biblical figures of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and all the disciples stand up to people and circumstances no matter the trouble they face. We all probably have a favorite historical figure which we can lift up for their bravery, whether it is someone who risked everything to do what was right like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or rejected public opinion to help those in need like Bea Arthur. We know what a brave person looks like.

The problem begins to emerge when we try to act into the image of these heroic figures. Either we imagine that we would be as brave and courageous in the face of adversity, only to back down the second someone says something even mildly critical of us, or we jump into perceived situations of adversity with all our energy and cause undue harm to people who have done nothing to us. Unrelated to these situations of direct adversity, we may imagine risks where there are none or take risks that we actually never should have to take. Driving a bit too fast in one hand and slowly wheeling our way through life in the other.

The average person in this room does not have to stand up on matters of life and death on a regular basis. We go between different places and situations with only the next immediate thing on our to do list on our mind. When our life is privileged enough to be removed from real immediate danger, the stakes which we are gambling with are often significantly lower than people in less stable situations or locations might have to face. Yet, we want to live lives like those who we hold up as heroes. Thus, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we elevate the stakes of our daily interactions to be greater in some ways than they ever could be and in other ways far less impactful than they truly are.

Let me put that into a sharper focus. There was a day, back when I was in college, where I ran into a friend of mine out on the steps of the student union. We began to talk and something that had been on the news the night before crossed our conversation, we disagreed about what that news meant for the world around us. Rather than talking through that any further, we went to verbal blows with one another over his staunch Calvinist thinking that God willed this, very bad, news to take place and my more Arminian assertion that human beings caused the trouble through their own actions. The news we were debating was important, but our reactions to them were not nearly so important, and probably nothing was more harmful to the Kingdom of God than strangers seeing two Christians yelling at each other on the steps of a university building.

We both felt like we were being courageous defenders of God’s truth, but, really, we were both being reckless. Spend anytime in the comment section of any online news article and you’ll meet Christians on both sides of any issue feeling that they must stand up against someone else’s comment. While I do believe that we cannot give people a free pass to spout nonsense simply because it is an online or public space where they are doing it, I think that we often jump to attack other people out of a feeling of wanting to appear brave in the face of adversity, rather than an actual need to speak out against the people who are causing harm in those spaces.

To pull from another example of my own past missteps again, I want to talk about a series of online interactions I had with a family friend who – surprising no one – I no longer have contact with. The issue which caused this fracture was simple, vaccination. You see, long before the COVID-19 pandemic I was still an advocate for vaccines – its not just a phase with me. The issue at hand was childhood vaccines, and this family friend had been dragged into a community that believed all sorts of lies about “vaccine injuries,” and “natural immunity.” Despite reaping the benefits of three fully vaccinated children, she actively campaigned against other people getting MMR vaccines for their children, or any other inoculation for that matter. She always wanted people to, “follow the evidence,” to see the truth.

This, naturally, upset me. This was a legitimate source of anger on my part. The things she said were false, they had real consequences in the lives of other people, and they were things I knew enough about to speak against. What form would that take though? Would I lovingly take her aside and address the root concerns of her mistrust and misinformation? Of course not, I wanted to be brave, and I wanted to be the big hero, so I just made it my business to make a stink about her posts whenever she made them.

Links to articles and memes meant to disprove her arguments, factually correct but horribly misguided. I campaigned long and hard in a battle only I was fighting, while her passive dissemination of information went further than my aggressive refutation ever would. Was I wrong in my opposition? No, these falsehoods she proliferated were dangerous and needed to be opposed. However, in my attempts to reveal the lies that these ideas were built upon I convinced no one and ostracized more people than I ever might have helped. The battle was lost before it ever was begun.

Courage, is not rooted in ourselves, it is rooted in our conviction to do what is right. It is not manifested in aggression, but in a willingness to stand firm. We think of bravery as fighting dragons, but it really is more subtle an art than that. My great-grandfather was brave when he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, my grandpa when he parachuted into Viet Nam, but they were not heroic in my mind for that reason. No, Pap was brave because he stood up for people who others were taking advantage of, not by getting in every little fight but by refusing to budge. Grandad was a hero because he was not afraid to go toe to toe with people who threatened the ones he loved, but also because he knew that handling things gently saved all parties some trouble.

Our problem, in this day and age, emboldened as we are by digital communication, is not that we are not brave enough to stand up against things we know or perceive to be wrong, but that we are reckless enough to pursue them without thinking through our actions. We take risks that never need to be taken, because we see the world as a place to be conquered rather than the people around us as worthy of defending.

Of all my beliefs and opinions, one stands out as the most controversial of all. I really love Star Wars, as some of you know, but my absolute favorite Star Wars movie is The Last Jedi. Few movies have more devoted defenders and more passionate critics, and I will freely admit that of all the stupid arguments I’ve had in life more than a few have centered on this movie. The end of the film has a powerful statement about reckless desire to appear strong rather than really be strong. One of our heroes, Finn, despite all warnings that it would not actually work, attempts to destroy a First Order superlaser siege cannon by flying directly into it. As he accelerates his salt speeder into the maw of the laser, he is knocked out of way by another protagonist – Rose Tico. Tico reprimands Finn, reminding him, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

As trite as that may sound, we have to see courage as taking necessary action to stand up for the good in the world, not reckless action to attack things we dislike. Sometimes that means acknowledging the humanity of people we disagree with so that we don’t fight them so much as try to help them. Other times it means going against the grain and saying something uncomfortable, maybe even admitting we were wrong in the past. We are courageous, not when we make a big fuss and invite people to see us as defiant, but when we stand up as true advocates for what is right and good in the world.

The first virtue we seek to understand is courage, and as we prepare to celebrate Communion, I hope that you find yourselves emboldened by the example of Christ. Christ, who knew no sin, was willing to stand up to evil in every form it presented itself, yet it was in dying that he truly showed his bravery. We do not take up arms this day, but crosses, and we serve the Lord our God through a willingness to be bold in defense of all goodness. Let us be unafraid, but let us be wise in our response to the injustices of the world. – Amen.

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