“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
How do you define courage? Do you include fear and motivation? Do you define courage as an individual or corporate emotion? Do you include a higher power, do you include God? Courage has always been very difficult to define. Winston Churchill said: “Courage is not the only virtue, but it’s the only virtue without which, all other virtues are diminished.” That’s a profound statement, and helps explain the universal admiration of courage. Hemmingway said courage is “grace under pressure.” Hobbes said it was what “inclined men to private revenges, and to endeavor the unsettling of public peace.” Kennedy wrote about senators with political courage, those whose abiding loyalty to their nation triumphed over personal and political considerations. A psychologist, Seligman, wrote that courage is the capacity to rise to the occasion. Another psychologist, Snyder, has defined it as extraordinary behavior in ordinary times. Mark Twain once said that “courage is not the absence of fear, but the management of fear.” Marcus Aurelius wrote of courage: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
That is similar to what Plato wrote 2500 years ago. When Plato wrote about courage, Socrates and two generals are watching a military exhibition. These two generals have sons, and they are wondering whether their sons will fare in learning how to fight in armor -the new form of combat that is being introduced. Socrates uses this moment as an opportunity to seek the definition of courage. I will paraphrase their conversation. Socrates begins by asking what courage is, and one replies that it is the ability to stand firm in battle and not retreat. Socrates replies that surely courage must be more than that. Great battles have been won when armies have retreated and gathered their strength again to win the battle. Socrates then mentions other times in life when courage is needed besides the battlefield. He mentions being at sea, being courageous in government, in civic duty, and having courage facing the pressures of daily life. The two men agree that courage is found in all of these areas, and venture another answer to Socrates. Courage must be endurance- a certain endurance of the soul. Socrates counters by saying that many times we endure in bad habits, or in things that can be destructive to ourselves or others. So if someone endures but it is harmful or mischievous then it certainly cannot be courageous.
The conversation continues until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. Socrates leads them with the definition that courage is a combination of wisdom that takes into account the worth of what is being pursued balanced against the evils or dangers that may come during the pursuit. Socrates states, “Courage is not only knowledge of what is to be dreaded and what is to be dared, but knowledge of all goods and evils at every stage.” If we were asked to define courage we may begin just as these two men did. We have been conditioned in our classical training to begin definitions of courage with military exploits. Consider the Battle of Thermopylae. For two days a group of 300 Spartans protected the city from invasion by temporarily blocking the Persian army. What courage this small group of soldiers had! Consider ancient Rome when the Etruscans were invading. “To arms! To arms! The Etruscans are here!” the citizens said as they ran to the banks of the river Tiber. They were too late. They saw the army on the other side about to cross the bridge. Horatius and two other soldiers stayed to defend the bridge, declaring that the Etruscans would cross the bridge over their dead bodies. The bridge was narrow so that three soldiers could fight the enemy as they tried to dismantle the bridge. Finally the bridge was destroyed and fell into the water. Horatius fell in but pulled himself out. There is a legend that the Etruscans cheered the bravery of those soldiers who defended the bridge.
But I believe the greatest courage is found beyond the Greeks and Romans. The greatest courage is found in our own American history. When Patrick Henry issued the challenge, “If this be treason make the most of it — Give me liberty or give me death,” American courage soared! Consider those stories of courage in the days of the War of Independence, of George Washington who led a small band of 5,000 patriots who remained inspired even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Imagine how they felt as they watched the ships fill the bay, hundreds of British warships, but they did not quit! Consider the defenders of the Alamo in Texas, the courage of Davy Crockett fighting for freedom. These stories are clear examples of courage in its highest form. The stories of courage are times when people made intentional steps into the midst of danger for a higher cause. These freedom fighters and soldiers knew the consequences yet the courage within them allowed them to overcome great odds.
Susan B. Anthony knew that she would face consequences when she cast the first woman’s vote in 1872. She knew that she was breaking the law. When she was arrested and faced the judge in the courtroom she was asked about her plea. The judge said, “How do you plead?” She answered, “I plead guilty. I plead guilty of standing up for the rights of women who have not exercised those rights before and who had been trodden down to a position of slavery.” Before the judge could respond, she continued, “But I plead not guilty to breaking the Constitution of the United States, which says that this is a land in which there is equality for all. And there has not been equality in this land where woman cannot legislate, where women cannot elect those who legislate, when the daughters of those who legislate can barely get a secondary education.” That took real courage for her to stand up for justice.
There are also moments in life when we exhibit courage without realizing the dangerous consequences that are ahead of us. For example, Rosa Parks remained seated in her bus ride in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama. She was expected to stand up and give up her seat to a white person. She remained seated, and this created great strides in civil rights as a result. Later she was asked whether she realized that she was making history by remaining seated. She answered that she was simply thinking about trying to get home.
Do you remember the images of integration? A federal judge had ordered a New Orleans school to be integrated. So many people were upset by this decision, and the school became a dangerous place. Both black and white parents decided to keep their children home from school. However, the parents of Ruby Bridges ignored the threats and the widespread protests. Every day at 10 till eight little six-year-old Ruby Bridges walks to school with two federal marshals in front of her and two federal marshals behind her. She walked through a crowd of cheering people with her head held up to an empty school with only her teachers there. (Someone shared with me that Ruby was asked later in her life what she was thinking as she walked to school. She answered that she was praying for her enemies.)
I know first-hand how scary going to a new school can be for a first grader because of my son Luke. I recall the scene in A Tale of Two Cities when the little girl holds the hand of the fellow prisoner on their way to the guillotine. She said that she believed he was sent from heaven. I cannot imagine how much courage that little Ruby Bridges had as she walked with those federal marshals. And no one was holding her hand!
Going to new places always requires courage when danger is imminent, as we see from our Scripture lesson today. We know the story of Jonah and how he feared going to Nineveh and instead went to Tarshish. The book of Jonah was written after the exile when Palestine was a colony of Persia. The writer uses the earlier setting of the 8th century before Christ to send a message to the community under Persian rule. Jewish people pondered how to live with the relatively friendly but very powerful Persians and with the growing fact of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish people living in other parts of the Mediterranean basin. Using satire, the book of Jonah calls the community to continue to be a nation through whom other nations come to receive a blessing. Jonah’s reluctance illustrates this struggle to accept other people. Jonah must find the courage to accept the fact that God was using the Israelites to be a lamp shining salvation to all people in the world. Jonah was afraid because he feared his message would put him in great danger. He was more afraid of the people of Nineveh than he was of God. Hopefully when we are faced with the message of God’s love wecan act unselfishly and look out for others first.
There are many stories of prisoners of war during World War II who faced terrible conditions. Each day was an exercise in courage. Ernest Gordon, in Miracle on the River Kwai, writes: “ During one work detail, a shovel was missing, and the Japanese guard shouted, insisting someone had stolen it. Striding up and down before the men, he worked himself up into a paranoid fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. When no one moved, the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence. ‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked. To show that he meant what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it to his shoulder, and looked down the gun sights, ready to fire at the first man at the end of the line. Another man stepped forward, stood at attention, and said calmly,’I did it.’ The guard kicked the helpless prisoner and killed him. The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools, and marched back to the camp. When the tools were counted again at the guardhouse, no shovel was missing. “ Knowing that someone is with us who will act sacrificially for us can bring great courage to us in life. That is what the Bible is all about, knowing that Jesus is with us gives courage in our day to day lives. When we need courage we do not have to be on a battlefield to muster it up. The Bible teaches us how in times of transition we can find courage. Consider the story of Joshua when he took over the mantle of leadership from Moses. At first it must have been a daunting task, but he realized that God was with him and he was able to lead courageously. The people of Israel took small steps toward the Promised Land. In the same way we can find courage as we learn to deal with life’s ups and downs. When we are faced with the change in life such as Joshua losing Moses’ leadership, we must be courageous. We may have lost a spouse, a friend, or a child in the home who has gone away to college, and suddenly our whole life needs to be reframed. We may have lost a job or a position in which our identity was attached. Small steps of courage will help us to keep going faithfully.
In that time of transition, God said to Joshua, “Be thou strong and very courageous, be not frightened or dismayed. I, the Lord your God am with you. I will neither fail you nor forsake you, wherever you should go.” God says those same words to us today. Sometimes we take that promise for granted. But it is a fact, and we should know it in our hearts and minds that God is with us. When we believe that, courage is lived out in life because we know we are not alone. One of the great challenges we face as Christians is facing external difficulties, but we know we can help each other in the life of the church. As the church we must remind each other of God’s promises and God’s strength that is found in our community.
Many times we face an internal challenge and we need courage to help ourselves gain peace. You know that I am trying to learn about Chicago sports. I heard about Wayne Messmer who worked for two decades with Chicago sports. After singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Chicago Blackhawks game in 1994, Messmer was shot by two teenage boys. The bullet passed through his throat, so doctors weren’t sure if Messmer would sing again. Amazingly, six months later, Messmer returned to the microphone. Physical healing was one thing; emotional release of the hatred and resentment he felt was another. He wrote in The Voice of Victory, “Over a period of contemplative and reflective prayer and meditation, I was confident I had set myself free from the chains that had connected me to the incident.” Several years had passed, but Messmer found one of the shooters in prison. He found the grace to say, “James, I bid you peace.”
Forgiveness may be the greatest courage of all. If so, then Jesus had the ultimate courage. Remember when Jesus was on the cross, he had the courage to forgive his friends, his family, his religion, the world. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That was the ultimate courage! Christian courage is more than an expectation, it is an appointment. Knowing that God is with us gives us the courage to face both the unknown and the known in life. You have an appointment to stand on the bridge, to stand up for courage, can you make it? You have an appointment to walk through the jeering crowds in the name of justice, to hold the hand of a little child who is afraid, can you find the courage for that? You have an appointment to forgive, can you forgive and love courageously? Amen.