I can only remember a handful of chapels I attended as a college student. But for some reason, the message I remember most clearly was about dying on the right cross. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the speaker (if you’re out there… thank you) but I remember the message clearly. The message was this: You only get one cross to die on in life. So choose carefully a cross worthy of your life.
I have reflected on that message often across almost 30 years.
Courage is often thought of as the opposite of cowardice or timidity, but in classic Aristotelian ethics a virtue – like courage – is actually found as the mean between two extremes. So courage is not the opposite of cowardice it is actually the virtue found in between fearfulness on the one side and something like foolhardiness or recklessness on the other.
If you are a Monty Python and the Holy Grail fan (and if you’re not I can’t help you), think of the contrast between Sir Robin on the one hand and Sir Lancelot on the other.
Sir Robin goes off to search for the grail with his minstrels behind him lauding his bravery as he faces a hilarious array of threats. But when danger does come along he turns and runs. His minstrels now sing about how he bravely ran away… “When danger reared its ugly head… He bravely turned his tail and fled… Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about… And gallantly he chickened out…”
Lancelot on the other hand receives a note - which he (falsely) assumes to be from a damsel in distress. He rushes the castle indiscriminately killing everyone he encounters on the way. Which leads to my favorite line in the movie… “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who… This is a happy occasion!”
Python’s classic humor (it’s clear to me they were all philosophy majors in college) is to point to the way these two knights miss the virtue of courage on both extremes. Sir Robin is a coward but Sir Lancelot is foolhardy.
When I was on the east coast last month I had a day to myself and so I visited the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. My history nerd side was thrilled and delighted. I had never read his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage and so I picked it up at the gift shop.
Profiles is a book JFK wrote - prior to his presidency – when he was recuperating for several months after extensive back surgery to repair damage that happened while he was in the Navy. It is a wonderful book that primarily focuses on the stories of eight senators (John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft) who each took stances while in the US Senate that cost them their political careers. In each case their decisions were not only brave, but in the light of history, they have been vindicated as to the proper choices.
The book caused me to reflect on how difficult it is to have the wisdom in ministry to know which cross or crosses to risk dying on.
No one wants to fail to stand for the right cause – or more importantly stand with the right people. But I know a lot of young ministers and academics who (I think) sacrificed their careers and their ability to have influence over a long period of time because they chose to die early and often on unworthy crosses.
Especially in a day of social media I am frequently shocked not only by the willingness to run headlong into every issue, but to do so with an extreme lack of tact, wisdom, or acknowledgement of the challenges faced by those in positions of leadership. Like Python’s Lancelot people going charging into the castles of Twitter, Facebook, or NazNet with swords swinging wildly and then are shocked that people are offended or angry – or that their words or tone would have implications upon their ministry or career. It would be as funny as saying, “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who…” if the results weren’t often so tragic.
It’s a long story but I recently was given an assessment of my ministry by a set of leaders in the denomination. There was much I learned from it, but I was pleased to see one of the descriptive words used was courageous. I hope that is true. I hope that God helps me to have the virtue of being willing to take up the cross and follow him, even if that means risking position and place.
But I also hope it means that he gives me the wisdom to not become foolhardy or reckless chasing every issue down without tact, patience, and discernment. I love working with young pastors and leaders. I love their passion for justice, mission, and transformation. But I also want to often protect them from dying too early and sacrificing what God could have done through them because they chose an unworthy cross.
Some of my favorite quotes from Profiles in Courage:
A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today – and in fact we have forgotten. 1
We should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals. 4
But to decide at which point and on which issue he will risk his career is a difficult and soul-searching decision. 11
We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves. 18
I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever. – Senator Edmund G. Ross 127
I shall ever thank God that in that troubled hour of trial, when many privately confessed that they had sacrificed their judgment and their conscience at the behests of party newspapers and party hate, I had the courage to be true to my oath and my conscience… - Senator James W. Grimes 138
Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all – but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics… In each of them complexities, inconsistencies and doubts arise to plague us… Motivation, as any psychiatrist will tell us, is always difficult to assess. It is particularly difficult to trace in the murky sea of politics… But in the particular events set forth in the preceding chapters, I am persuaded after long study of the record that the national interest, rather than private or political gain, furnished the basic motivation for the actions of those whose deeds are therein described. 217-218
For without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men – such as the subjects of this book – have lived. The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. 224-225
John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1955).