What about those who demonstrate moral courage—who endure scorn, insult, imprisonment, and even loss of life in defense of an ideal or a principle? Are they, as Twain believed, fewer in number than the physically courageous? Maybe. But perhaps we simply don’t recognize those heroes at the time of their great principled actions.
As President, George Washington, strove mightily to keep the young United States out of European wars, and for that was guillotined in effigy three times daily on Philadelphia’s Market Street (1793) and was derided in the press as a “monocrat” and “old splinter-mouth.” When that “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, stocks plummeted, enlistments in the Union Army dropped, and Lincoln himself was eventually assassinated. When Jane Addams opened her Chicago-based settlement home for immigrants, she was regarded with suspicion, and dubbed a socialist and anarchist. In 1872, when Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in her hometown of Rochester, New York, she was arrested, put on trial, and accused of attempting to destroy the institution of marriage. When Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent revolution for civil rights, he was rewarded with imprisonment, an FBI investigation and ultimately an assassin’s bullet. When Nelson Mandela embarked on his campaign of resistance to apartheid, he too was arrested and spent twenty-seven years in prison before emerging as South Africa’s first black head of state. You get the picture.
We admire all of those individuals for their moral courage in retrospect. Time has sharpened our lens. We admire them for their willingness to buck the status quo, endure contempt, and risk their lives, for the greater good of peace, civil rights, human dignity, and/or justice. But nobility is not necessarily evident at the time. There are no Olympics of moral courage with clear winners and losers. There are only those who dig deep within themselves and summon the courage to make unpopular choices in defense of the good and for the common good. Frequently at a high cost, often involving loss of stature and danger to themselves.
Men and women of moral courage, unsung heroes, are still in our midst and frequently derided for their obstinacy. In 1996, seven Trappist monks were captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Algeria’s civil war. Many could not understand why the little monastic community hadn’t abandoned their home months before. For decades, the French monks had lived peacefully with the Muslim-majority population, pursuing a ministry of medical assistance and solidarity with the local population. But as the forces of terror grew, so did the danger. They were foreigners, outsiders, and Christians. They had been warned. They should get out, the Algerian government insisted. Their decision to stay, serve the community, and witness to the power of faith and love was an act of extraordinary moral courage, chronicled by the 2010 film, Of Gods and Men. (Read more on this story here.)
“If there is anything that links the human to the divine,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.” Or as another wartime American hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz noted, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.”