Courage as We Know It

Working with community leaders over the past decade, I have seen many praised for taking courageous stands against wrongdoing.  Courage usually begins with a series of meetings.  People come together, reflecting on a fundamental injustice.  In the inner-city where I work, the underlying condition could involve any number of serious problems: drugs, failure of schools, lack of employment, racism or other unequal treatment.

Leaders then emerge.  Sometimes they are the group’s initial conveners, or the ones who called attention to the injustice, but not always.  The group implicitly knows that it needs someone courageous to press its cause forward.

In the next phase, a single person, or a small leadership team, then focuses the group’s attention on a person or group that should be held accountable for the problems suffered by the community. During this phase, the group defines and identifies an opponent.  Leaders must have courage when this targeted person or group is powerful and can threaten those calling for accountability. The powerful target of the campaign often controls legal power or funds being called forth to fix what’s wrong.

Then the campaign enters a public phase during which a confrontation or sometimes an outright attack ensues.  Sometimes the process leads to change, sometimes not.

In the final chapter, the group celebrates those who fearlessly held the feet of the others to the fire.  Plaques are made.  Books are written.  Interviews are given.  Awards are given.  The courage is enshrined and remembered.

I myself have often been directly involved in such efforts.  At times I led them.  At times I supported them actively.  Sometimes, I merely looked on with a sense of approval.

Courage and Moral Certainty

Courage and righteousness in American civil society are close friends.  A feeling of certainty and clarity in one’s moral compass provides a large measure of the initiative required to “stand up” and “stand your ground” against those bad elements that have let us down or failed us in some way.  Courage involves confronting risk and danger.  Risk and danger come when we threaten or confront something more powerful than we are.  When we experience persons or factions as having greater power, we often experience them as limiting our own power.  We may experience limitations on our power as oppressive.  And that which oppresses us is usually believed to be unjust.  What is unjust in turn becomes the focus of our courageous action.  The unjust sit in the bull’s-eye of our courageous cause in which we determine to take back what really belongs to us, speaking our truth to their power.

Courage also entails the sense that the good to be achieved for our community outweighs personal risks.  If we do not perceive this greater good in unambiguous terms, our courage may falter.  Without that greater good, our actions may seem foolish, wasteful or wrong.  For this reason, courage often entails suppressing doubts and uncertainties as we move forward.  In our moment of courage, we cannot afford to suffer “analysis paralysis.”  When action is slowed by nuances and shades of gray, it often loses its bold and courageous nature.   In the rear view mirror of victory, not much time is spent looking for ambiguity.

It is the courage to make change while preserving the dignity and moral status of those in part responsible for the bad situation we all face.  It is courage willing to grapple with the complexity that the oppressor may also be oppressed.  It engages those with whom we disagree in dialogue rather than squaring off for a fight.

American leadership in civil society abounds with individuals who would wish to frame their actions within the narrative structures I have outlined above.  After all, a story about the crusade against injustice (with ourselves or those we care for cast as the crusaders) is the story most leaders would want to tell about their own lives, isn’t it?  It is the story of those who confront evil, root it out at the source, and then go on to live a better life, their heroic personal narrative growing incrementally after each crusade.

But . . .  (Did you sense that a “but” was coming?)

As I have grown older, (hopefully) gaining more perspective, I have come to appreciate a different kind of courage, growing from a different place.  I would describe it as the courage to proceed to try to make the world better while maintaining clarity on the inherent moral ambiguity of real people and real situations.  It is the courage to make change while preserving the dignity and moral status of those in part responsible for the bad situation we all face.  It is courage willing to grapple with the complexity that the oppressor may also be oppressed.  It engages those with whom we disagree in dialogue rather than squaring off for a fight.  Can we change the world in a way that recognizes our own part, our own complicity and responsibility, for the creation of the world we now want to change?  The usual concept of courage entails confrontation and combat.  This “different” kind courage is not about fighting.  It’s about converting enemies and morally questionable actors into partners in thinking and dialogue.

This different kind of interaction deserves the name courage, because to see that the innocent sometimes share the guilt of the guilty can be painful.  To recognize that the guilty are sometimes innocent of much charged to their account can unsettle us.   To acknowledge that those labeled as demons perhaps share something profound with us can be threatening.  To understand that we contributed to the problems we wanted to blame on others can disquiet us.  From another perspective, the group that calls for justice can become a mob that persecutes.

It takes a different kind of courage to stare hard into the eyes of “evildoers” and see our own reflection staring back at us!

Am I saying there is no right and wrong in the world?  Of course not.  The problem though is that right and wrong in this world of ours is usually tangled up and embedded in strange and surprising ways that may cast our courage in a different, less flattering light.

A Different Kind of Courage

It takes a different kind of courage to maintain hopeful, constructive actions in the face of the astounding hypocrisy of the world.  We live a world with unhealthy doctors, unethical ethicists, illegal lawyers, unfaithful fiduciaries, tax delinquent tax collectors, immoral clergy.  Even the humble are immodest in their humility.  It’s a fallen world.  Imperfection abounds.  The work of change must be done, will be done, at the hands of sinners, failures and hypocrites.

It takes courage to move forward knowing we will often fail by our own measures of success.  If we did not fail often, our aspirations would terribly uncourageous!

Some may find this a dark view of human nature, a sacrificing of vision.  But I see it as a grounding in reality that allows us to move forward in ways that are practical, serious and real.

It takes a different kind of courage to live with this inherent messiness of reality that will not stay put in the neat ideological and moral categories we create in our manifestos.

Something that fills me with hope is the kind of courage we see from Barack Obama in this regard. There have been many comments and situations in which this different kind of courage was on display.  Appearing on Larry King during the campaign, he said:

“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.  Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.  For it’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country.  It’s what keeps us locked in “either/or” thinking: the notion that we can only have big government or no government; the assumption that we must either tolerate forty-six million without health insurance or embrace ’socialized medicine’.”

Similarly, in his speech in Philadelphia about race, he showed an unusual willingness to see people as they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, in their full moral ambiguity.  He recognized that his white grandmother, who loved him dearly, also embraced racist stereotypes.  He acknowledged that his black pastor, a man he clearly respected and admired, was a man who could provide important leadership and service to the community while also holding views that Barack Obama himself found wrong, divisive and racially charged.  Barack showed us a different kind of courage.

It takes courage to see the shades of gray in this world of ours.  Barack Obama notwithstanding, it is usually not the kind of heroic courage that gets your picture on the front page of the local paper or that wins you “the most influential person of the year” award.  Reality and nuance generally don’t make for great headlines.  But I suspect that this different kind of courage actually leads to more meaningful and lasting human progress.