Would you like to ride along on one of the crazy trips my mind takes?
It’s now been a little over a year since I moved to Little Rock at the beginning of May 2019 (Jen and the kids didn’t join me until the end of the month). I feel as if I should say that we can hardly believe it’s been that long, but it’s been a full year. Last summer was busy enough, and now since March we’ve been dealing with all “this.” More than that, it feels longer than a year because the 2BC family has made us feel so much at home here, and so quickly.
I was just thinking about how one of the first things to welcome me when I drove into Arkansas was a Waffle House signboard (I think it was in Russellville) that said, “No Grits, No Glory.”
I stopped to take a picture. Even though they do eat grits next door in Oklahoma and Texas (where I’ve spent many years), and even though those two states have some claim to being “southern,” the sign just seemed like a fitting way for it to sink in that I was now in the South—or, at least, SEC country.
As I chuckled again at that sign, I remembered that “grits” was standing in for “guts” and “guts” is a slang way of saying “courage.”
And that led me to recall how courage is one of the “virtues”—those habits, or character dispositions that make it possible to live well. In the classical tradition, there are four leading virtues: temperance, prudence (practical wisdom), justice, and courage. Temperance is the ability to maintain self-control when it comes to managing (mainly bodily) appetites; prudence is the ability to apply general principles in specific situations; justice is the ability to know what is owed to whom; and courage is the ability to face fears and hardships well.
Many Christians came to believe that the traditional “pagan” virtues were a helpful way of thinking about what it means to live a good life. In other words, following Jesus is about more than these virtues, but not less. Famously, though, Christians added the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love (taken from I Corinthians 13) to the list. These virtues are gifts of God through the Holy Spirit, and not qualities that a person can develop on their own. Ultimately, according to this tradition, love is the “form” of all the virtues. Love is what gives shape to all of them and draws them together in a life of integrity. It was this focus on love—given bodily definition in the life of Jesus Christ—that led Christians to conclude that the ultimate model of courage was not the warrior but the martyr.
Why does all this matter?
We’re in a time when all of us are making decisions—for ourselves, or on behalf of others—in complicated situations. When can we start doing ___ again? Can we finally go visit them? Should I wear that protective gear in this situation? Should I call someone out for not making an effort to maintain distance? When is that the right thing to do and when is it not?
In the classic tradition, to have one of the virtues in its authentic form, you need to have all of them. It’s not truly courage if you take risky actions because you foolishly ignored the seriousness of the situation (deciding to ignore evacuation orders and ride out a hurricane), if a lack of temperance leads you to take unnecessary risks (refusing to leave because you were in the middle of binge-watching a TV series), or if your actions unjustly put others in harm’s way (your decision to stay causes first responders to risk their lives to rescue you).
There are some pretty obvious points to be made in our present moment, I think, about distinguishing genuine courage from false bravado or “foolhardiness.” For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
But in so many of the decisions involved in–“re-opening,” whether a household, a workplace, a church, a state, a country—there is no formula that allows you to input all of the various factors, turn a crank, and get your answer for what to do. There are multiple values to balance, in an environment of insufficient and changing information.
Virtues are not ultimately about making particular decisions but about having a settled disposition or tendency to do the right things, in the right ways, for the right reasons. They are “caught” more than “taught.” That is, we become virtuous people by imitating others.
That’s why I give thanks for all of the disciples of Jesus who raise the bar for me and show me what wise, temperate, just, and courageous love looks like in action. Friends like Sheila and Hulitt Gloer, who are moving to Kansas City this week (but will come to visit when they can!).
Lord, grant us wisdom and grant us courage for the living of these days (along with temperance and a keen sense of justice, too). Thank you for giving us others who show us what living is all about.