Sunday, May 24, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of Faith, part 6: Fortitude"

Isaiah 53:1-9
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:1-15

“Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues.”  John Locke

Fortitude: courage in pain or adversity; bravery; endurance; resilience; moral fiber; strength of character, dedication to a difficult but necessary task … short word: guts.

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the four cardinal virtues because he believed fortitude serves prudence and justice, the higher virtues. Prudence and justice are the virtues by which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the courage to do it.

Fortitude boils down to discipline and strength of purpose.  Mind and body, soul and spirit are all aligned to that sense of purpose – especially when we face danger.  Will the reward be worth the risk?  Is the task itself worth the potential risk if there is no appreciable, tangible reward?  Can the end be achieved by any other, less dangerous means? 

Fortitude is not about being stubborn or reckless, and fortitude as a virtue has nothing to do with personal achievement.  Fortitude must be prudent in taking so many questions into account before stepping off a ledge and into the unknown because fortitude is also not about intentional martyrdom.  I’m sure many prophets and martyrs had their questions, doubts, and misgivings before they entered into what was almost certain death for themselves, but their strong sense of purpose, informed from Above and from a life of disciplined faithfulness, pressed them forward.  The risks they faced were clear; the reward, not so much on their minds as was their purpose.

The profound difference can be seen between Christian martyrs who died incidentally doing what they felt called to do, and Islamic “martyrs” who die intentionally … and deliberately kill others in the process.

In John 15 Jesus had been pretty specific about the dangers the Church would face in moving forward – not merely existing silently.  It is especially important to remember Jesus is talking about those who are willing to take the Gospel into a world dominated by pharisaic Judaism.  That is, the religion of the day was dominated by a strict legal code, a lot of do’s and don’ts.  Faith really had no place in what Jesus had spent His ministry confronting, and that is what really got the religious elders stirred up.  Embracing and abiding by strict rules whether these rules are understood or not protects an existing hierarchy, a structure that serves nothing greater than itself.  The modern-day Church would do well to take note of this reality.

The religious elders of Jesus’ day had rights which they seemed to understand as privilege; and as long as they were able to keep the rank-and-file Jews in line, the pagan Romans had no real problem with Judaism.  What the religious leaders failed to realize, however, is that the rights they believed they were entitled to were not means of exercising and maintaining positions of privilege.  These rights, just as today, should have been understood as points of social responsibility – that is, responsibility to and for one another, as in “loving your neighbor as yourself” … as much a “commandment” as any of the “thou shalt not’s”. 

Being a religious leader in Jesus’ day did not require any real sense of fortitude because what the religious leaders served was themselves and the structure that protected them and preserved their positions of privilege.  As long as people obeyed the rules, all would be well.  The best one could aspire to within such a system is to one day hope to reach such a level of privilege while denying the responsibilities that go with these rights.  And again – the Church would do well to take note.

On this eve of Memorial Day 2015 I began to consider what this can mean to us today.  Not wishing to take away from those who want to honor all veterans who are – or were – willing to give their all to an ideal, it is nevertheless important (I think) to remember that being willing to die in the line of duty does not mean they wished to die on the field of battle so far from home.  But the difference between those who did give their all and we who did not is that they know the difference between privilege and duty, rights and responsibilities – and they proved it by their sacrifice.

While I might be willing to believe those who lost their lives on the battle field did so with no regrets, it is still perhaps important to remember most – if not all – of these heroes had every intention of and desire to one day come home to their loved ones.  Yet we come to understand fortitude in this way through the lives of these men and women who are gone but (hopefully) never forgotten: the task at hand (the “mission” for the military AND the Church), regardless of the imminent danger, always serves something much greater than the moment or the individual and must be carried out without fail.

Some gave so completely and purposefully of themselves so others could live to carry on the fight – AND one day go home.   President Reagan once gave a stirring tribute in which he quoted the diary of a WWI soldier named Martin Treptow.  He was KIA in France carrying messages.  On Treptow was found his personal diary in which was written “My Pledge”.  This stirring pledge spoke of the importance of this war and the ideals for which this war was being fought.  This pledge ended with these words: “I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the whole issue of the struggle depended on me alone.”

And this, my friends, is the heart and soul of the Christian faith.  It is the whole Church called forward to bring the light of the Gospel to a world enveloped in darkness, but even the strength of the Church is diminished and in danger of being lost when rank-and-file Christians leave the battle to the elders.  The privilege of the Great Commission has nothing to do with our declared “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. 

It has to do with the fortitude to understand that even “personal salvation” comes with no rights, no privileges, and no personal expectations.  In fact I might go so far as to suggest being a Christian means we have to make a choice between being an American citizen privileged with protection by a legal, man-made document – OR – being a disciple of Christ charged with making disciples who will then make disciples themselves.

Fortitude, in the case of a committed disciple, comes with something else.  Though fortitude is a virtue developed through discipline and a strong sense of purpose, Jesus also assures us that for all the adversity we will certainly face when we are faithful to Him, the Father has sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  The Blessed Spirit came to not only awaken the Church from its nightmare of having lost Jesus to the hands of men with evil intentions, the Spirit also came to strengthen the Church for a purpose far beyond any preserved structure or sense of individual privilege.

If there is to be a great awakening in the Church today, a revival of Spirit and Truth, there must first be a Church willing to be awakened.  We have not only Memorial Day to remind us there is always something greater than self to serve, but we also have the biblical “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith – those who, like our Lord Jesus, showed us the ONLY PATH we are to follow.

Only when we find and reconnect to that Path will we finally be able to move forward – and only when we are fully on board with the reality that it is not about “us”.  It is now and has always been about The Covenant come to life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Let us have the “guts” to admit that so we may finally and fully go about The Lord’s Business.


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