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Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton

Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


This is a book about human courage. It is one which I had intended to write for a long time and it would wait no longer. What I had in mind is not an exercise in ethical theory or psychological analysis, important as these may be in the long run. Still less do I propose to make an appeal for practicing a virtue that is presently in short supply by recommending a sure-fire method for attaining it. My concern is both more modest and more earnest. It is simply to lift up to the level of visibility a truth that is true to ourselves -- namely, that whatever must be borne can be borne by virtue of a strength working in each and all of us which has immemorially been known as courage. I propose to show how available and reliable this power really is, believing as I do that the best celebration of courage is to understand and affirm its common, constant presence in uniquely human life. Some years ago I came across a poem which began:

The bravest soldiers that I ever knew
Were those who never went away to war.
They wore no khaki, nor gray, nor blue,
And made no mention of a scar.

A rather ordinary verse, perhaps, but that may be because it is a tribute to what very ordinary people can do and become when faced with difficulty or disaster. Bravery and heroism are not confined to particular vocations or special occasions but belong surely to the rank and file of humankind. Of all the so-called virtues courage is, probably the least public and therefore the most universal. In fact, it is all the more to be admired because it is so often hidden and anonymous. What is lacking is not examples or incentives but our grateful recognition and generous praise whenever and wherever courage appears in the sort of living we know best.

Some may object that what courage needs is not interpretation or even celebration, but rendition pure and simple. Making it the subject of a book may only risk increasing the gap, already far too great, between theory and practice. Is it not a non sequitur of the grossest kind to assume that when something has been said or written, something has therefore been done? "Everybody talking about heaven ainít going there." That holds true of other subjects too, such as wisdom, love, or justice. Why should it be different when the topic of courage comes up?

But in our current zeal for practicality let us not be misled by the notion that only action matters, uncontaminated by the detours and hesitations of careful thought. Socratesí famous statement that an unexamined life is not worth living still has the clear ring of truth. Such a life would not be living at all in any recognizably human sense. That is why, as Robert Frost observed once, there is a "book-side to everything -- by which he meant that living in the active mode is only part of life, and not even the best part, unless it is reinforced by the work of imagining and reflecting from which books are made. Although it is plain enough that writing a book about courage is not the same as a courageous act (or may be, for that matter), such an act itself will sooner or later reverberate in speech, song, or story -- as indeed it should.

Therefore it is not surprising that the theme of courage has called forth a considerable literature of its own; the list of writer-thinkers runs all the way from Plato and Aristotle down to John F. Kennedy and Paul Tillich. It is an inexhaustible theme which will always attract us, however, as its roots and fruits in human being are perennially present. Here we have to do with the very texture of lived and felt experience, as it dips and thrusts from failure to success with its perplexing mixture of wariness and boldness. Courage is no bloodless category but has very much to do with the fact that "out of the heart are the issues of life." Each generation has much to learn, and not a little to teach, concerning this most common and vulgar of the virtues, as Herman Melville called courage.

Any book on such a theme is bound to be in some respects a heart-to-heart talk for which both reader and writer ought to be prepared. While this does not excuse us from speaking and thinking as clearly as possible, or from relying on resources coming from the human past, it does mean finally that conversing about courage will contain an element of honest self-disclosure too. The purpose of a book like this, then, must be to shift the burden of proof from author to reader by a risky strategy of mutual engagement. In that spirit and intention let the conversation begin.

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