The spine of the matter — courage

Our spines are amazing. They hold us up. They provide a protected pathway for nerves. They form a back on which to carry a pack. But I don’t think often about my spine; it’s just kind of there doing its work. That is, I don’t think about it until it hurts.

Back pain is an agony all unto itself. It’s a pain that’s hard to escape. If you have a bum knee, you can sit down and take the weight off. If you have a hurting shoulder, you can do more with your other arm.  I know because I’ve had those two problems. It’s hard, however, to give your back a break. Standing, sitting, or lying down, it’s always got a job to do.

The bottom line: Our backs are very important.

It’s interesting how this part of our body has become associated with courage, as in, “That person showed real backbone in standing up to criticism.” Or, “That spineless guy didn’t even try to help that child.”

Courage, or fortitude, is one of the classic virtues. It is a basic requirement if one is to be a person of character. The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon begins its chapter on courage in this manner:

“The heroes of history and poetry may be cruel, violent, self-seeking, ruthless, intemperate, and unjust, but they are never cowards. They do not despair in the face of almost hopeless odds. They have the strength and stamina to achieve whatever they set their minds and wills to do. They would not be heroes if they were not men of courage.”

The Syntopicon is speaking of the heroes of ancient literature. It does seem we expect more than courage from our more contemporary heroes. Superman surely is not cruel, violent, self-seeking, ruthless, intemperate, and unjust. Of course, he may not be courageous either because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Oh, right, he’s a superhero.

But what about contemporary, regular heroes. I think about the New York firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001. They were none of those bad things said about ancient heroes, at least not at the time of their bravery, but they surely possessed large doses of courage — to go in when others headed out.

Rosa Parks

I think about Rosa Parks and her very different kind of courage — the courage to sit as a person, not simply a black person, on a public bus. There was no cruelty, violence, or those other negative characteristics in her decision; but it took great courage to go against a powerful cultural tide.

Courage has a special relationship with the three other classic virtues — prudence (wisdom), temperance, and justice. Those three virtues help us determine the appropriate uses of courage, but without courage the other three virtues leave us without the will to act, to do what is right, to do what God would have us to do.

Christianity brought three other virtues into the mix — faith, hope, and love. With these, the picture of a person of character becomes more clear. It looks, in fact, like Jesus.

Jesus changed forever what courage should look like. No longer will those who know Him think it is OK to be cruel, violent, self-seeking, ruthless, intemperate, unjust, and courageous. We will see a courage that is coupled with faith, hope, and love and exhibited in a manner that is prudent, temperate, and just. At least we will when we have our gaze fixed upon Christ.

But we all have a backache in our character. We do not do perfectly what we ought to do in relation to courage. We do not stand up for the poor as we should. We do not stand against evil as we should. We do not follow Christ as consistently as we should.

This backache needs the healing touch of the Great Physician. And as anyone with a physical backache knows, it is better to do what the doctor says than to ignore his or her direction.

A prayer: Lord, give us courage to live more like Jesus, pursuing Your will in our personal choices and in our relationships to the world around us. Give us strong backbones — physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

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