Courage, An Overlooked Virtue?

by | Dec 26, 2018 | Formation, Systemic change

The title caught my attention immediately: “The opposite of Evil is no longer Goodness.” (Frances Moore Lappé, Common Dreams, December 3rd)

Reading on, the author says the point is simple, it’s time to focus on courage.

That reminded me of a recent conversation at the Famvin Homeless Alliance Conference with a confrere. We commented on the apparent lack of bold, consistent advocacy in the work of our Vincentian Family.

Bold advocacy calls for courage.  We might lose friends, not everyone will agree with us.  And for an organization it can be very challenging to take a public stance on a controversial issue.

Which in turn brought to mind the fact that in the Family’s Manual for Systemic Change new chapters on advocacy and justice were just added.

Then other reading a day later included a similar quote from Maya Angelou: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

Then, finally, a December 5th entry on one of our Vincentian websites from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “….in the meanwhile, courage!”

All these intriguing ideas in the space of a few days. Coincidence? Probably not. Am I being called to greater courage?  If so, fine. Is it a call to the entire Family? It could be because while our Family has been so wonderfully versed in charitable efforts around the world for untold millions for over 400 years, we are far less noted for justice work, for bold and courageous advocacy.

Even as our world faces enormous challenges of every kind, and especially the rapidly growing opinion that climate change is closing in on the irreversible destruction of the very ground beneath us, too many leaders continue business as usual. Civic leaders, as well as government and business leaders.  And too many people pay too little attention.  Inertia, surviving, immune to how Evil is overcoming Goodness far too often these days, as headlines scream out: democracy, civil and voting rights challenged, immigrants and refugees turned away, the 1% controls half of the nation’s wealth (and therefore its power and influence).

Occasionally sizeable protests do mount a significant challenge to injustices, but one could legitimately ask: Where’s the outrage?  How many “speak truth to power” (in one description of advocacy)?  Where’s the organizing so that the impoverished might speak for themselves?

Civil courage seems in short supply, the courage to do what the common good requires, even if one stands alone.  But as Lappé reminds us, courage is contagious and as history shows, “sometimes sparks from individual acts ignite a powerful firestorm.”

Hopefully the Famvin Homeless Alliance will ignite a firestorm within the Family as we creatively address the outrageous scandal of homelessness in societies around the world in its different forms–refugees and internally displaced people, street homeless and the millions caught in precarious housing.  The complex issue of homelessness will demand from us not only the art and the science of advocacy but that it be courageousadvocacy as well.

Vincentians have our own virtues, recommended to us by no less than St. Vincent and St. Louise.  But to live those virtues AND be bold advocates for the impoverished among us requires the practice of yet another perhaps overlooked virtue, Courage. Courage may not be the most important virtue but it does seem indispensable at this point in history.

Jim ClaffeyJim Claffey retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as a member of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.