After Dad passed away this last summer, my brother David divided up the family pictures and brought them to Thanksgiving dinner to distribute to the siblings. So I’ve been looking through them, stirring my memory, and came across a picture from when Dad coached the Printer’s Devils Little League team back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I could identify most of the plays, though a few of them were unfamiliar. No one had thought to write down their names on the back of the picture. I did recognize one face, a boy named Tommy, who moved away when we in junior high.
I didn’t remember a whole lot about him, except that one day we were at recess and a bunch of us were making fun of another boy. Tommy went and took the boy by the hand and led him away. I was young, and that part of my brain that contains empathy wasn’t yet developed, because I remember thinking Tommy wasn’t manly, or else he would have been bullying the boy like the rest of us. Now, of course, I realize Tommy was braver than all of us. When I saw Tommy’s picture, I thought of the opening lines of the poem The Smile of the World by John Morley.
And what is this smile of the world, to win which we are bidden to sacrifice our moral manhood; this frown of the world, whose terrors are more awful than the withering up of truth and the slow going out of light within the souls of us?
There we were, mocking and bullying that little boy, the light slowly going out of us, and up stepped this courageous boy, who cared not a bit for the frown of the world, and simply did what was right. Don’t you just love people like that?
I’m thinking too of Mary Dyer, that valiant woman, banished from the Massachusetts’s colony for being a Quaker, and told if she returned she would be killed. She returned, was sentenced to death, and hung on the Boston Commons, where a witness later wrote, “she did hang like a flag.” As the noose was placed around her neck, she said, “This is to me the hour of greatest joy I ever had in this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no heart can understand the sweet intakes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord, which I now feel.” There is joy in saying no, when all the world is saying yes; in doing right when the world is doing wrong.
Speaking of courage before the crowd, let us remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to worship a statue of gold and were thrown into a blazing furnace, where tradition holds they were accompanied by an angel who preserved them from harm. Their example is a stirring reminder that when one stands for the good, one stands with the angels.
Let us add to that list Senator Mitt Romney, who recently declared to his Senate colleagues during the impeachment trial, “My promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and political biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
When I was in Florida last weekend, I saw a man on the elevator who was about my age. I could tell he was from up north because he was pale like me. I asked him where he was from and he said, “Utah.”
I said, “Ah, the home of Mitt Romney.”
He straightened up, looked me in the eye, and said, “We appreciate Mr. Romney back in Utah.”
Eliot Cohen, the dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, wrote about Romney’s speech, saying, “When future anthologies of great American political speeches are published by the Library of America, Romney’s remarks will be there. The language was American rhetoric at its best: not flowery and orotund, but clear and solid and stark…neither polished marble nor gold filigree, but New Hampshire granite.”
I love people who follow their conscience no matter the consequence, who do right, when everyone else demands otherwise.
One of the finest books in the field of American literature is To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s a scene in the book that was altered slightly when it appeared in the movie. Atticus Finch is sitting in a chair outside the jail, in the event a mob appears to hang Tom Robinson, the black man who’d been falsely accused of rape. Sure enough, the mob shows up, intent on killing Robinson. They demand Finch step aside, he refuses to, and they began to shout. Finch asks them to speak more quietly, tells them Tom Robinson is asleep, and he doesn’t want him awakened. And the men in the mob lower their voices.
It’s a wonderful scene, and illustrates perfectly and powerfully the moral authority of a well-formed conscience married to courage. It was Tommy, Mary Dyer, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Mitt Romney rolled into one. When I read that scene for the first time, I kept rereading it, over and over. And I said to myself, “I hope when the day comes that I am called to be courageous, that when I am called to do right when those around me are doing wrong, I hope I can be as brave as Atticus Finch.”
Friends, that day comes to us all, when we much choose between standing with the crowd, or standing with the angels, when we must, in the words of the prophet Joshua, “choose this day whom we will serve.” When that day comes, I hope and pray we’ll value the judgment of history above the judgment of the moment, that we will stand with angels, and with Mary Dyer say, “This is to me the hour of greatest joy I ever had in this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no heart can understand the sweet intakes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord, which I now feel.”