Posted in Essay, General Interest, justice, Terri Stewart

Moral Courage

This is a re-blog of my very first blog post ever from 2008! I have edited it a tiny bit.

Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change. Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966. (Source: Wikiquote )

What are our sources of moral courage? I can tell you that I find moral outrage easy, but where does moral courage come from? Relying on my Methodist heritage, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral would have us examine scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in making deliberations. What does this tell me?

What does scripture say?

In Hebrew Scriptures and in Christian Scriptures, we are taught to care for the alien, orphan, widow, and poor among us. In the story of the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11), we see a Jesus that stands between the accusers and the marginalized. This is what Christians are called to do. Take action in the face of injustice and stop pain from happening. Jesus teaches us repeatedly that we are to extend our hands to the hungry, the poor, the marginalized, and those outside of authority. This continues from the Jewish traditions. In Hebrew Scripture, we are told in Micah 6:8 that we are to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly” with God (NRSV). These teachings can be encapsulated in the single commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). Leviticus 19:34 tells us that our neighbor is the alien among us. Christ tells us that our neighbor is people outside of the power structure that he ministers too—the bleeding woman, the blind, the demon-possessed, or the widow. Those are the neighbors Jesus stands with.

What does tradition say?

In the Methodist tradition, John Wesley spoke out against many issues facing his generation. This included human rights, slavery, prison reform, labor rights, and education reform. Methodists also have the Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions to guide thoughts and deliberations in our present day. Wesley emphasized shaping public policies that would ensure equal and fair education for all children.

What does experience say?

It is very difficult to quantify experience across the board, but if I just examine one system, the education system, we know, through social sciences and the statistics they bring us, that poverty is the single most important factor in education. Poverty riddled areas simply do not have access to a great education system. And unfortunately, for many minority ethnicities in the U.S., poverty riddled areas are disproportionately filled with them. Why would that be? A good source for thought is this YouTube video from Tim Wise–

And we know that poverty is a world wide problem as the recent collapse of the factory in Bangladesh illustrates. The women who were lost there are typically impoverished, but they were considered the lucky ones. They were one step above abject poverty and simply impoverished. The literacy rate is 59%. Poverty and lack of education go hand-in-hand.

Bereaved mothers hold up pictures of their daughters who died in the factory collapse, but whose remains have yet to be identified. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian

There is much to be outraged about. Let us find moral courage.

What does reason say?

Is it reasonable to expect there to be poverty in the world? Is it reasonable to expect there to be violence in the world? Is it reasonable that we hurt each other by action and inaction? I would say no. Jesus does say that the poor will always be with us (Matt 26:11), but that is after he has said that the world will be judged by its treatment of the poor, the hurting, and the hopeless (Matt 25:31-46). Why would Jesus say this bit about the poor being with us always? Perhaps he knew that the entirety of believers would not follow his command to visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, and to clothe the naked. What would it look like if all of our faith communities fought against poverty by directly participating in feeding, clothing, and visiting? That is why it is unreasonable–we hurt each other by our actions and inactions because we are not doing the simple things that Jesus told us. It is unreasonable. Reasonably, we know that if we had a global will, hunger would be eradicated. God would be so pleased, I believe, to see all children fed.

And last, with these sources of moral courage available to us, what do we do with it? Issues in the world today are so complex and systems are so vast that it seems a hopeless exercise. We must remember that we are not called to fix the whole world, but we are called to be faithful. Be faithful and to keep moving forward one step at a time. Maybe even one meal at a time.

(c) 2013 post, Terri Stewart, all rights reserved

terriTERRI STEWART is Into the Bardo’s  Sunday chaplain, senior content editor, and site co-administrator. She comes from an eclectic background and considers herself to be grounded in contemplation and justice. She is the Director and Founder of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition that serves youth affected by the justice system. As a graduate of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, she earned her Master’s of Divinity and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction with honors and is a rare United Methodist student in the Jesuit Honor Society, Alpha Sigma Nu. She is a contributing author to the Abingdon Worship Annual.

Her online presence is “Cloaked Monk.” This speaks to her grounding in contemplative arts and the need to live it out in the world. The cloak is the disguise of normalcy as she advocates for justice and peace. You can find her at,, and  To reach her for conversation, send a note to


As a chaplain to chaplains, I find myself in the deep listening work of attending to the dreams of hope-filled people whose true calling is to serve and uplift incarcerated youth.

8 thoughts on “Moral Courage

  1. As someone who grew up hearing about the Episcopalian 3-Legged Stool (Scripture, tradition and reason), I was immediately struck by the Wesleyan addition of experience. Is it reasonable to expect there to be suffering in the world? I would say “yes”. ‘Do no harm’ is a koan. It is meant to teach, but it is also impossible.


    1. There is a plus and a minus to adding experience. It tends to relocate religious experience to personal experience and personal interpretation. So I suppose the caveat is that all of it practiced within community (for another discussion starter!)

      Back to my thought (it is barely here this morning)-perhaps the better phrase question is, “Is it reasonable to expect that we would consciously choose to inflict suffering?”

      Actually, I wrote this my first semester of seminary. I have a more nuanced understanding of reason as meant in the Wesleyan tradition now. It has Armenian roots. John Wesley was a great borrower of other traditions (and he was Anglican, so Episcopalian/ Anglican/ Methodist technically are not far apart–I always say that Methodists are one divorce and a war away from being Catholic.)


  2. I appreciate: “It is reasonable to expect that we consciously continue to inflict suffering.” “Conscously” would be the opperative word here, of course. “Do no harm” is meant as all koans are to provoke consciousness. It is reasonable to allow ourselves (lack of expectation) to remain unconscious on our paths and turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to how we as inviduals, communities, govenments continue to inflict suffering through laziness, greed, fear, ignorance, habit, accident of birth, or a some misguided sense of divine right, tribal right, or worldly privilege? To view “Do no harm” as simply a puzzle or a paradox ignores the tortured roots, designed and adventitious, from which the statement grows.


  3. I do not view the precept ‘do no harm’ as merely a puzzle; it is a guide for practice, even though failure is inherent. It seems reasonable to be aware of limitations even as we are consciously trying to overcome them. They do not provide an excuse for giving up; rather, they provide a constant motivator. But reason acknowledges the reality of those limitations. “The poor will always be with you” and “Life means suffering” may be called Noble Truth. We will always have the opportunity to practice kindness and generosity to the poor and suffering because they will always be there. Does that sound reasonable?


    1. Yes. I suppose, as someone who is always pushing limitations in society (social, ecclesial, and political structures), I am aware that the reality of the limitations is limited.


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