Courage as We Know ItWorking with community leaders over the past decade, I have seen many praised for taking courageous stands against wrongdoing.Â Courage usually begins with a series of meetings.Â People come together, reflecting on a fundamental injustice.Â In the inner-city where I work, the underlying condition could involve any number of serious problems: drugs, failure of schools, lack of employment, racism or other unequal treatment.Leaders then emerge.Â Sometimes they are the group's initial conveners, or the ones who called attention to the injustice, but not always.Â The group implicitly knows that it needs someone courageous to press its cause forward.In the next phase, a single person, or a small leadership team, then focuses the group's attention on a person or group that should be held accountable for the problems suffered by the community. During this phase, the group defines and identifies an opponent.Â Leaders must have courage when this targeted person or group is powerful and can threaten those calling for accountability. The powerful target of the campaign often controls legal power or funds being called forth to fix what's wrong.Then the campaign enters a public phase during which a confrontation or sometimes an outright attack ensues.Â Sometimes the process leads to change, sometimes not.In the final chapter, the group celebrates those who fearlessly held the feet of the others to the fire.Â Plaques are made.Â Books are written.Â Interviews are given.Â Awards are given.Â The courage is enshrined and remembered.I myself have often been directly involved in such efforts.Â At times I led them.Â At times I supported them actively.Â Sometimes, I merely looked on with a sense of approval.
Courage and Moral CertaintyCourage and righteousness in American civil society are close friends.Â A feeling of certainty and clarity in one's moral compass provides a large measure of the initiative required to "stand up" and "stand your ground" against those bad elements that have let us down or failed us in some way.Â Courage involves confronting risk and danger.Â Risk and danger come when we threaten or confront something more powerful than we are.Â When we experience persons or factions as having greater power, we often experience them as limiting our own power.Â We may experience limitations on our power as oppressive.Â And that which oppresses us is usually believed to be unjust.Â What is unjust in turn becomes the focus of our courageous action.Â The unjust sit in the bull's-eye of our courageous cause in which we determine to take back what really belongs to us, speaking our truth to their power.Courage also entails the sense that the good to be achieved for our community outweighs personal risks.Â If we do not perceive this greater good in unambiguous terms, our courage may falter.Â Without that greater good, our actions may seem foolish, wasteful or wrong.Â For this reason, courage often entails suppressing doubts and uncertainties as we move forward.Â In our moment of courage, we cannot afford to suffer "analysis paralysis."Â When action is slowed by nuances and shades of gray, it often loses its bold and courageous nature.Â Â In the rear view mirror of victory, not much time is spent looking for ambiguity.
It is the courage to make change while preserving the dignity and moral status of those in part responsible for the bad situation we all face.Â It is courage willing to grapple with the complexity that the oppressor may also be oppressed.Â It engages those with whom we disagree in dialogue rather than squaring off for a fight.American leadership in civil society abounds with individuals who would wish to frame their actions within the narrative structures I have outlined above.Â After all, a story about the crusade against injustice (with ourselves or those we care for cast as the crusaders) is the story most leaders would want to tell about their own lives, isn't it?Â It is the story of those who confront evil, root it out at the source, and then go on to live a better life, their heroic personal narrative growing incrementally after each crusade.