Category: Ethics

George C. Marshall & the importance of self-mastery

I wonder today how many Americans are familiar with the name and exploits of one of the greatest persons of the 20th century – George C. Marshall.

Marshall orchestrated one of the greatest military victories of history – World War II — and then shaped one of the greatest achievements of peace after the war with what came to be known as the Marshall Plan. In essence, Marshall led in the defeat of America’s enemies and then built them back into friends. Truly astonishing!

The New York Times columnist David Brooks highlights Marshall in one chapter of his book, The Road to Character. The chapter on Marshall is titled “Self-Mastery.”

Marshall did not start life well. In addition to being a poor student, he was “mischievous and troublesome,” Brooks writes. But after overhearing his brother tell their mother of his concern that the younger Marshall would “disgrace the family name,” the young man decided to take mastery of his life and seek to overcome his natural inclinations.

In the prewar Army, Marshall’s competence proved so obvious that commanding officers refused to promote him for fear of losing his services. When World War II began, competence became more important. Marshall became chief of staff in order to organize the war effort. Brooks writes:

“The quintessential Marshall moment came in the middle of the war. The Allies were planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, but still no overall commander had been selected. Marshall secretly craved the assignment and was widely accepted as the most qualified for it. This would be among the most ambitious military operations ever attempted, and whoever commanded it would be performing a great service to the cause and would go down in history as a result of it. The other Allied leaders, Churchill and Stalin, told Marshall that he would get the job. Eisenhower assumed Marshall would get the job. Roosevelt knew that if Marshall asked for the job, he would have to give it to him. He had earned it, and his stature was so high.

“But Roosevelt relied on Marshall to be nearby in Washington, whereas the Overlord commander would go to London. . . .

“FDR called Marshall into his office on December 6, 1943. Roosevelt beat around the bush for several awkward minutes, raising subjects of minor importance. Then he asked Marshall if he wanted the job. If Marshall had simply uttered the word ‘Yes,’ he presumably would have gotten the job. Still, Marshall refused to be drawn in. Marshall told Roosevelt to do what he thought best. Marshall insisted that his own private feelings should have no bearing on the decision. Again and again, he refused to express his preference one way or the other.

“FDR looked at him. ‘Well, I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.’ There was a long silence. Roosevelt added, “Then it will be Eisenhower.’”

Today, we expect people of high competence to pursue great recognition, to almost demand it. Marshall did not. He had committed himself to service, and he stayed true to the commitment, even though he wanted more.

Eisenhower returned triumphantly to parades and celebrations, and the thankful people soon elected him president. Eisenhower was a man of greatness, as well, but Marshall probably had a greater impact on history, and he did it by holding his own desires and passions in check, much as did Eisenhower, who was prone to fits of anger, which does not match the public image of the man to this day.

We could use more self-mastery in this new day, but we Christians understand that true self-mastery comes only with God’s help as we listen God’s guidance in Scripture and yield to His Holy Spirit.

American culture has pretty much ignored the Christian teaching about humankind’s sinful nature. We are created in God’s image, but we, all of us, have this self-centered bent that causes others and ourselves harm. Many parents even encourage this self-centeredness, and our culture honors self-expression, even if that expression is vulgar and mean.

It might be hard for our culture today to produce a George Marshall, and if there are no George Marshalls for this new day, who will lead when humankind attempts to stem the flow of evil. If the U.S. cannot produce such persons of character, maybe some other country can – maybe Germany or Japan or Mexico or Brazil or South Africa or Israel. And in thinking in such ways, we begin to see how important the United States has been to the world and how critical it is that we return to nurturing character and doing so in a way that honors the biblical truth that we all are sinners, not angels.

(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.)

The world according to Benny

(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)

Plagiarize. Multiple times. Get fired. Get a better job. In what world does that progression of events make sense? Ours.

The story of Internet phenom Benny Johnson exemplifies today’s web-based culture. Ben Terris captures the essence of Buzzfeed Benny well in a Washington Post article.

Benny climbed atop the “listicle” web world with some 500 posts in about a year and a half. Listicles are enticing. They offer the possibility of quick and quirky info that might make interesting conversation fodder at a party or online. Terris cites several of Benny’s listicles – “19 Times American Politicians Tried to Look Normal and Failed;” “The 16 Most Canadian Things About Ted Cruz;” and “The 25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions.”

Almost everyone recognizes that stealing someone else’s work – plagiarism – is wrong. Benny even publicly criticized someone for stealing his stuff. And Benny is not alone. Plagiarism is rampant. We hear stories about it from classrooms and research papers to pulpits and public speaking. Everyone seems to know it’s wrong, but still many continue to do it – maybe with the basic justification of “everyone does it.”

This is not just about plagiarism; it’s about honesty and integrity. Read the Post piece by Terris and read it all. You will see that even after the firing and professional rebirth, Buzzfeed Benny has no desire to communicate truth; he simply wants to communicate in a way people will want to listen. He lies; the truth becomes hidden behind a curtain of fantasy.

The Internet is such a wonderful aspect of our lives today. What are we going to do with it? Are we going to only care about getting a following, or are we going to care about making this world a place where truth and honesty are valued?

Of course, Jesus – the truth – revealed that people really do want what is true and good and loving in their lives. And part of Jesus’ truth is the offer of forgiveness for our foul-ups.

Plagiarism is not the unforgivable sin, but it should have consequences and, by all means we should hear and follow Jesus’ famous command to “go and sin no more.”

Starting the year with character

This new year is off to a very fine start. The sun is shining brightly in East Texas. I’m reading a very interesting book. And football will come into the mix when the Baylor Bears play in the Fiesta Bowl.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr.
James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

The book is Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, written by James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and published by Abingdon in 1974. McClendon, now deceased, highlighted the importance of character in the shaping of one’s life. After so much talk about how to make ethical decisions, McClendon said simple formulas could not tell the entire tale.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, I want to share some highlights from McClendon’s words first chapter about character and the convictions that form it.

Character can be good or bad, but having good character is “one precondition of making responsible choices.” (30)

“To have character . . .  is to enter at a new level the realm of morality, the level at which one’s person . . . is intimately involved in one’s deeds. By being the persons we are, we are able to do what we do, and conversely, by those very deeds we form or re-form our own characters. . . . Thus, character is paradoxically both the cause and consequence of what we do.

“It is most important here to recognize that character, though by definition deep-seated, is not necessarily rigid or unchangeable. A man’s character is formed by the way he sees things, by his vision, we say. It is shaped by the way he does things, by his style. It is coincident with his deepest and most dearly held beliefs, his convictions.” (30-31)

We must forgive McClendon the lack of gender-inclusive language because of the time of the book’s publishing, for this surely applies to all people.

He then makes an insightful point by saying an ethic based on character is “suited” to both education and evangelism. These activities are “desirable” because “character need never be permanently fixed,” and, therefore, education and evangelism are “possible.” (32)

In other words, since character always is capable of being improved or developed then education and evangelism can indeed make a difference in lives. This is one place where the Baptist in McClendon comes out.

But he is the best kind of Baptist (or baptist, as he liked to say) because he sees beyond the individual. Character ethics does not “foster a whimsical and privatistic approach to morality.” He actually prefers to call his approach “ethics of character-in-community.” (32) Communities impact individuals, and individuals impact their communities.

Convictions are “integral to character,” McClendon said. He defines convictions as “those tenacious beliefs which when held give definiteness to the character of a person or of a community, so that if they were surrendered, the person or community would be significantly changed. . . . [W]hen we find our convictions, we find the best clue to ourselves.” (34)

I love that last sentence. The Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a part, was constantly saying we wanted to find ourselves at about the same time McClendon was writing these words. It always seemed a bit shallow and stupid to me; maybe it’s because I held to the convictions I had been taught–Christian ones–while many of those in my generation had either rejected theirs or didn’t find ones they deemed appropriate to their individual and community reality.

“Now it must be that an ethics of character will be concerned with convictions, for to have convictions is to have at least that much character. . . . For as men are convinced so they will live. And similarly with convinced communities.” (35)

We can pursue right living without being judgmental

 

David Kinnaman
Photo by James Glover II, Ventura County Star

Ethics is about doing the right thing, doing what you ought to do in a situation. It’s about choices, and the Bible clearly says none of us make all right choices. We sin.

While informed Christians know they are sinners like everyone else, we sometimes get to thinking we are better than other folks because we don’t do some of the things they may do. We may even have unstated lists in our heads that differentiate the “bad sinners” from the “good sinners,” though we generally would not use such language.

For instance, Christians can be a lot harder on those involved in sexual sin than on those caught up in pride and greed. You can be guilty of the latter and be a deacon, but not the former.

One of the results  is that Christians can become judgmental of people who commit the sins church-goers may not commit. And even if not judgmental, the Christian can be perceived as such.

Five years ago, David Kinnaman wrote the following in UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why it Matters:

“Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders (87 percent) said that the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity. This was one of the big three—the three most widely held negative perceptions of Christians (along with being antihomosexual and hypocritical). Just to put this in practical terms, when you introduce yourself to a twentysomething neighbor, and you mention your faith, chances are he or she will think of you as judgmental.” (182-183)

What does it mean to be judgmental? Kinnaman defines it as pointing out “something that is wrong in someone else’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized.”

There can’t be many of us Christians who want to be seen as that kind of person, but we are by most younger adults. It’s not just a matter of what “outsiders” think of us but it effects what they think of Jesus. When Christians are judgmental, Kinnaman says, “Some part of their potential to be Christ followers is snuffed out.”

A prayer: Lord, help us to pursue what is right, what is ethical. But as we do so, Lord, please help us to remember than we are all sinners in need of Your grace. Help us to not look down upon others who struggle with sins that happen to be different from our own. Help us to love them and to show it by how we relate to them. You have been loving and forgiving to us; help us be loving and forgiving to others.

Daily Bible reading, a key to ethical living

One of the keys to ethical living is to read the Bible daily. This does not come easy for many of us, and I stress the use of “us” there. Vocational ministers, like me, can struggle with this as much as other  church members.

My church, First Baptist in Athens, has stressed daily Bible reading and created a web site to make it easier — soapandsoak.com. Anyone can use it. SOAP and SOAK is a three-year Bible reading plan linked with a 36-verse memorization plan. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Three year reading plan— OT(1x), NT (2x).
  • Read/discuss with other believers for encouragement and accountability.
  • Simple weekly goals to fit your lifestyle.
  • A Scripture verse to memorize each month
  • Delivery Options: In the program each week, email once a week, daily email.

If others have resources or tools that can help in daily Bible reading, please share.