Not so Courageous

A few days ago I got involved in a pretty mild disagreement on FB. It was on a Christian topic that I consider fairly minor, and one in which my view is rather middle-of-the-road and nuanced. Despite all of this, at the end of the discussion, the one who had started the conversation remarked positively on my courage to express my opinion in a forum of those who held a very different view.

I really did not think I was being courageous at all:

  • My view was far from opposite of the others. It was just more flexible.
  • I, frankly, did not know that I was going into a group with a different view than my own. (Truthfully I probably should have guessed that the group was embracing a different view. The signs were there—  a person shares an e-article on FB and adds the comment something like, “Mmmm. Interesting article. What do you think?” That comment usually really means, “Hahhh!!! Checkmate!”– despite the mediocrity of the actual article cited. “Confirmation Bias.”)

But that is not the main reason I was not being courageous.  But before I get to the main reason…

I wrote a post a few months ago that suggested that John Calvin may be a “wee bit wrong” about something. I got a response from a friend of mine that said that I had probably hit a nerve with a large number of people. I may have been courageous to share it… but perhaps a bit foolish.  Again, I don’t feel all that courageous because:

  • Theology is a human construct, and theologians are— well— human. As such, it should be fully anticipated that theology and theologians are wrong… a lot. Calvin (and not just his overzealous followers) is certainly wrong a lot because humans are wrong a lot. It should not be hugely controversial to say that his theological perspective may be a bit missiologically deficient or that, just perhaps, he confused the sovereignty of God with the control of God in a way that distorts exegesis of some key Biblical passages.
  • I am wrong a lot because I am also human. It is hardly courageous to share something that could be wrong since we all do that even when we try not to.

And that leads to the biggest reason I am not being courageous:

As Christians, we are called to give each other grace, understanding that we don’t and won’t always agree on everything. It is not courageous because it is not supposed to be courageous. We are supposed to exhort and admonish and love and encourage one another. Where is the fear and danger in that?

I do admit, however, that it is amazing all of the blogposts and articles out there calling pretty much everyone else heretics. But that reflects badly on the writers more than their targets. This is not to say there are not false teachers. Since all of us are wrong at times, we need to give a bit of grace regarding what level we say that wrong good people have crossed the line to wrong bad people.

It is hardly courageous to express one’s opinions to those who may not share those opinions, but it is certainly cowardly to only hang out with one’s  “Yup, me too” gang members and take hurtful potshots at those passers-by who hold a different perspective.

Courage and Missions

Back in 2001, after the “9-11” incident, US President George W. Bush described the zealots (or terrorists) who flew the airplanes into the world trade center towers as “cowards.” This led to some interesting conversations. After all, people who fought off fear and self-preservation could hardly be called cowardly, right?

Part of the problem lay in the inadequacy of the English language in this area. The term “courage” implies two characteristics.  One of these is a lack of cowardliness or harmavoidance. The other characteristic inherent in the term courage or courageous is morality. What term does one use for a person who overcomes his own fears to do what is morally repugnant?

In English, many characteristics have a greater degree of subtlety. For example, the term “wisdom” or “prudence” also has a moral component. But for someone who is able to think clearly and “wisely” but without morality, could be described as wily or shrewd.  But courage is different. We rightly reject evil behavior as being courageous. In this sense, the President Bush was correct.

The Martial Virtues, courage, duty, and honor, have moral components. I have always liked the follow descriptions of these virtues:

COURAGE.  I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN I AM AFRAID.

DUTY.  I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN I DON’T WANT TO.

HONOR.  I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING.

The morality of the behavior is foundational to these virtues. Within the Christian context, Jesus is thus the foundation of these virtues. We cannot describe courage (as well as duty and honor) outside of the context of Christ.

But what does this have to do with missions?  Well… consider the initial story, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York. The people who did it, left their own people to do something that they believe their god desired them to do, to/for those who are outside of their faith. This, pretty much by definition, is mission work. Obviously, their mission work would only make sense within a very narrow branch of Islam.

But it does add a cautionary story for us. Within Christian missions, we have had Crusades (missions as warfare), gunboat evangelism (missions as armed threat), and Inquisition (missions through enforced conformity). Such work may be described as missions, but those who do this should not be described as courageous, dutiful, and honorable in their “service to God.”

Missions is not inherently good. A missionary that does dangerous, scary things is not necessarily courageous. A missionary who lives a public life conformed to his private life is not necessarily honorable. A missionary who follows orders and “does his job” is not necessarily dutiful.

Missions that is not grounded in the moral, ethical life of Jesus Christ is not really missions at all. Perhaps there is not even a name for it. But I think we need a name for it. So we can better avoid it.