When Does Courage Change the World? Posted on October 17th, 2013 by

The following is a transcript from October 15, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “Daily Sabbath: Discuss” fall semester rhythm, Paula O’Loughlin – Associate Provost and Dean of Arts and Humanities, considered courage in the context of community. 

I came to Gustavus about a year and half ago. Joining this college in challenging times, I thought a lot about the core value community, the nature of our community (who’s in, who’s not and if and why that matters)and the obligations of community membership. Simply stated, when you live in community you get certain benefits, privileges and freedoms but you also get some responsibilities. Everyone who has ever lived in a communal living situation knows for example how important it is that people wash their own dishes or the sink starts to provide a venue for new life forms to emerge. The responsibilities of being in community with others are often mis-understood and I’m going to talk a bit about that.  My reflections are geared toward students but should resonate as well with others’ experiences.

The bias incident of homecoming reminded me again how we may be missing the mark on what being in community entails. I’ve been on campuses where such things have happened before. Just like here, outrage was expressed and meetings and vigils were held. The stain on the community’s perception of itself then faded from memory until the next incident occurred in that equally well-meaning respectful community and we performed the same rituals. Like us here,they said and did all the right things and it happened again. So what’s going to stop something like that from happening again here?

I’m sorry to say right now nothing we do or say until we start realizing that being in community carries the elemental responsibility to live with courage. Many people and faith traditions including ones dominant on this campus would agree with me about responsibility and argue that we have a primary responsibility of service to our community. I don’t disagree that service is a good thing. It often also makes other individuals feel better—certianly he people we deliver the meals on wheels or the little children we play with after classes but it is not sufficient because it doesn’t change the environments we live in. I would argue that the primary responsibility balancing all the freedoms and privileges community gives us is to live with courage.

For it is only when we uphold our responsibility to live with courage that systemic change toward more just communities happens.

What makes me so sure about the role of courage ? Before I came to gustavus, I spent several years thinking studying, and writing about courage and what makes some people stand up and resist injustice and others, most of us, to be bystanders. I and my co-authors looked at nazi germany, argentina under military rule, Rwandan genocide, mai lai, abughraib, etc. If we faced certain similar defining moments, most of us want to believe that we would do the right thing and stop the bad stuff or speak out against it. but most of us dont. Why not?

The reality is that while we have the capacity to live intentional lives of courage, we don’t. we can though. I studied the folks who had courage and did stand in the face of evil time and time again to see what made them special.  Turns out they were not superheroes. There was very little that was different about them from you or I except the following things:

  • They also had what Kelman and Hamilton called a value orientation to authority and so evaluated rules based on their own principles .  When they fit, they followed them and when they didn’t, they challenged them. They did this no matter how small the problem. I suspect they were hell as teens and toddlers.
  • They had an extensive world view and saw their community as all humanity and thus their responsibility was to this wide group and not limited to just their friends. Early on those who were different were their people as much as those who were not.
  • They saw injustices even slight ones, as their personal responsibility from the sandbox forward and spoke up early and often when others said things like i cannot imagine ever doing anything other than what i did. It’s my community and that’s not the way we roll.
  • They learned by doing from all their experiences and developed a history of standing up to injustices no matter how small  from the sandbox forward so over time it came naturally to them.

In short, they intentionally lived with courage.

Please dont hear from this the upbeat tale of single individuals overcoming odds. It’s not that simple. The end result of these courageous individuals’ actions is that they spoke truth to power transformed their environments and context and eventually changes in the environment and context changed the system . Did courage lead to immediate change ? No. Did it lead to eventual change? yes. Would that eventual change have happened anyway? I doubt it.

So how does this relate to community at Gustavus?  I submit in two ways.  One, we all have the capacity to be courageous and two, living in community requires that we intentionally own this responsibility of courage. In practice, what does this mean?  The path to the next bias incident, sexual assault, hazing will begin long before they actually happen.  Will you practice the responsibility of courage and stand up when it matters most at the beginning even if it means you lose your friends for the moment?  Will you challenge the harmless acts of just kidding about black brotha’s, how twerking is a black thing because they actually are not harmless? Will you say to your best friends that non consensual kisses and touch of strangers are not ok even if the other Gusties will look at you and say “Dude, but its’ not rapey or anything?” (By the way all these examples are from overheard at gustavus.)

All set up a path that leads to bias incidents and sexual assault and none are going to cease to happen until you and I show courage in our community and speak up when people start going down the path. That is the responsibility of community.

So my questions to you are 2. One, am I right or wrong that the primary responsibility of community is courage. Why or why not? Two, can you carry the responsibility of courage and make change even if it costs you? If you can, how will you begin to practice courage and the characteristics of the courageous so you ready to challenge that big wrongs if/when they come?


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