Profiles In Courage
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. —1 Peter 3:17
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus could read, and the Gospel of John tells us that he could write, but if that is true, it would have made Jesus highly unusual among first-century Palestinian peasants.
Contemporary scholars confidently guess that only three percent of first-century Palestinians could read, and those readers would have hailed largely from the aristocracy—government workers, lawyers, priests, scribes, and their ilk. Literacy rates would have been vanishingly small among the carpenters and fisherfolk Jesus hung out with.
Which makes New Testament scholars question whether the First Epistle of Peter tucked in near the back of your New Testaments could possibly have come from the pen of Simon Peter, Chief Apostle and First Pope. Scholarly consensus tells us that the First Epistle of Peter has some of the most eloquent and elegant Greek in the New Testament, so a fisherman who probably couldn’t read, and who spoke Aramaic, not Greek, probably didn’t write it; it’s possible but unlikely that Simon Peter even spoke Greek, let alone composed a minor masterpiece in that lordly tongue.
So most scholars guess that in the ninth decade of the first century, about 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and 30 years after Simon Peter’s own martyrdom, an unknown pastor laboring quietly in a obscure corner of the Christian Church, perhaps one of Peter’s disciples or students, borrowed—temporarily, for the purpose of this letter—Simon Peter’s more celebrated reputation to give his circular letter more heft and punch.
After all, Simon Peter is an “above the title” name, right? When Bette Midler stars in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, her name goes above the title on the marquee. When Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron star in a summer beach movie, their names go above the title on the movie posters. When Diane Lane stars in a rom-com, her name goes above the title. Simon Peter was the most prominent above-the-title name in the history of the Christian Church, after Jesus himself and maybe his mother.
And so this anonymous first-century epistolarian wasn’t lying exactly. This kind of specious but innocent attribution was quite common among first-century correspondents.
On the other hand, on the other hand, maybe St. Peter DID write this letter. Many scholars, after all, have a hard time believing that an under-educated thespian, the son of a beer-taster in tiny Stratford-Upon-Avon, could possibly have written King Lear.
So maybe Simon Peter went to divinity school after the resurrection and learned Greek and changed his profession from mackerel to ministry.
In any case, with today’s scripture, we’re nearing the end of the first Christian century and the fecund seed of the Gospel is scattering across the shallow soil of the pagan Empire and improbably taking firm root and thriving there, which is good news, mostly, for the baby Christian Church; it’s spreading like kudzu, but this means that the Church is taking on a more prominent profile. Daughter Christian Church is calving off from Mother Jewish Synagogue and gaining its own separate identity.
To change the metaphor, in the early years of its existence the Church had been hiding in the foxhole of its own Jewishness, but by the end of the first century, it’s clear that a Christian is a very different beast from a Jew, and the Church is peaking its vulnerable head above the foxhole rim, right in the sniper’s gunsight. Rome is realizing for the first time that the humble serfs who follow the crucified carpenter are a force to be reckoned with.
The trouble with these people is that they will not be controlled. They will not be subordinated. They will not bow down to worship the Emperor. They serve a deity they think is way, way, way bigger than Emperor Domitian; in fact, they think Emperor Domitian is a clown; why would you admire someone as ridiculous as Domitian or Caligula?
And they refuse to bend the knee, and so whereas till now it had been unpopular to be a Christian, from now on and for 200 more years it will become illegal to be a Christian, and the articulate pastor who writes to the churches of Asia Minor under the celebrated, elevated, heroic name of Simon Peter has some gentle, poignant advice for his vulnerable parishioners:
Do not fear what makes everyone else tremble. Don’t be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear…because it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
Don’t be afraid of what makes everyone else tremble, says the pastor. In other words, if you fear God, you don’t have to be afraid of anything else in the universe. FDR said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Peter gives that wise advice a quarter spin and says, “The only thing we have to fear is God Godself.”
If you fear God, you don’t have to be afraid of the Emperor. If you fear God, you don’t have to be afraid of the Roman legions. If you fear God, you don’t have to be afraid of that Roman cross or that Roman scaffold or that Roman Coliseum or the executioner’s axe. If you fear God, you don’t have to be afraid of death itself, because this is God’s world, and that means this world is rife with resurrection.
And so your calling is to topple shabby idols from their towering plinths and to unseat cruel despots from their imperious thrones and to chase false gods from their shabby temples.
And I just thought this was a timely word from the Lord to us, 2,000 years later, in a world which is almost as cruel and almost as dangerous as Simon Peter’s. Like Simon Peter’s world, our world is one in which innocence is always imperiled. I don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about the craven infidels who explode screws and bolts out of backpacks at tweenage girls, or execute busloads of tourists in Egypt, and so this week Peter’s words were God’s word to me. Even in a world of titanic malice, we have nothing to fear but God Godself. I needed a profile in courage.
My daughter moved to Washington, D. C., in September to teach fourth grade, and I hadn’t been there yet to see where she lives and works, so I visited her for a couple of days in early May, and she had to be in class all day, so I took myself on a self-guided tour of several of the Smithsonian Museums, and while wandering around in those museum gift shops, I wondered why every surface was covered up with JFK memorabilia, and at the end of the day when I returned to Taylor’s apartment, I asked her why JFK was such a big deal in the District these days, and she gave me a disappointed look and said, “Dad, John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917.” Memorial Day, tomorrow, would have been his 100th birthday. She knows these things, you see, because she’s a teacher.
As I was thinking about the Kennedy legacy, I was surprised to be reminded that Joseph Kennedy, Sr., had four sons, and that when Joe, Sr., died in 1969 at the age of 81, he had outlived all but one; Joe, Jr., was 29 when he died; Bobby was 42; and John was 46; only Teddy outlived his father. You have four sons; imagine burying three of them.
On August 1, 1943—a dark, starless, and moonless night—Jack’s torpedo boat was idling in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands when out of nowhere a Japanese destroyer five times bigger than his own boat rams it broadside and cuts it in half.
The 26-year-old Lieutenant with a famously terrible back swims five hours and several miles to a nearby island, with the strap of badly-burned Engineer Pappy McMahon’s life jacket clenched between his teeth. His remaining crew is lost in the Solomons for seven days with only rainwater to drink before the Navy finally rescues them.
Lieutenant Kennedy receives the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for “extremely heroic conduct” while “unmindful of personal danger.” When someone later praises his courage under fire, Lieutenant Kennedy brushes it off: “It was entirely involuntary, I assure you. I had no choice. They sank my boat.” Involuntary heroism, but still a profile in courage.
Well, only a few of us will be called upon to defend the free world by piloting an 80-foot speedboat with side-mounted torpedoes. We live smaller, quieter lives. Still, someone like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is a profile in courage. I have no idea what Mitch Landrieu’s religious convictions are (although the name Landrieu sounds thoroughly Catholic to me), I don’t know what Mitch Landrieu’s religious convictions are, but it sounds to me as if he might once have heard the call to courage in Peter’s First Epistle: “Do not fear what everybody else is afraid of. You have nothing to fear but God Godself, and your call is to topple shabby idols from their towering plinths.”
So New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stands up in the heart of the Confederacy, in the city where more slaves were bought and sold than anywhere else in America, hundreds of thousands of human beings, Mitch Landrieu stands in the heart of the Confederacy just as crews a couple of blocks away are preparing to pull down a statue of Robert E. Lee, and he says, “It is time to admit that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity,” and her heroes may have been warriors, but they were not patriots; they fought against the United States of America. Mitch Landrieu is not afraid of what makes the rest of us tremble.
But most of us live even smaller, quieter lives than mayors. We’re just citizens, we’re just neighbors, we’re just friends. I love movies about high school. That must be true of lots of us because they keep churning them out. I think maybe movies about high school are so popular because for a lot of us it was our coming of age, maybe for a lot us the period of the most intense joy and the most harrowing anguish of our lives—young romances, broken hearts, friendships, some loyal and others fractured, allies, rivals, cliques, clubs, success, failure, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, we experienced it all in high school.
So I love high school movies: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Girls, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, anything by John Hughes.
Probably the most provocative high school story of them all is the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Thirteen Reasons Why is narrated by a high school sophomore who is telling her classmates, in recordings she made just before her death, the 13 reasons why she took her own life.
It is uncommonly blunt and explicit, and I get it if you think the material inappropriate for anyone, least of all high school students, but I got hooked on it, because I just fell in love with the male protagonist from whose perspective we see and hear Hannah’s sad story.
His name is Clay, and there’s not much special about him. He’s a good student, but he’ll never get into Stanford. He’s fairly handsome, but he’s no chick magnet. He is not athletic. He is courteous and kind but socially awkward. He comes from a nice family, but they are completely useless in helping him navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. He is often articulate but also struck dumb in the presence of pretty girls. After school he sweeps up popcorn off the floor at the local cinema.
Clay is a flawed hero. He can do nothing to stop Hannah’s suicide, and is even complicit in it in a small way, but he has a keen conscience and a fully formed moral integrity that will not be undone.
Clay is just fearless. He does not fear what his classmates are afraid of, and what his classmates are afraid of is each other, right? That’s true in every high school. What we’re most afraid of—universally, young and old alike—what we’re all most afraid of is getting excluded or ostracized or mocked by our peers.
But Clay does not care what his friends think. He does not care what the quarterbacks and the cheerleaders want. Clay does not care what his parents think, or his teachers, or his guidance counselor, because every last one of them is hopelessly, completely, utterly clueless.
And so Clay, fearless, is utterly free. Clay teaches the rest of us how to live, because he does not fear what everybody else is afraid of. Clay’s is a profile in courage.
Memorial Day is almost a sacred occasion, because it forces us to stop what we’re doing and to notice how many profiles in courage we owe our freedom to. In September, Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar finally achieved his lifelong dream of serving as a Green Beret in the United States Army.
When he left for a tour of duty in Afghanistan in February, he promised his daughter Olivia that he would be back for her high school graduation in Florida in May, but Sergeant De Alencar was killed on April 8 in a firefight with Islamic State militants. He was 37 years old, and he died in the 17th year of America’s longest war. After his death, Mark’s sister-in-law said, “Honestly, I thought the war was over before Mark was sent there.”
Sergeant De Alencar’s daughter Olivia graduated from high school in Florida on Thursday, May 25. Her father could not be there. Instead, 80 Green Berets from Mark’s unit showed up to take his place at graduation. Eighty.
I love what Sergeant De Alencar’s 20-year-old son DeShaun said at this father’s funeral. “His life was not taken. It was given, to his country.” Yes? Their lives were not taken. Their lives were given. For their country. For you and for me. So many profiles in courage to honor this Memorial Day.
The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 326-327.
Mitch Landrieu’s speech at Gallier Hall, New Orleans, May 19, 2017. Manuscript retrieved from Esquire, May 23, 2017, esquire.com/news-politics/a55218/new-orleans-mayor-speech-confederate-monuments/
David Zucchino, “When the Wife of a Soldier Hears a Knock at the Door,” The New York Times, May 12, 2017, p. A-1.