I was so struck by the quotation I lost concentration during the meeting at hand. My attention was arrested by an elegantly refined calligraphy quotation of Dante Alighieri seated in a beautiful frame. The quotation pierced me in a way not many quotations have in some time. While many quotes focus my mind on a topic, this bold statement by Dante forced a deeply personal inquiry, “Have I been or am I now morally neutral on issues in this world that truly matter?” The quote simply stated, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”
The question that ran across my mind is a frightening introspection among a host of possible beliefs about oneself. We may believe we are honest, just, respectful, and kind when it comes to others. These are traits we can exhibit at any moment and in various ways. I can show kindness by taking a plate of cookies to my neighbor or I can be honest by not cheating on my income taxes. These acts may cost me time, energy, a bit of inconvenience or money in demonstrating personal character ingredients I believe about myself.
But moral courage is at the highest level of our willingness to demonstrate our character. Moral courage asks us to pay a price with our reputation, friendships, or even our lives. A striking aspect of moral courage is that it calls us to be other centered. While some of the “others” might be friends or family members, it is quite likely they would be strangers, people who are normally just faces in the crowd. It may also be that these strangers live in another time zone of the globe, whose skin and culture are very different from our own. It was moral courage displayed when fire fighters, police, emergency personal and ordinary co-workers and selfless airplane passengers gave their lives to save others that fateful 9/11 morning.
So what might be ideals calling for our moral courage? When we look around our globe, it is easy to find any number of stages for demonstrating moral courage. The environment, unjust labor markets, war, human rights violations, abortion, racism and genocide are just a few that come to mind, but there are many others that we could name. In considering these moral and ethical issues, the haunting question remains, “Would I be willing to pay a personal price for the well-being of strangers or future generations by confronting and overcoming these issues?” It may be one of the most deeply personal and spiritual questions we will ever answer during our existence.
This is not new landscape to navigate. Across the horizon of moral courage are signposts bearing people’s names that have paid a personal price for standing boldly against the flaming arrows of the issues they confronted. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln are just a few individuals most recognized for wagering their lives in moral courage. There are, however, countless others with moral courage, nameless and unheralded by historians, who have sacrificed their lives to become voices for reason and justice. We may not know them, but we are eternally in their debt for attacking the severest issues that face humankind. In recent years, filmmaker Steven Spielberg has shaped our concept of moral courage by delivering dramas of unknown heroes; simple women and men who gave their lives for causes set before them.
In reality, we are being summoned to moral courage whether we acknowledge it or not. It may be our voices of reason are needed for stamping out human rights violations in some remote region of the globe or maybe our courage is needed in “downtown anywhere” where racism and hatred are choking sanity. We are in reality indelibly connected to each other, no matter what corner of this planet we occupy. By looking away, we grant permission for oppressions to continue and loud voices to prevail. Our answers to these human cries must be our willingness to carve our names on the signposts peppered across the landscape along with those that have responded with their sacrifices, even if it was their own life.
It is a choice to live isolated or to “make our business that of humankind.” I am not naïve in believing this is a decision made lightly or that our actions will stamp out the moral perplexities of our world. But these decisions and personal choices to act with moral courage may carry eternal significance like no other.
So ask yourself, “Would I be willing to put my reputation, possessions or life ‘one the line’ so that injustices may be made right? Why or why not? Would I be willing to join a picket line or demonstration that would require my taking a public stand on some moral issue? Would I be willing to boycott products or services that perpetuate human rights violations? Do I value my personal safety and well being above that of others? Why do I make this stance?
Moral courage. It may be the highest test of living well. Blessings, grace and peace for every day of your life.