Moral Courage, True Leadership


Originally published in Pulpit Helps, October 2008.

Peggy Noonan, in her biography of Ronald Reagan, wrote: "In a president, character is everything. A president doesn't have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn't brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn't have to be clever; you can hire clever.... But you can't buy courage and decency; you can't rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring these things with him.... A vision is worth little if a president doesn't have the character-the courage and heart-to see it through."

Everyone knows what courage is: when a person risks his life or safety in some noble cause. John Wayne said, "Courage is being scared to death-and saddling up anyway."

But what is moral courage? My working definition is: "A firm spirit that does the right thing at great risk." In this case, you risk not bodily harm or your life but perhaps your reputation, success in your chosen field, or the support of friends and family.

My friend, Bob, was teaching in a "Christian" college when he was informed by the dean and then the president that he should not be giving his Christian testimony to his students. Someone of another faith might be offended or feel discriminated against. Bob responded that he felt it was important for students to know who their professor is and to learn his worldview if they are to make sense of his teaching. Bob did not get tenure and eventually, God led him on to another institution.

Moral courage is standing up for the hard right against the easy wrong. Moral courage means refusing to stand idly by while others engage in wrong or hurtful acts. Moral courage speaks truth to power. Its opposite is cowardice in the name of getting along, silence in the face of cruelty and persecution, acquiescence in the cause of unity or personal advancement.

Martin Niemoller (1892-1984), a Lutheran pastor, spent years in Hitler's concentration camps for refusing to go along with the Nazi program. He was only a pastor, not equipped in any earthly way to reverse the Hitler juggernaut, yet he continued speaking up for truth and calling his nation to righteousness.

Inscribed on a stone marker in New England's Holocaust Memorial are these famous words from Niemoller: "When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent. I was not a Communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent. I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out. I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent. I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out."

A generation or two ago, I heard a record of a fellow named Don Loney addressing a high school assembly on the subject of moral courage. One story he told has remained with me all these years.

"A speaker rose to address the hundreds of business people in town for a convention. He had not been speaking two minutes before he began using the name Jesus Christ' as profanity. After he had blasphemed the Lord several times, a man in the audience rose to his feet, stood in his chair, cupped his hands to his mouth and called out toward the podium, Sir! Leave Christ out of it!' And when the session ended, there were more people lined up to shake his hand than the hand of the speaker."

Moral courage does not act in rashness, but considers the cost for taking action that could be embarrassing or unpopular or costly, then steps over the line. This is worth the price.

Many years ago-before Congress got around to enacting "whistle blower" laws to protect those who "speak truth to power"-a factory employee insisted to the boss that the exits should be unlocked, that the workers would need those doors to the fire escape in case of an emergency. The owner replied that too many seamstresses were slipping outside to grab a quick smoke, and the work was suffering. That's why he had the doors chained from the outside. When the worker threatened to report him to the authorities, the owner terminated his employment. A year later, when a spark set the building on fire, a large number of women were burned alive.

An employee speaks to the boss. A White House staffer brings up a problem to the president. A student or teacher goes to the principal with a criticism. A church member or ministerial staff member confronts the pastor. A pastor takes an issue before his denomination. The church stands up in a decadent society and speaks out for righteousness and truth. These are examples of "speaking truth to power."

On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood before the church authorities at a general assembly known in history as the Diet of Worms. Spread on a table before him were copies of Luther's writings. An inquisitor asked if these were his books and whether he stood by their contents. Luther admitted to writing them, and asked if he could have a day to consider the second question.

The next day, Luther faced the assembly and uttered the lines which changed his life forever and set the course for what would become known as the Protestant Reformation. They epitomize moral courage: "Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reasonI neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience."

I suspect that one man's moral courage may be another's cantankerousness. Still, we honor those who get it right. And we pray for the Lord's wisdom to know when to try to flag down that train on the wrong tracks, even if it means laying our body across the tracks.

Joe McKeever is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs regularly at www.joemckeever.com.

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