In preparation for a talk that I will deliver next week at a nearby Christian publishing company, and with Independence Day this weekend, I find myself reflecting on the need for courage in the Christian faith. The importance of courage is obvious for men and women enlisted in military duty; but what about people like you and me—civilians who never step into combat boots or pick up a weapon? The following quote from John Silber (1926 – ) provides an instructive answer.
In his early career John Silber taught philosophy at Yale, Bonn, and Texas at Austin. From 1971-1996 he was president of Boston University; during that time he had a distinguished career as university administrator, political commentator, and public intellectual. One of the few academics to reflect on the ethics of the soldier, he notes how courage is much more than overcoming fear, for it is intimately tied to knowledge and honor. Though not speaking from a distinctly Christian perspective, his description of courage resonates with the Bible.
I count among my friends a fairly large number of military people: enlisted men, noncommissioned officers, and officers of all grades. . . . In reflecting on such individuals, particularly in recent years, I have also recognized that courage, the particular virtue of the soldier, is required not only when one is very young but also in middle life and to the last day of one’s active duty.
Courage is a strange virtue that has often been misunderstood. Some think of courage as the capacity to overcome jitters, to quell fear, to conquer the desire to run. That, of course, is a very superficial notion of courage. Properly understood, as Plato understood and explained it, courage is the knowledge of what is and what is not to be feared. An infantryman going over the top must not be hampered by the fear that, like the young man in the film Gallipoli, he may be struck down a few paces from his trench. He is prepared for that outcome. A soldier in battle should fear disgracing himself in running. He should not fear losing his life, but his honor. He may not be able to preserve his life, but he can always preserve his honor. It was in this spirit that Francis I of France wrote to his mother from the field of Pavia: “All is lost except for honor.”
To be straight on the path, to fear disgrace but not death, to fear not duty but dereliction of duty—this is courage. The truly courageous do not live in anxiety from morning to night. They are calm because they know who they are, what their profession is, and its duties. In that knowledge, they do their duty with equanimity.
Courage of this sort—true courage—is not limited to young men on the battlefield. A four-star general headed for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may be asked by the commander-in-chief for his best advice on a professional issue with serious political ramifications. The general may suspect that the commander-in-chief wants advice that is contrary to the general’s best professional judgment, and that to state his true opinion may lead to premature retirement. . . . But the general should not fear the termination of his career; rather, he should fear the dishonor of denying the commander-in-chief his best professional judgment. Morally, such a failure would be indistinguishable from abandoning one’s post under fire. The soldier should be prepared not only to die for his country, but be fired for his country.1
1 John Silber, Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), 257-258.