The Power of Moral Courage

By Eric Stetson — May 28, 2017

(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Highlands in Meadowview, Virginia.)

Eric Stetson preaching at UUCH
Eric Stetson preaching at UUCH.

The topic of my message today is “The Power of Moral Courage.” There are three aspects to this: courage, morality, and power. We should consider what each of these concepts mean, and how they fit together. My aim is to show that courage, exercised by individuals in support of true morality or basic human goodness, has incredible and glorious power. In fact, moral courage is the driving force of all positive social change.

Let us begin with an illustration of courage at its most primordial level: A stone-age man charging at a mighty beast with a flint-tipped spear. Such a man was the ancestor of us all — and had he not had the courage to risk injury and death to earn a meal for his tribe, we would not exist.

Courage, therefore, is essential for survival. This was true thousands of years ago, and it remains true today — though in more subtle and sophisticated forms. For example, if we don’t have the courage to take a test, we cannot graduate from school. If we don’t have the courage to walk into a job interview, we cannot earn a paycheck. If we don’t have the courage to ask someone out on a date, the species won’t reproduce itself another generation!

Because of the central role of courage in attaining and sustaining the necessities of life, most great religions and philosophies throughout history have celebrated courage as a virtue. In many cases, this has been focused on the courage of men in battle — to fight in defense of one’s nation, faith, or way of life.

The courage to fight can take other forms; it does not necessarily have to involve physical weapons, and its drama is often enacted on metaphorical battlefields, by all sorts of people, not just soldiers in wars. We will return to this theme later.

But first, let us consider the meaning of morality. Deep down, most people know right from wrong. It can pretty much be reduced to simple, universal principles such as the Golden Rule — treat others the way you would wish to be treated. Or as Unitarian Universalists say, we should respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Despite the widespread instinctive knowledge of morality, the world is not a very moral place. Many people, and even whole societies, often violate the most basic moral principles. This is because of the human tendency toward selfishness — putting one’s individual needs and preferences above the wellbeing of everyone. So, in many cases, it requires courage to stand up for what is right and oppose what is morally wrong. If you take a stand for goodness, you’re going to step on some toes — the toes of the many people and organizations that like to walk all over others.

Those who are selfish often accumulate tremendous amounts of power, either in the form of money or political or legal authority. Often they use this power to solidify their own advantage, sometimes going so far as to use systemic deception, corruption, threats and bullying, or even physical violence to achieve their ends. For this reason, it is extremely important that people exercise courage on behalf of truth and justice, especially in situations where these moral virtues are in short supply. There is perhaps no greater thing a human being can do — and there may be nothing more challenging.

If you take a stand for goodness, you’re going to step on some toes — the toes of the many people and organizations that like to walk all over others.

Most people like to live in an orderly society, where everybody knows the rules and follows them, and rule-breakers are punished for stepping out of line. The problem is, in most societies, some of the rules are unjust, or the enforcement of rules is biased for the benefit of the rich and powerful — those who have greater influence than most people in determining what the rules will be and when and how they will be enforced. Power often supersedes true morality, and in fact power is used to warp what people believe is moral.

For example, consider the Southern states before the Civil War: a society in which millions of African Americans were held in bondage as slaves. Because most of the wealth of the most powerful Southerners was in the form of the forced labor of black people — and because nearly one-third of all households in the states that seceded from the Union owned at least one slave — there was a strong motivation in these states to ensure that slavery remained not only legal, but also that people should perceive it as morally acceptable. This is why Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, said, quote: “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Ministers preached the same message from the pulpit, using the Bible as justification for slavery.

The Confederate States of America was defeated in the Civil War — a war which cost over 600,000 lives. This war would never have been fought, and African Americans would not have gained their freedom, had it not been for the moral courage of millions of people to fight for what is right. Even in the South, many people refused to support the Confederate cause, and some communities, especially here in Appalachia, either formally or informally seceded from the Confederacy. This also took great moral courage.

From the story of slavery and many others examples, both historically and in the present day, we see that societies often act in immoral ways without realizing it. In many cases, morality does not coincide with the law or custom. For example, a person may go to prison for years for smoking marijuana, while major acts of fraud and corruption by the wealthy and powerful often go unpunished.

Whenever people notice that either the law or custom of society is immoral, they have a choice to make: They can either subordinate their own moral sense to the expectations of society and submit to reality as it is, or they can try to change it. In a free country, the easiest way to try to create change is to speak up about what’s wrong and advocate for reform. In societies that don’t enjoy freedom of speech, this requires tremendous courage, because the penalty for doing so is often torture, imprisonment, or even death.

But even in free societies, speaking up against immoral laws and customs does require courage, because sometimes people will lose family and friends and become the victims of social ostracism by the majority who do not wish to challenge the status quo. For example, consider what it was like to come out as gay and advocate for marriage equality, just 20 years ago. Only 40 or 50 years ago, dating a person of a different race was just as difficult for one’s social standing — and in some places, it still is today.

Over and over again, change happens when enough people decide to stand up for what they believe is right and take brave actions to challenge what is wrong in their world. Initially, only a few are brave enough to consciously resist or refuse to cooperate with an immoral law, tradition, expectation, or activity in society, and they may be ostracized or mocked for deviating from social norms. But if they persist, and enough people join them, the powers that be will fight back with force. Authorities in society may punish the resisters, but if they intensify their resistance instead of backing down — and if they are fueled by an iron-clad commitment to a higher moral truth — the movement may grow. Finally, either the authorities stop fighting the change and accept the new morality, or else they are removed from power. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

Gandhi was able to lead the people of India to freedom from British colonial occupation through purely peaceful means, using boycotts and strikes, encouraging self-reliance, and other methods of non-violent non-cooperation with the established order. He understood that power emanates not only from money and guns, but also from popular perception of legitimacy. If a government, corporation, or other powerful social institution loses its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, it can lose its power. This is more likely to happen when alternative leaders and institutions arise with moral courage and stand for something that people see as more in harmony with truth and justice.

This principle operates on an everyday basis in the free market for goods and services. If a business treats its customers poorly, people may choose to take their business elsewhere — especially if there is a competitor that makes a point of treating the customer with a high degree of respect. The same thing can happen between employers and employees, especially when the employees are in a union.

It is important to understand that big changes often come slowly, and people should not give up when initially they don’t see the progress they seek. For example, it took 100 years from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when African Americans finally gained true freedom and equality. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It is important to understand that big changes often come slowly, and people should not give up when initially they don’t see the progress they seek.

There is much that ordinary people can do to help this process along — simple acts such as Rosa Parks courageously refusing to give up her seat on a bus — and our actions can inspire people with greater power and influence to take bold actions with tremendous impact to create the change we seek. For example, recently I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary about baseball, and I was struck by the story of Branch Rickey, an executive who rose up the ranks of baseball management and ultimately became the first owner of a Major League ball club to allow a black man to play alongside whites.

Everybody knows about Jackie Robinson — the first black Major League Baseball player — but few people remember Branch Rickey. Rickey told a story from his early days in the sports industry when he was managing a college baseball team, and a black player was refused accommodation at the hotel where the team was staying. Rickey finally persuaded the hotel owner to let him sleep in Rickey’s own room. Later that night, he found the young ball player holding his face in his hands and crying. He said to his manager, “It’s my skin — my skin is against me. I wish I could just tear it off.”

When Branch Rickey became a powerful executive in Major League Baseball, he challenged the long-standing custom that barred black people from playing on Major League teams. This was very controversial and he faced a lot of criticism from fellow team owners as well as players. Before Jackie Robinson took the field, he asked him to endure any slurs he would face from racist fans — and he faced many — for three years before he could ever answer back, so that people would see a black person carrying himself with great dignity in his profession. Robinson agreed, the plan worked, and within several years, there were many black people playing in Major League Baseball. The great acts of moral courage of both Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey led to a great social change in American society — the racial integration of our nation’s most popular sport.

There are many cases where powerful people have used their power, like Branch Rickey did, to create necessary social change. For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was hated by his wealthy peers and was thought to have “betrayed his class” because he used government power to help poor people in the New Deal. Another important example from history is when Republicans in Congress put country over party and were willing to investigate Richard Nixon’s obstruction of justice and abuse of presidential power, leading to his resignation.

There are smaller examples all around us, every day. Think about what power you might have, in some specific place, circumstance or situation, that you could use to take a courageous moral stand for what is right, and thus create change that needs to happen?

In movements to elevate the morality of society, there are many things that regular people can do to stand up for what is right and help advance the process of positive social change. I want to tell a story from my own family which taught me this lesson. When I was a teenager, gay people were beginning to fight for equal rights. I came from a conservative family in which there were some strong anti-gay attitudes. One of my father’s cousins was gay, and when he and his partner became one of three couples to file a lawsuit in the state of Vermont to legalize civil unions, it led to a lot of difficult discussions in my family about the issue of homosexuality and gay rights. After several years, our cousin’s courageous action and the way that he and his partner carried themselves with great dignity in their struggle for equality led to our entire family transforming our views, coming to accept that LGBT people are just like anyone else and should enjoy the same rights, such as the right to marry the person they love.

We should never underestimate the power we all have to change people’s minds and thus change the world. Sometimes, just expressing our beliefs coherently, consistently, and respectfully, and living our lives in a way that is admirable, can be powerfully persuasive. But it takes time, and if change comes slower than we would hope, we must never give up, but instead we should redouble our efforts. Refusing to give up hope is itself an act of moral courage.

On the battlefield of life, we are always in a struggle of good versus evil. This is true in society and it is true without our own souls. People must choose, on a daily basis, whether to do the right thing or the wrong thing. And even if doing the right thing might not necessarily produce the results we desire in the world, it will produce beautiful results within our own character. The daily struggle for goodness is a glorious struggle — a struggle that turns us into powerful beings with lives we can be proud of.

And even if we only see the results of moral courage in our own lives, and not so much in society at large, there will probably be positive results in the lives of others — whether our own family or friends, or people in our communities. Many times these positive effects don’t fully manifest until a long time has passed. Every small action matters, and the effects of our actions ripple throughout the world from person to person, making the world what it becomes.

Let us put on the armor of moral courage and go forth and do battle for goodness, every day of our lives, in every way we know how and are capable of. Let us live rightly and boldly challenge what is wrong. When we do this, we gain tremendous power. We become the people we wish to be, and we participate in creating a better world. This is the calling of every soul.

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