Moral Courage “I come to bring him sleep” (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale)
In June I met with our regional accreditors at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland, CA. On my way there, I drove by the first apartment that Susan and I ever lived in, located just a few minutes away. We lived there as apartment managers right after our marriage when I started graduate school. The management job provided a spacious two-bedroom apartment with a balcony that overlooked the Claremont Country Club golf course. It was a posh place for a student couple to live, but we stayed there only about three months and left with a bad taste in our mouths. Why? The tenants and owners pressured us not to rent a vacant apartment to a fine, upstanding Black couple. Rather than discriminate, we quit and moved from our big fancy apartment with a balcony overlooking a golf course to a run-down, tiny 500 sq. foot, a university-owned apartment that had originally served as Navy barracks in World War II. Yet we slept much better in our dilapidated new digs than in the luxurious apartment next to the country club, for we knew that we had done the right thing.
As I stood in front of our first residence after more than 40 years, I realized that I have always slept better when I have had the courage to do the right thing. How many troubled nights would we have passed, I wondered, had we not had the moral courage to quit.
“True disciples of Jesus Christ are willing to stand out, speak up, and be different from the people of the world,” said President Russell M. Nelson at April General Conference. “They are undaunted, devoted, and courageous.” I, too, see moral courage as a prerequisite to discipleship. Moral courage is a foundational virtue, one on which other virtues of true discipleship depend.
I have long liked a statement by C. S. Lewis that makes precisely this point. He said, “Courage is not just one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Think about this. If you are tempted to lie, steal, commit adultery, watch pornography, take advantage of your neighbor, break the Sabbath, etc. you must exercise two virtues, not one, at the testing point: moral courage and the particular virtue under assault. Hence, courage can be described as “the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
In the gospel, obedience functions in a similar way. When we keep any commandment, we keep not just one commandment but two: a specific commandment (like living the Word of Wisdom, paying tithing, fasting, praying, etc.) and the overarching commandment to obey God and his prophets. Obedience may be regarded as the first law of Heaven both because it was the first covenant Adam and Eve made and because all other covenants are subsequent to and flow from our commitment to obey God.
So, too, with moral courage. Virtually any correct choice requires moral courage “at the testing point.” The Good Samaritan displayed not just compassion but courage in stopping to help a despised injured Jew. It requires courage not to be a passive bystander, the courage to stand up for principle, and courage to speak up, whether doing so calls for bold denunciation or, as is more common, crucial conversations. So my counsel is not to take counsel of your fears but rather “fresh courage take.” You will sleep better for it.