Reflections on the College Theme

March 12, 2014

Professor of Philosophy and Religion Jim Gilman presents the first in a series of faculty essays about Mary Baldwin’s 2013–14 theme, Courage. The writings, which will appear in The Cupola Now in the coming weeks, are intended to deepen understanding of the theme throughout the campus community. The four contributing faculty members represent each School of Excellence.

The annual college theme is chosen to unite the Mary Baldwin community around a central idea that fosters civic and global engagement. The theme gives definition to the academic year and a way to link together the work of students, faculty, and staff from all disciplines and programs.

Moral Courage

By Jim Gilman

How disciplined are you? How much in control of yourself are you? When you and your mother or spouse are having a verbal disagreement, do you find yourself impulsively snapping back? When someone gossips about you and your friends, do you retaliate and spread rumors in turn about them? These scenarios are unremarkable and familiar; but whether we retaliate or not depends on whether we have moral courage or not. The ancient Greeks counted courage among their four cardinal virtues: cardinal because it is fundamental for being able to practice other virtues, like kindness and generosity. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all include it in their pantheon of virtues. Courage is, indeed, a cardinal quality of character, essential to living an extraordinary life, such as was lived, for example, by Socrates, Amos, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi and King; but such as can also be lived by ordinary people like you and me.

jimgilmanMoral courage consists of two fundamental disciplines — meekness and mercy.  “Meekness” is a word that has pretty much disappeared from our moral discourse; and when it is used it usually means something like a “mild mannered” or “retiring” personality. On the contrary, meekness refers to the fortitude and self-discipline of character that refuses to retaliate even when there is otherwise just cause to do so. The biblical phrase woven into the fabric of our language today, “turn the other cheek,” perhaps best encapsulates meekness. Think of the strength and self-control required for a person to not retaliate when there is good and fair reason to do so. The campaigns of both Gandhi and King included meekness; they both include a step of “self-purification” in which the community examines itself to see if each individual and all collectively possess the courage, in the face of opposition and animosity and violence, to refrain from retaliating in kind. They believed that only if the courage of meekness is practiced can the commitment to human and civil rights succeed.

Meekness is only the initial phase of moral courage, which is followed and completed not by justice but by the practice of mercy. Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” is preceded by his rejection of “an eye for an eye” (retaliatory justice) and is followed the “love your enemies” (mercy). Nothing is courageous if not the strength of character required to love the very enemies who do not merit it, who have no right to claim its generosity.  The strength of non-retaliatory meekness is one thing, the steadfastness of love’s mercy is quite another. Not only did Gandhi and King practice non-retaliation, they also practiced pro-actively compassion and care for the enemy. Some in the civil rights movement, like the black nationalists, were impatient with it; they believed meekness and mercy were not sufficiently powerful to overcome the Leviathan of Jim Crowe injustice. They advocated, instead, retaliatory justice, force for force, violence for violence. But it was the discipline and courage of mercy, not reciprocal violence, which endowed the movement with the passion and power to redeem and reconcile.

The foundation of any just society is not, ironically, the courage to do justice. In an unjust world the only kind of courage that is equal to the task of subverting injustice and sustaining justice is that of meekness and mercy; they alone are endowed with the kind of power that overcomes injustice and establishes a just, benevolent community. So, when you think of “getting even” in your personal life, or “doing what is fair and just in social, political, and global life”, know that whatever the results might be, they will likely not include a harmonious and fair and just outcome. Such outcomes require the moral courage of meekness and mercy.