Friday, December 31, 2010

The Faith of Children

Since Thanksgiving, we have all had many opportunities to revisit Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by reading the original or watching one of the many stage and film adaptations. This year, as I often do, I tuned in again for Scrooged and enjoyed its zany moments as much as the poignant ones.

In the film, Frank and little brother James Cross grow up with very different hopes and dreams for themselves and for Christmas. Frank’s ambition is to be rich and powerful; James is more humble. Frank embraces the ruthless consumerism of the holiday season; James simply wants to enjoy the warmth of family.

Frank, the film suggests, grew embittered under the tutelage of a father who gave his small son five pounds of veal for Christmas, a gift never actually intended for him and one that will last only as long as the next family meal. The child seems to escape through television and hence, becomes a television executive who callously requires hundreds of people to foresake the spirit of Christmas and work the day, entertaining the world with another adaptation of Dickens. Frank definitely misses the message of Dickens, however. He endorses stapling tiny antlers to the heads of mice. He evinces greed and self-absorption by paying his secretary Grace (i. e., Cratchit) so little that she cannot afford a tree for her family or therapy for her son, and Frank spends on gifts as little as possible, only participating, it seems, because corporate duties require him to do so. Frank is Scrooge and the Grinch and every bah-humbugger out there.

Little James, still in the womb when Frank receives the veal, must have grown up under similar circumstances. Surely the boys’ father begins and ends as a Scrooge; after all, no ghosts traipse through the senior Mr. Cross’s dreams. Nevertheless, James honors Christmas in its purest form. He gives generously and thoughtfully. He shares with others, and he hopes for a better tomorrow by forgiving his jaded brother year after year and inviting Frank to share Christmas with him. He is a character with great courage. He grows up in a home that holds out little hope, a home that does not seem to have a faith that sustains, yet he believes and dares to hope for joy.

Of course, even the smarmy Frank shows courage when he faces Marley and his three helpers. He is brave when he confronts his past, present and future. Most important, Frank overcomes fear and deeply ingrained habits to give himself freely to his lost love, Claire; to right the wrongs done to Grace and her family; and to teach the world to believe in miracles.

As 2011 dawns, be a James. Have the courage to believe, and if you cannot, find the courage to change as Frank did.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

One of the most memorable moments in Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels, is a passage describing the Confederate assault in July, 1863 at Gettysburg. The Union forces have seized the high ground. They are dug in behind a low wall that shields them. They have a clear view of the Rebels as they climb up the hill into enemy fire.

The front line Confederate forces, like the men trying to cross Omaha Beach on D-Day,, had little chance of surviving. Nevertheless, they marched on, sometimes stepping on their own. They simply closed ranks, filling in the gap created by the fallen soldier, somehow summoning the courage to march on, to do their duty as ordered by Generals Lee and Longstreet.

Shaara’s portrait of men who fought even though they must have known they were beaten before they even began, touched me. These men and boys, children really, stepped in blood and body parts. They must have been nearly deaf from the sounds of gun and cannon fire. The ones in front knew that they were the shield for the ones in the rear, the ones who would actually climb over the wall to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

I cannot put myself in their shoes. I cannot imagine facing such danger and walking on (even though I might have found the courage if I had been called upon to serve). Certainly, I’ve been brave, and I’ve seen through to the end many tasks that I wish I could have refused. Still the sacrifice of these soldiers inspires me. I am humble in the face of their courage. A modern soldier makes me feel the same way.

Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, just twenty-two years old when he faced insurgents in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, is the first living Medal of Honor recipient of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fired upon, knocked back, and spared by his protective chest gear, Giunta rallied to rush into danger and help a fellow soldier. Giunta then ran deeper into enemy fire to “to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands” (White House statement).

What impresses me as much as his courage is his humility. When interviewed for 60 Minutes, ( Giunta said he is not at peace with the knowledge that he is the single recipient of the most distinguished military honor. He does not consider himself to be extraordinary, only mediocre and average, a soldier who simply did what any other soldier would have done in the same circumstances. Giunta paid tribute to all the other soldiers with whom he has served, and he testified to the courage of each one.

Giunta is right. Courage is doing the work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Courage is recognizing the merits and strengths of others.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Panama City, Florida School Board

Many years ago, while rehearsing for a role in a college production of a Woody Allen play entitled Don’t Drink the Water, another member of the cast picked up the stage pistol, pointed it at me, and pulled the trigger. The sound was real enough to frighten me. I screamed at him: “Don’t do that! Don’t do that ever again!”

Not known for unscripted dramatics, my outburst stunned everyone present into silence. I looked from face to face and began to cry. The mock gun and the childish act shook the ground beneath my feet. I did not know how to act or overcome the intense fear.

I remembered this moment while watching the video footage of the Panama City, Florida school board staring into the barrel of a gun. Those men and women remained calm. They displayed courage.

One woman and school board member, Ginger Littleton, was among those ordered to leave the room by Clay Duke, the interloper who died that day in Florida. Somehow Duke’s rage or powerlessness or despair would not permit him to harm spectators and women. His targets were the Superintendent, a man, and male members of the school board.

Still Ginger Littleton could not save herself without attempting to save those other Board members. She returned and tried to knock the gun from Duke’s hand. She did not succeed, but who would not praise her for her valiant effort? She tried to save her friends. She tried to protect them from harm.

The Superintendent Bill Husfelt tried to draw the gunman to him and him alone. He asked that Duke spare everyone else on the dais. He asked Duke to hold him responsible for any employee terminations. Who could not admire a man who tries to save his colleagues? Who would deny Husfelt’s courage?

Jerry Register, a Board member, offered to help Duke’s wife find another job. In doing so, he drew the gunman’s attention to himself and away from others. He attempted to provide some hope for the desperate, disturbed man. Who would fault the man for acting so charitably?

When Duke begins to fire, Mike Jones, the security guard and former policeman, rushes into the room to protect and defend. That is his training. That is his job. Still, it requires courage to enter a room where a gunman has the advantage. Who does not admire Mike Jones?

These are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These are ordinary people of courage.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sister Prejean Walks in Atticus' Shoes

Sister Prejean studied English, education, and religious education. Her dedication to the church and to a life of service took her beyond high school classrooms, however. She is now perhaps best known for a Pulitizer Prize winning book, Dead Man Walking, and for her personal journey in forgiveness, a journey that has brought her to condemn the practice of capital punishment. Her life proves the American dream: courage and conviction have carried her from humble beginnings to a position of authority and honor. She has earned awards such as the National Abolitionist, the Sanctity of Life, and the Champion of Liberty, each in recognition of her work to put an end to capital punishment and to defend the dignity of all men, even the lives of men who have taken life.

Sister Prejean’s stand begins in the belief that men convicted of heinous crimes have not lost their right to simple human kindness. That belief allowed her to become the pen pal of a convicted murderer, imprisoned in Louisiana. Her letters encouraged the convict, Patrick Sonnier, to request that Sister Prejean become his spiritual advisor. In that role, Sister Prejean acquired experience in prison practices, including execution, for she walked beside him, guiding him to accept responsibility and his own death. Her walk tested her own conviction and capacity for forgiveness. She emerged as a religious servant and educator on a world stage after explaining her journey in the book, Dead Man Walking.

What draws me to Sister Prejean is not just her stand against capital punishment, one with which I agree. What compels me to admire her is her very human struggle to forgive and her belief that forgiveness is not the same as being soft on crime. In her own words, Sister Prejean thinks that

Forgiving violence does not mean condoning violence. There are only two alternatives to forgiving violence: revenge, or adopting an attitude of never-ending bitterness and anger. For too long we have treated violence with violence, and that's why it never ends.

She is right, but she is not in sync with conventional wisdom. Mel Gibson has made a reprehensible career and obscene amounts of money by playing against forgiveness. His most recent film, Edge of Darkness, is a revenge movie disguised as the pursuit of truth and/or justice in spite of evil adversaries who care nothing about either. His earlier films, especially the gritty film Payback or the historical spectacle The Patriot, are identical. In these, Gibson portrays men who commit violent, depraved, brutal acts, but we spectators celebrate them and even condone the violence because Gibson’s characters have standards, including fierce loyalty and a love for loyal women. We agree to believe that violence done by such men has some sort of moral imperative whereas violence done by evil-doers simply begets more violence.

On the world stage, some would argue that events playing out in the Middle East are excellent examples of the hazards of an inability to forgive and triumph over revenge, never-ending bitterness, and anger. Slights, spites, and injustices committed hundreds of years ago inspire divisiveness, tyranny, oppression, and violence. No act of revenge has quelled the turmoil and hatred. Neither simmering bitterness nor explosive anger has brought about peace and prosperity. Violence simply begets more violence, and treachery breeds savagery. While forgiveness may not be an easy or likely strategy, it may be the only viable one. Would that it were part of an international plan to win the hearts and minds of nations.

We cannot lead the world or our own little corner of it except by example. Sister Prejean is leading. She searches her own heart and mind to forgive those to whom evil has been done and who often do evil in return. She searches her heart and mind to summon empathy for victims of poverty and violence, their surviving family members, and their community. She tries to walk in their shoes, as Atticus Finch advised, while guiding them toward forgiveness, sure that liberation and empowerment will follow. As Catherine Ponder, author and minister, puts it, “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Forgiveness is also the more courageous course.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Scout Finch and Bishop Tutu

Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, observes that her ancestor, Simon Finch, was a fine Christian who ignored one Biblical admonition--the one against owning human beings. His descendants continued to ignore that particular piece of scripture in order to scratch out a living by possessing a cheap labor force.

Scout’s observation that slavery and disenfranchisement are unchristian is at the heart of armed combats, family divisions, and injustices delivered for hundreds of years around the globe. It is also one of the arguments that Bishop Tutu used to bring world-wide attention to the horrors of apartheid and thereby, facilitate an end to the racial divide and oppression in South Africa.

In 1960, the year in which Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest, South Africa deported non-whites, including black Africans and Asians, from areas designated for whites and closed the doors of education to them. Non-whites were allowed to return to South Africa as guest workers only. In other words, South Africa built a figurative wall on the border, but granted access to those who would do the work that white South Africans needed done while disallowing those guest workers any opportunity to improve their circumstances.

Tutu decried the deportation, the disenfranchisement, the desecration of Christianity, but he lacked a world-wide forum. Only when Tutu became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978, eighteen years later, did Tutu find an international stage upon which to make his stand and turn the world’s lens to the plight of his nation and its people. By 1984, Bishop Tutu’s cause was one in which the world was invested, signified by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him the same year "not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he is leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.”

I enjoyed the great good fortune of hearing Bishop Tutu speak some years ago. His voice was musical and his spirit infectious. His capacity for love and hope seemed indefatigable because he endured a cruel, unjust, oppressive system, yet he speaks about man’s promise, divine mercy, and his own gratitude for the world’s empathy. In doing so, his life becomes a parable for the life we could live.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Roger Williams: A Founder

Most of the Pilgrims and Puritans who ventured to this continent believed absolutely in their right to immigrate and lay claim to it. They furthermore believed that their version of Christianity was correct, and they tolerated no other versions. Such conviction gave them courage and direction.

Yet, as in all things and all times in history, a few people perceive the truth differently. Roger Williams was such a person.

He lived among the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he was often the preacher in the pulpit. His unique opinions offended many, and he was forced to flee.

One of his opinions held that the Puritans had no right to seize Native American lands without contract and compensation. Such a notion was completely antithetical to a group who believed themselves ordained by God to carry His word into heathen places and enjoy the riches there. When Williams left Massachusetts Bay, he lived among the Native Americans for several months, surviving because of them and learning from them. When he established his own home and colony, he purchased from the indigenous Natives the land that later becomes the state of Rhode Island.

Another opinion that Williams offered is that Puritan church fathers had no right to discipline men and women for civil infractions. Williams believed that God’s law and man’s law are separate. Indeed, he is one of the first to distinguish between the State and the Church, calling for a separation of powers.

Williams’ seventeenth century beliefs have been tested over time, and the United States has affirmed Williams’ vision. Our judicial system has ruled that reparation should be made to the first Americans. Tribes have sovereignty and income as a result.

In addition, we have long held that the Church and State must be separate in order to insure religious tolerance and freedom. Having witnessed men and women burned at the stake for believing in a Protestant version of Christianity, the Founders feared a State religion that could punish, exile, and execute any who believed differently.

Williams was brave to speak so forthrightly for the rights of Native Americans. He was condemned for challenging the Church fathers. He is surely a man whom Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee would recognize as a brother.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Remembering the Founders

This month, in public and private schools across the nation, children learn about the Pilgrims who left England in search of a place where they could worship according to their consciences. They were absolutely certain that their quest was one ordained by God and praised Him for providing safe passage, land upon which to build, and life itself. Their courage is noteworthy.

The ship they will board has little room for cargo other than food and drink sufficient for a long voyage. They must choose from among their possessions, taking with them only the most essential and precious items, leaving everything else behind. Women must leave behind the family china, surrendering it to memory. Men let go of handmade keepsakes passed from father to son. Pilgrims shed their worldly goods, replacing them with an idea only: an unseen tomorrow built upon hope and made with faith.

Each dawn, Pilgrims must have searched the horizon for some sign that their mission was not undertaken in vain, for some sign of an Eden they could carve with their own labor. They must have chastised themselves if doubt wrapped itself around their hearts. They must have wondered if they were indeed among the chosen if they grew weak or became sick. Yet they persevered. They summoned courage to exchange the known world for an unknown one. They braced themselves for deprivation, and they suffered. Most Plymouth colonists perished; the survivors forged a partnership with the Wampanoag Indians, but when the Native Americans did not cooperate or refused to bend to the will of the Puritans, their religious intolerance and convictions allowed them to become brutal and cruel.

The Pilgrims and later the Puritans betrayed themselves by demanding religious conformity. They lacked compassion for others who did not believe as they did. They exiled, imprisoned, and executed the disobedient and different, and in doing so, they could not live up to John Winthrop’s vision for a perfect community, hereafter described in his own words from “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630:

Now the only way to . . . provide for our posterity is to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly . . . , for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

How much courage will be needed to bring about such a community? How much compassion will be needed to care about the needs of others? How much sacrifice will be needed to insure that others have what they need? I challenge each of you to summon the courage, compassion, and selflessness required.

[Source for Winthrop's words: Note: I have altered spelling, using modern rules to make the passage easier to read.]

Friday, November 12, 2010

Icons of Courage: Henry David Thoreau

I admire Thoreau dutifully. He is an American icon who influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He inspired the less well-known Chris McCandless to march to the beat of his own drum with words such as these: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. McCandless, like the English Romantics and Thoreau at Walden, believed a man might be whole and fulfilled if he were fully open to Nature. As Thoreau said, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Thoreau was also a nay-sayer. He refused to continue as a teacher because the superintendent advised him to whip the children more often. He protested the government’s use of his tax money and spent a night in jail. He left off reading newspapers because each day’s edition repeated the news from the previous day: somewhere one human preyed upon another, machines failed to function, and fire or wind or water destroyed man’s best efforts to thwart those forces. He saw no point in reading the same tales over and over.

Indeed, Thoreau thought the best reading is the sort that one puts aside, having gleaned its lesson, in order to act as that lesson directs. Two principal lessons that Thoreau gleaned and imparted include:

o If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
o If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law

With each of these, Thoreau advocates for action, in particular for acting disobediently. A man must live what he believes, and he must dare to break unjust laws.

Thus, Thoreau may be characterized as the philosophical father of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee, each of whom had the courage to be what Thoreau referred to as “finishers.”

All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one... characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.

Can we find the courage to finish in the name of justice?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Courage of Women: The Market Women of Liberia

No informed person doubts that Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is a despot, guilty of war crimes and human rights abuses. Witnesses against him are legion. Fewer people may be aware that courageous women, some of the Christian faith and some Muslim, joined hands and placed themselves in jeopardy to bring down Taylor and put an end to the Civil War he oversaw.

See the story of these women by buying or renting the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, by Gini Reticker and Abigail E. Disney. You may also visit journal/06192009/profile.html to see an interview with Ms. Disney, the producer of the documentary, and Leymah Gbowee, a woman whose vision inspired other women to trade their daily domestic duties and fear in a war-torn region for civil disobedience, transforming themselves from victims to defenders. These women may never have taken up arms, but they fought effectively and tirelessly to return peace to their homeland, one that is now led by a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Ms. Gbowee had a dream of peace, and she spoke from a Lutheran pulpit to share her dream, asking women to come together to pray for an end to the civil strife and rape as a weapon of intimidation and brutality. A Muslim woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, joined Gbowee, pledging to gather Muslim women. Soon women of both faiths, women who had fled their villages and now lived in squalid refugee camps, joined to stage peaceful protests at the fish market in Monrovia, a place that Charles Taylor passed each day on his way from his home to his public quarters. Perhaps the women hoped that their presence would arouse the conscience (MLK, Jr.) of Taylor, but he ignored them.

Next, the women’s civil disobedience included a refusal to have sex with their husbands. In this way, the women applied pressure to the entire nation for now men joined the women in praying for peace--although the men’s motive was likely self-interest. Nevertheless, with both genders now desiring peace, efforts to bring about peace began, first with a formal petition submitted to Taylor, then with negotiations between war lords in Sierra Leone, and finally, with deliberations in Ghana.

There, the peace process moved agonizingly slowly, especially for the women who traveled to Ghana, leaving their livelihoods and families behind. Their sacrifice was becoming intolerable, yet the men felt no sense of urgency to end the civil strife.

The women had one final weapon: their nakedness. The men of their nation believe it a sin to see their mothers naked so these women, the emblematic matriarchs of Liberia, the consciences of their nation, threatened to bare themselves if the men did not return to peace talks and earnestly undertake them. The women’s tactic worked. They made the men ashamed for their inaction, and the men finally negotiated a treaty for peace.

When we doubt our abilities to make a difference, we should reflect upon Atticus, King, Mandela, and the Market Women of Liberia, especially upon Leymah Gbowee, the spiritual initiator of the protest and the one selected to read a petition to Taylor who had finally agreed to hear the women’s protest. Gbowee was not sure that she could stand so close to the nation’s tormentor and read the petition without giving voice to her rage and disdain. She wanted to tear the man apart rather than speak to him civilly when he had done nothing to insure safety and civility for his people. Gbowee then thought of all the deaths, the bloody violence imprinted on the hearts and minds of children. She thought of the sacrifices made by the protestors, and she subjugated her own desires, restraining them long enough to deliver a message for peace and hope.

We should hope that our characters are strong enough and brave enough to make such a stand for freedom, equality, voting rights, and peace. We should ask ourselves if we can act for the good of others in an uncertain future, then we must turn from fear and strive for the next generations.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

In 2007, the news program, CBS Sunday Morning, featured Ishmael Beah who had written a memoir about his life in Sierra Leone during a long period of tribal warfare. The feature inspired me to read Beah’s memoir entitled A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a book I enjoyed and one that has stirred controversy. Some charge that Beah’s book is not a true, factual account of his actual experiences in Sierra Leone, and I will let the controversy simmer. My purpose in celebrating Beah’s story is to pull from it models of courage.

Beah himself has said on programs such as The Hour that his purpose in writing the book is to counter the romantic illusions that some people, especially young people, have about war. Many men and women, veterans or scholars of war, echo Beah’s purpose in their own works: Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Lexy Lovell and Max Uys’ documentary The Good Soldier, Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and Hardy’s "The Man He Killed." These books, film, and poem suggest why many veterans have trouble re-adjusting, why suicide and friendly fire statistics are worse than ever before, and why VA post-war services must include re-entry support and therapies of all kinds.

Beah’s achievement, like the outcomes in the works listed above, is being witness to extraordinary courage. For all the horror and tragedy of war, many men return home, stepping into the jobs they left behind, becoming a whole, functioning family member once more. Many men choose not to speak of their war experiences at all. Such stoicism surely proves courage for they choose not to vent or live in their pasts. Instead, they live with their pasts, persevering and placing their loved ones’ needs above their own.

Veterans who cannot return to their lives and leave war behind them reveal another kind of courage found in simple, day-to-day striving. However imperfectly they may strive, regardless of the number of times in each day that they stumble, they prove the desire to persist and discover a different tomorrow. Like a recovering addict, some veterans must take it one minute, one hour, and one day at a time; doing so is certainly a testament to hope and courage.

Beah’s story also proves that with courage comes triumph. In spite of witnessing brutality and atrocity at the age of 12, despite living a life wherein human life had little or no value, Beah stands tall against violence. He wishes to tell bluntly the truths of war in order to advocate for all children in countries ravaged by despots, despair, deprivation, and death. He has the attention of the United Nations, U. S. media, and all those who believe we can change our destinies if we have the will and courage to imagine a different tomorrow.

Beah believes all things are possible, especially that "...children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance." Children are perhaps the most courageous among us. They welcome the world even when the world does not welcome them. They dream that all things are possible. May their dreams inspire adults to act courageously and selflessly as they create a path on which children can walk safely to fulfill their dreams.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Contemporary Courage: Nelson Mandela

"An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

With these words, Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests that the man who breaks a law and accepts the consequences for that rebellion proves that he honors the law. These words apply to the actions of the South African President from 1994-1999 and 1993 Nobel Peace prize winner, Nelson Mandela. He, like King, is a man whose conscience urged him to stand upon principle and oppose injustice. For his choice, he was tried and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence that took twenty-seven years from Mandela’s freedom. In accepting his sentence stoically, at least to the outside world, Mandela “aroused the conscience of his community,” indeed the conscience of the entire world. Then, upon his release, Mandela resumed his work through the African National Congress (ANC).Twenty-seven years in prison may have delayed Mandela’s dream for South Africa, but those years did not destroy it.

Mandela immediately began to work toward those goals he had set for himself, goals that included striving to “. . . prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war” (Nelson Mandela, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993). Mandela sought to bring South Africa out of its midnight by uniting the citizens of South Africa. He lead in this endeavor by forgiving his oppressors and building a bridge across the racial divide. One section of that bridge was shown in the 2009 film Invictus, during which Mandela modeled forgiveness and color-blindness by urging all South Africans to cheer for the rugby team, an old icon for white opportunity and privilege.

In Mandela’s willingness and ability to support a symbol of the old South Africa, afflicted by apartheid, he proved his service to all of South Africa, not just the ANC agenda. Mandela chose not to waste another day or year by imitating his oppressors or by seeking revenge. He elected to embrace the future of which he had dreamed and to act so that the dream could become reality. Because of his personal character and courage, Mandela fostered a new, stronger South Africa that, Mandela acknowledges, he did not achieve alone. He humbly grants that his dream could not become reality without the help of “countless human beings, both inside and outside our country [South Africa], [with] . . . the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice, without seeking selfish gain. They recognised that an injury to one is an injury to all and therefore acted together in defence of justice and a common human decency” (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1993).

Atticus recognized that an injury to one is an injury to all. He acted to spare his children and Tom Robinson’s children from further injury resulting from racism. He did not succeed, but his example fostered higher aspirations for Jem and Scout.

King fought to protect others from sustaining an injury as a result of racism, and he lost his life to the fight. Others closed ranks and continued the fight. Our nation continues to evolve toward equality.

Mandela walked in King’s shoes in order to create a nation wherein apartheid and activism would not condemn a man to a real or figurative prison. He has changed the future and continues to inspire others by living

. . . in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Living so selflessly requires courage.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Soldiers

In college, during the 1960s, one guy stood a head above other guys, and he outweighed most of them. Fully grown in the middle, fully rounded in his gifts: he was and perhaps still is agile, imaginative, smart, thoughtful, analytical, and witty. He fell in love with one of the first and most devoted feminists I have ever met, and they married while still in college when most of us questioned traditional commitments and expectations. He also decided not to answer the draft when his lottery number came up; he stood as a conscientious objector, opposed to serving his nation as a soldier, but willing to serve his nation in any other capacity. And he did, sweeping floors in a VA hospital.

Tim O’Brien’s protagonist in The Things They Carried wants to run to Canada when his draft letter arrives. He walks away from work one day and drives north to the Canadian-U. S. border. There, on the Rainy River, with the Canadian shore within reach—just a short, easy swim—Tim, the character, cries for all that he must forsake in order to flee. He cries for the shame his family will bear, he cries for the honor he will sacrifice, and he cries for the life he will put in jeopardy. Tim decides not swim away. He reports for duty, believing himself a coward because he lacks courage to leave his place in the U. S., to turn his back on parents and patriotism.

Tim, the character, called himself a coward for serving, believing that conscientious objectors were the courageous ones. My college friend, so far as I recall, never defined himself as cowardly or courageous, but many attributed both descriptors to him. Those who believed in U. S. causes and military service judged my friend as spineless; young untried, untested college kids put him on a pedestal. He just did what his conscience directed him to do.

Which of the two--my real friend from long ago or Tim, the quasi-fictional soldier--exemplifies courage? Is it brave to serve or just as brave not to serve?

Five soldiers, representing World War II, Vietnam, and conflicts in the Middle East, offer their own answer to the questions I ask. They are the subjects of a documentary film entitled The Good Soldier (, a film I first saw on PBS’ Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Each of the five soldiers picked up weapons and aimed them at an enemy. One was wounded early in his war, World War II, and for that, he, like the character Tim, placed himself on trial and found against himself. Somehow he believed that he did not measure up because he could not march and fight for the duration of the war. Today, he admits that self-loathing stained much of the rest of his life.

Another man, never carried out on stretcher, never required to cry for a medic to save his own life, still bears wounds that may never heal. And that is the point of the film. Each of the five men bleeds as a result of having put on the uniform of a U. S. soldier for causes that the nation deemed necessary and important. Their consciences were troubled, their sleep stolen, their relationships endangered or destroyed, their self-worth rocked, and their understanding of courage challenged; these men were forever, inexorably altered when they put on a uniform. At least one of them will help his own son run away from service or stand firm as a conscientious objector. He does not want his son to face what soldiers must face.

So who is brave? Braver? Bravest? My college friend who did not take up arms? Tim, the boy who lived through Vietnam and writes stories? One or more of those five servants to killing who now need to speak against killing? The answer is not easy, but we must find it.

At a time when friendly fire is at an all-time high (52% according to a recent report and only 21% in WWII), we must ask if every man who volunteers can be trusted with a weapon. We must wonder if separating parent from spouse and children is in the best interest of families. We should examine the alarming number of servicemen, active and veteran, who choose suicide as a means to an end. But above all, we must not be quick to label the path toward courage as a single track that includes military service and any other direction as cowardice.

Applaud and thank those who put on a uniform and pick up a weapon—those who, like Atticus, willingly perform the “unpleasant” tasks that a society needs done.

Withhold your judgment upon those who refuse service for theirs is a different sort of courage, the type that requires them to stand apart, alone. Their unwillingness to uphold tradition, precedent, and custom condemns them, often to a lonely place.

Most important, celebrate those whose consciences insist that they use their talents, whether in or out of uniform, to make their communities better. Such men are what Martin Luther King, Jr. surely had in mind when he said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Legacy of Courage: The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in central Memphis is chrome and 1950s aqua. It stands just two stories high with a simple wreath on the rail outside room 306 where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed and died in April, 1968.

In Memphis for the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, King spoke of history, of resolve, of justice, perseverance, and his certainty that right causes will lead to right ends--even if he were not among those alive at the end. His words seem prophetic, and they were. King died outside room 306, but the cause for which he spoke, marched, and suffered continues to bend toward right ends. The National Civil Rights Museum, attached to the Lorraine, tells the story. You simply must read that story by walking the aisles and interacting with the excellent, thought-provoking displays.

The Lorraine experience begins with a short film entitled “The Witness,” an Oscar-nominated HBO project featuring Reverend Kyles who was present on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine. He offers a personal account of the strike that brought King to Memphis in support of sanitation workers whose cause was simple human rights, captured in the strike slogan: I am a Man. Kyles’ recollection and the history woven into the film will not fail to move those who stand for right, justice, and humanity. The film is as eloquent and spiritual as Atticus’ closing argument in behalf of Tom Robinson.

The National Civil Rights Museum continues with an exhibit entitled “Unremitting Struggle,” representing the years 1619-1865. Next are the strategies and organizations formed to implement those strategies during the years 1865 through 1940. Beyond those are exhibits representing the years of protest and change, marked by the decision to de-segregate the armed forces, Emmett Till’s horrible, tragic death, the Brown versus Board of Education decision, a bus boycott in Montgomery, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, school de-segregation, sit-ins, marches, speeches, and more.

During these years of change, as our nation slowly evolved toward equal access to the American dream, violent and non-violent means became the subject of national debates. Change agents formed organizations around the principles of violent action and passive resistance. Our nation would never be the same, yet we are better for it.

Certainly, equal access to the American dream remains a goal toward which many continue to strive. Our nation still falls short of measuring a man “by the content of his character” rather than “the color of his skin,” but we are closer than we were in 1865 and 1965. May we arrive by 2065--if not long before.

To achieve our goal, we must, as Atticus begged, do our duty in the courtroom of society. We must be fair, impartial, and true to the high ideals expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution with its prudent amendments.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Homegrown Terrorists Beaten by Homemade Heroes

On a hot, humid day, I drove my tightly constructed Mercury van with the tinted windows sealed against the heat, the air conditioner set to 65°, and the seat cooling coils activated. Technology trumps Nature is my motto.

Now and then, I saw a marker denoting the stretch of highway as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Little money has been spent on the signs; they are small and could be easily missed against the dry grass and heat radiating from dust and pavement. Shouldn’t we do more to honor such a significant roadway and the events which took place there?

In March 1965, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the Capitol grounds in Montgomery, hundreds of people, changed our world for the better. Here, 45 years ago, Voting Rights were fought for, marched for, and won.

In early March, 1965, marchers set out to draw attention to themselves and thereby, their plight. They intended to march on Montgomery to secure equal access to the Constitutional right to vote, but they were stopped by civil authorities who used tear gas, clubs and whips against unarmed citizens. National television replayed the events of “Bloody Sunday” on the nightly news. In doing so, TV convinced the unconvinced that injustice was alive and thriving in some parts of the nation, pricking their consciences to act in behalf of the disenfranchised.

Perhaps TV affected Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.; perhaps it had no effect whatsoever for he was a judge who was unaffected by the color of a man’s skin. In one of his first cases as a prosecutor, he won against two white men who had paid the fines for two black men convicted for minor infractions. The white men then “owned” the black men, holding them as indentured workers until the fines were repaid, but one of them died after being horsewhipped. The white men went to jail; the surviving black man went free.

When Judge Johnson was appointed to the federal court, he heard the facts of the Montgomery bus boycott and ruled against the bus company. He was on the bench when Alabama schools were desegregated. He removed barriers for black men and women to serve on juries, and in March 1965, he declared that “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . , and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” With that ruling, he parted the angry sea holding the marchers in Selma, allowing them to cross into Montgomery.

For his conviction and his careful judgments, Judge Johnson awoke to crosses burning in his yard. His mother’s home was bombed. Yet he was undeterred just as the fictional Atticus was undeterred by terrorism and fear and ignorance. Judge Johnson led the way to a better nation, still imperfect, still plagued with fear and ignorance, but evolving toward the good day by day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the marchers must have wondered when and if another blow or shot might be taken, but they marched on in the belief that right and good can co-exist. They endured whatever Nature offered and slept in fields. They marched 54 miles from March 21 through March 25. For their conviction and courage, about five months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the historic Voting Rights Act, insuring equal access to the polls.

Governor George Wallace, who has since recanted, said that Judge Johnson was a man in need of a “barbed wire enema.” Wallace called him an “integrating, scalawagging, carpetbagging liar.” Wallace was equally venomous about LBJ, school desegration, and state sovereignty, issues that still rankle today. Instead of tear gas, clubs, and whips, the weapons of choice are gerrymandering and voter ID cards. The fight is still about power and who is going to wield it.

When Judge Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Clinton said, “In the face of unremitting social and political pressure to uphold the traditions of oppression and neglect in his native South, never once did he yield.” This is high praise, reserved for the heroes in every community and in every walk of life. May they never fail to come forward when there is a need, and may there be no need one day.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr: A biography

Equal justice under law: the jurisprudential legacy of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.: An article from: Yale Law Journal

Friday, September 24, 2010

Acting Courageously

Recently, I visited Atlanta, GA where the Carter Presidential Library sets, serene and peaceful inside a busy city, not far from the Capitol buildings and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. Stately oaks surround the library grounds, shielding guests from the sun’s brutish ways. At the entrance, fountains spill cool water and mask the sounds of traffic.

No modern-day security checkpoints impede one’s progress into the library and its exhibits. No roped lanes transform the visitor into a rat in its maze. The single officer on duty says, “Welcome” and directs guests to the gift shop where another employee collects an admissions fee and points the way to the theater for a film about Carter’s life and career.

Beyond the film, there are exhibits about Carter and his family, notably his dad, the inspiration for Carter to pursue a life dedicated to leaving his part of the world better than he found it. To this end, Carter campaigned to be governor of Georgia and President of the United States. His wife, Rosalynn, campaigned to improve the conditions for citizens who are disabled—not by a loss of limb or Traumatic Brain Injury as many war veterans are, not by debilitating disease; rather by a disease that carries few outward signs: mental illness. Hand in hand, President and Mrs. Carter have built homes for the homeless; they have helped stamp out death and injury from the guinea worm and mosquitoes. Truly, their lives and their service to the nation and the world should humble all of us.

In addition to the Carters’ story, the Presidential Library was host to one of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibitions (SITE), Freedom’s Sisters. This was a high point of the library for me; each of the twenty women featured is a paradigm for courage and conviction.

Originally prepared by the Cincinnati Museum Center, Freedom’s Sisters provides biographies and photographs about the lives of twenty women significant to the advance of freedom, enfranchisement, civil liberties, equality, and knowledge. They all resemble Shirley Chisholm, one of the ladies featured, who described herself as “unbought and unbossed.” Each lady shook off the restraints of conventional wisdom, accepted practice, tradition, and submission to carve a role for herself large enough to make a difference in the world in her own lifetime and for generations to come.

Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King are three of these women. Each displayed grace in a crisis and thereby led thousands. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sonia Sanchez and Frances Watkins Harper are three more. Each of these women wrote, Wells-Barnett using newspaper and lectures to expose the terrorist action of lynching; Sanchez preferred poetry, and Harper wrote both poetry and prose to express and explain the needs of the African-American citizens. Harper’s words are worth carving into one’s heart and spirit; she said, “I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered.” How eloquent and how true. The chains that still bind some in our nation and world beg to be broken and so they must be by contemporary Freedom’s Sisters.

Will you be a sister or a brother of Freedom? Will you live courageously and with conviction, refusing to accept common practice for a higher moral plane?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Braxton Bragg Underwood

On the night that Jem follows his father to the Courthouse where Atticus sits, prepared to defend Tom Robinson against a lynch mob, the reader learns that Atticus is not one man against the mob, three children at his knee. Mr. Braxton Bragg Underwood, the newspaper editor, is across the street with a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the old Sarum bunch. Underwood had Atticus covered the whole time, a fact that somewhat surprises Atticus because Underwood is a known racist.

Even so, Mr. Underwood loses sleep to prevent a lynching. Later, the editor compares Robinson’s loss to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds,” thereby expressing sorrow and tying Robinson to the title of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A mockingbird is the one bird that Atticus’ father told his son never to kill because a mockingbird does no harm to others and should be protected. Thus, Mr. Underwood takes a stand in behalf of at least one wronged African-American and asserts Robinson’s innocence by equating him to the harmless bird.

Why? Lee leaves Underwood’s motives for the reader to infer from facts such as these:
• A lynch mob is lawlessness. It is men, often full of liquor, determined to deliver a brute form of justice. It is a bully defeating a weakling just because he can.
• On the night in question, the people who stood between the mob and Tom Robinson were Atticus, his children, and Dill. Mr. Underwood was prepared to deliver a judgment of his own if anyone tried to harm Atticus on his way to Tom Robinson.
• Tom Robinson’s death was indeed a waste, an impulsive show of force. Tom ran for the fence and did not stop when told to do so, but he was a one-armed man. He could not have climbed that fence before someone reached him. Deadly force was not required.

From these textual facts, readers may conclude that Braxton Bragg Underwood admired Atticus enough to protect him. We might also presume that Mr. Underwood believed in the law and disapproved of men, even prison guards, taking justice into their own hands, especially when due deliberation could save a man’s life.

Thus, Mr. Underwood embodies the conviction and courage that inspires readers of Lee’s novel. However minor his role, however racist he may be, Underwood rises above his own skewed perception of the human race to act in behalf of the vulnerable and to speak in defense of the disenfranchised.

These are acts that we should demand from our leaders, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and everyday heroes; we should expect them to be the true defenders of our better selves.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jem Finch's Courage

Jem Finch is a young man who will certainly walk in the shoes of his father. Even as an adolescent, Jem possesses a strong moral compass, one that leads him to stand up for right.

Granted, Jem is a normal, mischievous boy, capable of trespassing on the Radley’s property and keeping his transgression a secret. His rich imagination, fueled by Dill’s gifts for story-telling, lures the children into a daily re-enactment of the legend of Boo Radley, revealing that Jem, like every human being at any age, could be quite thoughtless.

Moreover, like most children, Jem underestimates his own father and misreads a man’s worth when Jem believes that his father “can’t do anything” until the day Jem sees his dad shoot a rabid dog cleanly, an act that Jem deems manly. Finally, Jem, like most men and women, has a temper that shows itself when he cuts down Mrs. Dubose’s camellias, an act for which he feels little remorse.

Still, Jem’s progress through the novel proves his moral strength and his character. Jem analyzes the gifts left in the hollow of a tree on the Radley property, and he concludes that they are given generously as gestures of friendship. Jem also plays the part of big brother quite well. On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, Jem reassures Scout and serves as her eyes when she is too frightened to look herself. Jem also makes peace for Scout when she attacks Walter Cunningham in the school yard, and he escorts his little sister to the October school pageant. Jem may grow impatient with Scout and, at 12, be less inclined to let her tag along, but he upholds his duty as a big brother honorably.

More significantly, Jem weighs and measures the community throughout the Tom Robinson trial. He bears the insults peaceably, only striking back at a symbol of intolerance--Mrs. Dubose--and then only harming her iconic flowers, camellias. Jem also senses the dangers that his father faces, especially on the night that Tom Robinson returns to the Maycomb county jail. Jem sneaks out in order to check on his dad and refuses to go home when told to do so. He may be a child, but he will stand by his dad, courageously defending and protecting against something he cannot even imagine for, until the verdict, Jem believes Maycomb to be the best town, populated by good neighbors. He has not yet seen the masks come off, exposing hatred below.

Jem disobeys Atticus to witness first-hand the unjust brand of justice in Maycomb. Jem’s empathy and moral evolution prove themselves when he grieves for Tom Robinson, his father, and his town. Jem even cries until Miss Maudie reminds him that Judge Taylor chose Atticus in an effort to save Robinson. She also explains that Atticus’ careful defense made the jurors’ verdict more troublesome to their consciences and, readers hope, to their souls. With these points, Miss Maudie suggests that some of Maycomb’s citizens are indeed fine, foremost among them, Jem’s father.

Jem’s finest hour is that October night when he steps between harm and Scout. Jem uses whatever instinct and physical strength he possesses to save her, shouting “Run, Scout!” as his attacker, Bob Ewell, tosses him aside, twisting his arm into an unnatural form. Jem’s first instinct is courage in the face of danger, living the lesson that his father taught him by standing against harm and hatred.

Friday, September 3, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Aunt Alexandra Stands for Family

You might decry my decision to include Aunt Alexandra in this journal about displaying some measure of courage and learning to walk in the shoes of another man. After all, Alexandra is blind to her own grandchild, a little bully who cries foul when his name-calling incites Scout. Alexandra further offends Scout by calling Walter Cunningham “trash” and refusing to allow him to visit the Finch home. Her father Atticus set a better example for Scout by welcoming Walter to the noon table.

Critical of Atticus’ parenting, Alexandra tries to send Calpurnia away, requires Scout to dress like a lady, and demands that Atticus instruct his children in the proud Finch ancestry. Alexandra clings to the class divide as a man caught in a swift current clings to anything that floats. She finds comfort in hypocritical gatherings of small town church ladies who worry about the poor tribesmen in Africa while disenfranchising and impoverishing African-Americans at home. She gossips with the neighbors, Miss Stephanie Crawford in particular.

What, then, could possibly redeem Aunt Alexandra?

In spite of her sentiments, when Atticus needs her, she comes. In spite of her own opinions, she worries about the price that Atticus must pay for defending Tom Robinson. In spite of all else, she stands up for family. Although Aunt Alexandra falls far short of Miss Maudie Atkinson, her peer in age and upbringing, Alexandra confides in Miss Maudie, saying “'I can't say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he's my brother.’” Family, I think we all agree, is worth standing up for, and Aunt Alexandra stands up for family.

Atticus stands up for the family of man when he defends Tom Robinson. Miss Maudie stands up for Atticus, helping Jem understand the quality of his father’s courage. Alexandra, flawed and petty, stands up for Atticus.

Soldiers, fire fighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens stand up for the family of man when they defend its borders, its principles, its property, and its ability to endure. Tell me about the people you know who stand up for the family of man.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait"

John Milton, a seventeenth-century English poet, observed that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton closed the sonnet, “On His Blindness,” with these words because he realized that those who accept the “mild yoke” placed upon them are among the most content and fulfilled. Calpurnia was such person. So is RyAnne Noss.

I began this Blog, “In Atticus’ Shoes,” with the story of an unknown soldier in Japan after the U. S. firebombed, then atomic-bombed Japan into surrender. That G.I. gave a desperate mother some powdered milk, and his gift saved a life. Years later, that infant, saved by one G.I., thanked Americans for her life. With this blog on August 27, 2010, I return again to the soldier who has never been far from the spirit of the posts.

RyAnne Noss, with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, married a soldier who served eight tours of duty before sustaining a TBI—traumatic brain injury. Scott, her husband, fit and brave and active, no longer exists except somewhere inside a body that requires constant care. Many women would have walked away. RyAnne has not. She put her career, ambitions, and desires on hold to care for her Scott.

She is not alone. Eric Edmundson’s parents, Ed and Beth, and Eric’s wife, Stephanie, have sacrificed their financial security and ransomed their futures to restore Eric to the best possible state he can attain. Ivonne Thompson is another like RyAnne. Each of these individuals, so eloquently and movingly portrayed on “NOW,” a PBS program November 20, 2009, has put aside personal agendas. Each has elected to serve by standing for a loved one and waiting for miracles in the form of a single laugh, a step taken, a glance of recognition. Each care-giver bears the yoke—although I could never conceive of it as mild, as Milton did his blindness—because each is in the service of something greater: a life. And each proves his courage and conviction every day.

To learn more about RyAnne Noss, Ed and Beth Edmundson, Stephanie Edmundson, and Ivonne Thompson, as well as the soldiers who inspire them, visit where you can read the transcript of “Who’s Helping Our Wounded Vets?” a program featuring Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojoso and produced by Abigail Leonard. I believe that you may even want to buy a DVD of this program because the story will inspire you. You will feel proud that there are such selfless, loving Americans living among us and caring for the most severely wounded soldiers who used their courage for us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus trusts Calpurnia to care for his home, his nutrition, and his most important possession: his children. He believes she has the right moral and spiritual “lights” by which to guide them, and he refuses to heed Alexandra’s nagging to let her go. Atticus values Calpurnia as a person and an employee.

Calpurnia is more than a domestic servant and nanny, however. She and Helen Robinson are icons for the plight of black women in a segregated society, women who left their own homes and children from sun-up to sundown in order to care for the homes and children of their white employers. On the night that snow falls in Maycomb, Atticus invites Calpurnia to spend the night; on nights when Atticus must attend State legislative sessions, Calpurnia works, without invitation, only expectation, a full 24 hours.

No doubt Calpurnia is proud to be Mr. Finch’s employee. After all, he is a most respected citizen and an attorney. In addition, Atticus values Calpurnia for her character. This, too, must make her proud for she has earned his trust and regard.

But it is Calpurnia’s character that grants her standing among those who display courage. Calpurnia has the courage of her convictions as she instructs and disciplines Jem and Scout, especially Scout. She stands up to Lula, a fellow church member who condemns Calpurnia for taking white children to Reverend Sykes’ service.

Calpurnia also stands up for education when she teaches her son, Zeebo, to read. He can then read the hymnal and lead the congregation, teaching them the words to sing and waiting for their reply in song. Surely her desire to insure her son’s knowledge is a testament to Calpurnia’s faith in possibilities—if not for her, but for her son.

Above all, Calpurnia stands for moral principles, proving that such strength of character resides in the heart and mind of those forced to live humbly. She becomes the paradigm for the best qualities in Maycomb’s oppressed citizenry and reason enough for an end to segregation.

Do you know of others whose courage includes living by timeless moral precepts?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Link Deas

Last week, I mentioned a minor character, Link Deas, as an example of courage. Link demonstrates that Atticus is not alone in believing a man should be judged by his deeds, not the color of his skin. Like Atticus, Link Deas recognizes hard work, honesty, and perseverance as admirable traits. He is therefore able to speak in behalf of Tom Robinson and support his widow, Helen Robinson, when she must provide for her family alone.

Link Deas is Tom Robinson’s employer. He knows Tom to be a decent man and says so, interrupting the trial to testify even though Atticus did not call him to the stand. Mr. Deas wants those sitting in judgment to know that he has known Robinson for eight years and that Tom never caused any trouble. Link must hope that the jurors will understand that an eight-year record trumps a belligerent drunk’s accusation.

After Tom has been convicted and shot trying to flee, Deas creates a job for Helen—perhaps because he knows how she will struggle without her husband’s income or perhaps because he knows that racism killed Tom Robinson and some sort of justice must be brought to balance the scale. Whatever Mr. Deas’ motive is, he has proved his courage in speaking out in spite of his neighbors and his customers. He acts to right wrongs, and in doing so, proves that he is not blind to the suffering of others, that he is willing to risk his own safety in the cause of others.

That is what our society requires: an empathetic heart and a will to act.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Harper Lee

On July 11, 2010, the golden anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, a news program, CBS Sunday Morning, devoted time to the four-day celebration in Monroeville, Alabama, the real world parallel to Maycomb, the setting for Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel. James McBride, author of The Color of Water, was one of the people asked to comment upon the novel’s impact. He chose to celebrate the author herself and her remarkable courage in telling a story about racial injustice so unflinchingly, so candidly, and so powerfully.

Indeed, truth-tellers are some of the most courageous among us. They face disbelievers, rationalizers, deniers, and just plain liars to appeal to the better natures in all of us. They are the cockeyed optimists who believe that the truth, packaged as fiction or exposed in non-fiction, can change the world and turn away pettiness, cruelty, brutality.

In Lee’s novel, Tom Robinson told the truth, knowing it was unlikely to set him free, yet he told it anyway. Atticus advocated for Tom’s truth, proving it by revealing that Mayella’s injuries were to the right side of her face, by showing Bob Ewell to be left-handed, and by reminding jurors that Tom could not use his left hand. The jurors deliberated a long time, suggesting that the truth was powerful enough to trouble their consciences, but even irrefutable evidence and logic were not enough to win a verdict of not guilty that day in that fictional courtroom.

Little Dill was one in the courtroom who saw Tom’s truth and the hopelessness of it. He grew sick and had to flee, ashamed of the disdain in Prosecutor Gilmer’s voice when he spoke to and about Tom. Dill sensed Maycomb’s willingness to punish Tom Robinson in order to satisfy their need to believe in their own superiority and that truth sickened him.

Outside, on the Courthouse steps, Dill met Mr. Dolphus Raymond who offered Dill a sip of Coca-Cola to settle his stomach. Scout warned Dill about drinking too much because she, like everyone else in Maycomb, knew Mr. Raymond as an unapologetic drunk. In fact, Raymond only played the part to spare others from his truth: he preferred the company of Maycomb’s minority citizens and eschewed the company of whites. He admitted to living a lie when he explained, “It ain't honest but it's mighty helpful to folks... you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that's the way I wants to live.”

Dolphus Raymond’s masquerade reveals another truth that Harper Lee courageously unmasks: a divided society makes cowards of us all. We lack the courage to be ourselves, as Dolphus Raymond suggests, and in our cowardly facades, we prevent others from living up to their full potential. We need Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Maudie Atkinson, Link Deas, and, most important of all, Harper Lee to set the bar toward which we all must strive. We need soldiers like them, at home and abroad, to insure that all people tear down the walls, the divides, the masks.

To Kill a Mockingbird
was published in 1960, the first year in a decade of tumult, struggle, and controversy. Fifty years later, we still do not live in a perfect, peaceful world, but we now lean more in the direction of that ideal than ever before. What strides can we make in the next 50 years and who will be the courageous voices?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Mr. Arthur Radley

Soldiers, fire fighters, police officers--all those who fight for the rest of us when we cannot fight ourselves--undergo extensive training. They build their bodies to endure. They prepare their minds as best they can for the emergencies and traumas they will face. They become a brother and sisterhood so that they can defend and protect even when their own lives are in danger. Surely such training guarantees courage when the time for courage arrives.

But alas, training alone does not instill courage. Sometimes the most physically fit, agile, and resourceful individuals will stand in place and holler like little girls when real danger steals safety from beneath their feet. Some never find the courage to stand for another as Atticus did. Some never cast fear into the depths and look upon another day with hope as Miss Maudie did. Some of us will not find the courage to try one day after another to become stronger and more whole as Mrs. Dubose did, and some will never rush into a burning building to save a lifetime of possessions as Mr. Avery did.

Some will recoil from harm as Boo Radley did. Once a mischievous teen whose worst act was tipping over an outhouse on Halloween night, he became a pale recluse, hidden from view, the topic of gossip and conjecture until so much time had passed that he was virtually a ghost, nothing more than a memory except in the fantasies of children. There he loomed as a malignant spirit on the prowl at night.

Boo was not in training all those years, yet he became the hero when Fate called a hero. He saved Scout and Jem by killing Bob Ewell, a predator who lacked the courage to strike straight on, face to face, at his enemies. He could only trail children through the woods at night, and in striking them down, he tried to bring down his real target, Atticus.

Mr. Arthur Radley—Boo—wore no uniform and had no formal training. Still, he had the courage of soldiers, fire fighters, and police officers. He did not hesitate when someone—anyone—was needed to save the children. He stepped in harm’s way and protected those who could not protect themselves.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Miss Maudie's Courage

On an icy night, rare in Maycomb, Alabama, Miss Maudie’s house burns down during an era when fire departments did not have today's modern efficiency or efficacy. One proof is the danger that Miss Maudie’s home presents to other homes. In fact, even though Miss Maudie Atkinson’s home is across the street from Atticus Finch’s, the family—indeed all the families nearby—must evacuate because the night wind may carry a spark. In those days, when fewer corners were equipped with fire plugs to access water supplies and fewer building materials were resistant to fire, entire neighborhoods could become ash by morning.

As Miss Maudie’s house burns, Scout and Mr. Avery fret about property. Scout worries that her copy of a Tom Swift book, borrowed from Dill, will burn. Jem reassures her by directing her attention to Atticus who stands with his neighbors, his attention away from his own home. Jem tells Scout that “it ain’t time to worry yet” and thus, Atticus serves again as a model for courage: remaining calm in the face of catastrophe.

Mr. Avery is less calm. He rushes into Miss Maudie’s burning house to save what he can. He pushes a mattress and furniture out a second-story window, one that proves too small for Mr. Avery’s girth when the men below finally convince him to flee. Scout buries her face in her hands until Jem, keeping watch for both of them, tells her that Mr. Avery is safe. Scout looks up to see him coming across the front porch.

As Scout continues to watch Miss Maudie’s house burn, someone tenderly drapes a blanket over her shoulders to help her stay warm. That someone is, of course, the dreaded neighbor, Boo Radley, a gentle recluse whom the children fear beyond all reason. They have only heard the town tale about Boo stabbing his daddy in the leg with a pair of scissors; they conclude that Boo is some sort of monster—except that he is not.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, Jem confesses to all the kindnesses that Boo has done them: the soap dolls sculpted to resemble Jem and Miss Jean Louise, the school medal, and his pants, mended and neatly folded, draped across the fence that Jem, Dill and Scout ignored to enter the Radley yard uninvited. Jem explodes with his newly acquired understanding that Boo is not a threat, only a neighbor. Jem will not fully appreciate this truth until Boo saves his life, proving that he has courage of his own.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, she reveals her own brand of courage, one that many of us could emulate. Miss Maudie refuses to feel sorry for herself because she lost a home. By morning, after a night alone with her thoughts, Miss Maudie emerges with smiles and laughter and plans for a smaller home, more azaleas, more for her rivals to envy. She views her loss as an opportunity, not an insurmountable hurdle. She has faith in herself and a belief in a brighter future—not unlike any man or woman in uniform.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Courage of Atticus

Of course, Atticus is courageous. He may not rush into burning buildings, protect a neighborhood, or wear a uniform, but he risks everything to stand for a principle: justice.

As a lawyer, Atticus accepts a case that most attorneys would refuse, or if court-appointed to defend Robinson, would put up no real defense, accepting the foregone conclusion that the word of a white man, even a trashy, drunken, abusive white man, trumps the word of a black man, even a respectable, hard-working black man. Atticus appeals to the jurists’ consciences when he proves that Tom Robinson is not guilty and urges them to do their true duty by sending Tom home to his family rather than to prison in order to maintain the social divide. Atticus asks the jurists to oppose segregation and its own brand of incarceration by finding for the truth. And Atticus does all this at considerable risk to himself.

First, Atticus is not only an attorney, he is also an elected State representative. His defense of Tom Robinson could result in not being returned to office in the next election, and many men without his character would have put his own re-election far ahead of any concern for Robinson. Today, pollsters and handlers would have stood between Atticus and Judge Taylor, who asked Atticus to defend Robinson. Those campaign workers would have determined that taking part in a controversial trial would cost Atticus votes so they would have asked or even ordered Atticus not to take the Judge’s calls. But Atticus is a man apart from the ordinary politician of today. He stands for truth and justice, a stance that is often unpopular in the court of public opinion.

Second, Atticus is a parent. He must consider the impact of his actions on Jem and Scout, and he does. He tells Judge Taylor that he will defend Tom Robinson, and later he tells his children that “if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again.” Atticus means that he must stand for truth and justice, especially when the price for doing so may be very high, so that he can be a worthy parent and citizen.

Of course, Atticus did not foresee that Scout would fight with kids in the schoolyard, and he certainly could not have guessed that Mrs. Dubose would taunt Jem into slaughtering her camellias. He probably knew how his sister, Alexandra, would react, and he anticipated “some high talk” around town, but Jem’s permanently disfigured arm was something that a man like Atticus would never imagine. He had no idea that Bob Ewell would attack Scout and Jem after being exposed in a court of law as a liar and racist. Atticus dismissed Bob Ewell as impotent, capable of beating his own daughter or spitting on his enemy and nothing more. Atticus did not realize that he had stripped Bob Ewell naked and left him with nothing except the accident of birth: Ewell was born a white man and that was all he had on his resumé. He was also a coward who struck only those unable to defend themselves.

Third, Atticus is a lawyer who expects the courtroom to be as blind to race as the sculpted, blindfolded Lady Justice; Harper Lee’s Atticus would surely grieve if he were to discover that race is still a factor in courts across the land. He demands more of human beings, especially himself. He argued that an eye witness account should be required if a man’s life is at stake, especially in “he said-she said” cases such as Tom Robinson’s. Judges and juries should set a higher standard for evidence if a man could die as a result of charges being brought against him. Atticus would, no doubt, approve measures implemented to insure that truth and justice win the day, even if more remains to be done. He might be gratified to learn that DNA evidence has become the gold standard in rape trials, but he might be surprised to learn how unreliable eyewitnesses are.

Above all, Atticus is a man who refuses to resign himself to the status quo. He might say that precedent and prejudice are insufficient. Men must be willing to fight for moral principles, and they must find the courage to do so.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Teaching Jem a Lesson: Mrs. Dubose

After Jem loses his temper, more characteristic of the still young, impulsive Scout than of Jem, he destroys Mrs. Dubose’s camellias, the second official State flower of Alabama, ratified as such in 1959. As a punishment for destroying private property, Atticus condemns Jem to read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon even if she falls asleep, her mouth slack, drool pooling at its edges. Today’s parent might cry way harsh, but Atticus had a lesson to teach Jem. He wanted Jem to understand that being able to play football for the Methodists or fighting back against ugly, racist taunts or being the surest shot in Maycomb country have nothing to do with courage. None of those feats truly represents the act of being brave.

Atticus wanted Jem to know that “… real courage is … when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” He used Mrs. Dubose, a racist, reprehensible figure, to teach Jem that lesson because Mrs. Dubose was more than an old woman afflicted with the disease of racism; she was also a morphine addict who wanted to die drug-free.

Atticus made Jem bear witness to Mrs. Dubose’s struggle just as Steven Spielberg gave us Saving Private Ryan and Amistad and Schindler’s List and The Pacific, inviting us to bear witness to the courage that Atticus had in mind. Those men assigned to hit the beaches in France or hold the ground on islands in the Pacific knew they could be “licked” before they began; they knew that the odds were against them, that many would not survive the day, but they began anyway.

Michael Shaara understood this brand of courage when he wrote The Killer Angels, an account of the battle at Gettysburg where, on July 3rd, General Lee sent Confederates across open ground on an assault against Union soldiers dug in on higher ground, behind a low rock wall. In other words, the Rebels had no cover and faced a fortified enemy, yet they marched on, according to command, in the conviction that some would survive and perhaps in the hope that some would even triumph. In fact, some 7,000 men and untold horses, in both blue and gray, were cut down that day in 1863. They marched on anyway.

Hundreds of thousands died in 1944 in a World War II surge to push the Germans back and out of France. For D-Day, the men dropped from planes, splashed through the surf, and pressed on regardless of the bunkers, guns, and odds. They marched to put an end to oppression.

No wonder that soldier is often the first example offered when the topic is courage. They do their duty in spite of any doubts they may have and in the face of life and death struggles. They deserve our thoughts and our gratitude. They take care of our most unpleasant tasks, and they do it well.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Real Courage

For many years, I taught sophomores in high school. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books to teach, and I looked forward to sharing it with students every year. Fifteen and sixteen year old students could still identify with Jem, Scout and Dill’s fears about Boo Radley. They remembered when they too feared monsters under the bed or around the corner, and they could appreciate the truth that unfolds in the end: sometimes, real dangers come dressed as the neighbors. That was indeed the case when Jem witnessed the destructive nature of intolerance and racism.

After we shared the novel and its inspirational messages about courage and conviction, I asked students to write about a modern-day Atticus, someone who is an extraordinary role model for others. I was always disheartened to read about celebrities and famous people, many of whom had not led an exemplary life. When I asked my students to reconsider, they countered that those celebrities demonstrated courage by admitting to their faults, by simply showing up in spite of being criticized and even condemned.

I had to admit that my students had a point. Sometimes simply getting out of bed and showing up require everything we have to give. I know that, but I wanted my students to demand more of themselves by demanding more of adults, including celebrities. I wanted them to believe that the man next door could be a fine role model because he tries to do his best every moment of his life. I wanted them to recognize beauty and goodness within ordinary people.

Most of us will never drive by just after a driver has run his car off the road into frigid water. We will not have to choose between dialing 9-1-1 before driving on or risking our lives to save the driver of the sinking car. We will never pass by a burning building, forced to face down our fears of fire to respond to cries for help. Most of us will not serve in our nation’s military, become policemen and women or firefighters. Indeed, most of us will never be tested in a life or death scenario, but does that mean few of us are truly brave?

No, ordinary people, like that GI in 1945, can simply do the right thing in the right moment and be transformed into a hero remembered for the ages—at least in the heart of one other person and that is what I hoped my students would take from To Kill a Mockingbird.

We rely upon others to perform the necessary, but unpleasant acts that society needs done. As Miss Maudie says to Jem, “some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us... your father is one of them.” So are soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, mothers, fathers, and ordinary citizens. Their stories may never be told in a prize-winning novel, in Reader’s Digest’s regular feature entitled “Heroes,” or on the nightly news; they may never be the family on Extreme Makeover, and they may never enjoy a ceremony held in their honor, but they deserve acclaim nevertheless.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lessons from Atticus

In this year, on July 11, 2010, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is 50 years old. Many people, including me, have been inspired by the wisdom of Atticus Finch and the portraits of courage found throughout the story.

When Jem witnesses the destructive nature of racism and intolerance, Atticus tries to console him, saying, "There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible."

Indeed, it is not, but sometimes we can place Beauty before us, and its brilliance overshadows the ugliness. That is what I hope to do with this blog: cast ugliness into the shadows and bring forth the beauty within the human heart and mind, even in the ugliest places and under the worst conditions.

Such a place was Japan in 1945. For six months, the United States waged an incendiary assault upon Japanese cities, using B-29s flown at such a great height that the plane and all on board were safe from harm, but below, Japan and its citizens were far from safe. Those planes released fire bombs, killing hundreds of thousands—more than the Atomic bombs killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The initial fire bomb targets were industrial areas, but wind and the whims of nature soon carried the fire to residential areas, destroying homes, lives, and entire cities.

Still, many years after this devastating attack, even after Japan surrendered and re-built its nation, I heard one Japanese woman give thanks to America. Here’s how I learned her story.

In 2001, the nation of Japan selected me for a Fulbright exchange experience whereby American teachers receive a grant that will support them as they travel to Japan to study for three weeks. In exchange, we bring our newly acquired, first-hand knowledge of Japan to our home school districts in the United States.

U. S. teachers spend one of the three weeks in Japan in a prefect where a local family entertains them one weekend. For the rest of the week, they tour schools from elementary to university. My prefect was Okazaki where one afternoon, after the junior high students had gone home, teachers from two cultures met in a large conference room. Still a very paternalistic culture, the men took the chairs in the first rows while the women assigned themselves to the back. The men, of course, initiated the conversation and directed the flow of our discussion. They were particularly alarmed to learn that U. S. school cafeterias do not serve fish frequently. They seemed to grieve when we told them that American kids eat hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and potatoes most every day.

After the discussion faded, one middle-aged woman at the back asked to read a letter to the Americans. The men cast down their eyes and seemed embarrassed or annoyed. Still she was granted permission to speak.

The composition that she read thanked us, the Americans present, for her life. She recounted the story her parents had passed on to her. They told her that they held her, a starving baby near death, because there was nothing to sustain her after the fire bombings. An American GI, passing by, saw the family’s need and gave her parents powdered milk. That GI gave her life a second time, she said, and her family has been forever grateful to Americans. This woman wished to thank Americans for the years she had enjoyed since 1945.

I was struck by her humility and sincerity. How I wished that someone in the room deserved the honor she was bestowing upon all Americans. After all, neither I nor anyone else at the table had served in the Armed Forces during World War II. I was not even born until well after the war ended, but I understood that the anonymous GI, perhaps doing his duty, perhaps exceeding his duty, had accomplished more than any bomb, pamphlet, or political strategy. He had changed the hearts and minds of a former enemy. He had reached across ash and sorrow to embrace life.

If I could find this particular soldier and ask him, I doubt that he would tell me that yes, this moment was his finest hour. In fact, he might not even recall the moment because it was probably brief and done in passing. Surely, he would remember the birth of his own children and countless other moments as more courageous and memorable. Still, he made a difference so great that any one of us would hold him up as a model for the rest of us.

And that, readers, is the purpose of this blog: to find the ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things without any thought to a medal, certificate, or award—without any thought to recognition. These men and women act selflessly, generously, and beautifully. They cast out ugliness by rising above pettiness, jealousy and cruelty.