"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Colossians 3: 12 - 14
As I’m sure most of you are aware, the streets of Brazil have been a bit crowded for the last couple of weeks; and, even if you’re a shut-in like me, the words and the revolutionary spirit that spun them are out—change Brazil.
Now I am not a political analyst nor am I an expert in Brazil’s current political sphere, but I can surely guarantee one thing—if the people in leadership don’t change, then nothing will ever get better. I am not saying that different people need to be in leadership (though that is an option—Brazil is a democracy), but I am saying that if the current leaders were to change—their focuses, their efforts, and their outlooks on their constituents and their jobs—then policies would surely change as well.
Unfortunately, the failure of some revolutions is that the true heart issues are never addressed when what we should all be looking at are the character, integrity, and virtues of the people in authority and the people around us.
My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about things that were wrong in society. That sounds quite intellectual, but we were in the car and it was prompted by some rude and aggressive driving—if you’ve ever been in a car in Rio, you’ll know what I mean. Instead of ranting, he said something true. He said it was a shame that no one cared about virtue anymore: virtue as in the virtues. What a funny, archaic idea! And it really made me think. When was the last time I heard someone use virtuous as a compliment? When was the last time that a film or a book from contemporary culture celebrated a hero or heroine because they embodied many virtues? I’m afraid it’s rare. We prefer fallen men, broken heroes, approachable anti-heroes—usually they have one or two virtues that stand out and make them ‘heroic’ but they are far from any classical ideal of virtue.
According to Plato, the primary virtues are temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Those are some pretty big words for students who’ve already started their vacations, so I’ll break them down a bit. Temperance—keeping all the natural appetites in balance (think self-control). Prudence—making wise decisions. Fortitude—following through with commitments in spite of difficulties. And Justice—making sure that each person receives their rights. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
In addition to those virtues, the Christian tradition includes faith, hope, and charity (sometimes translated as love) in the list. And during the Middle Ages, chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility were known as the heavenly virtues. And, more recently (if you consider the 18th century recent), early American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues in his personal writings, and he worked on perfecting them in himself by keeping daily account of his rights and wrong. He would literary use tally marks to keep track of lapses in virtuous behavior, trying to identify failings and irradicate them—unsuccessfully, I’m afraid.
Yet, now, in the 21st Century, we live in a culture which celebrates and romanticizes scandal instead of celebrating virtue. We live in a society wherein our personal failings are often glossed over with the words ‘Nobody’s perfect’ or ‘I’m only human’. And while those statements are true, we are only human and nobody is perfect, and while grace is so, so, so important—without grace no positive change can ever happen—most of us assume that we’re okay as we are and never attempt any truly difficult virtues because we accept defeat before we even begin.
I want to challenge you this evening to consider the virtues. Can you imagine a world in which more people were kind and charitable towards their neighbors? A world in which making wise choices and following through with commitments was an expectation for leaders? A world in which hard work and self-control weren’t regularly mocked on nightly sitcoms but rather were held in high esteem? Can you imagine such a place? I hope so.
After all, it’s my understanding that this is what has hundreds of thousands of Brazilians out marching through the roads in protest—the idea that government officials should be virtuous. They know that to change Brazil, they have to change something about the leadership.
Today marks your high school graduation. As you leave RIS and take your next steps towards becoming doctors and athletes and artists and scientists and global and business leaders, I want you to know that I have high expectations for you—I expect you to continue to grow and change. Finishing high school is a big deal, but it isn’t the biggest deal—life will go on. The world will keep changing, and so should you.
As a Christian, I believe that each of you was intentionally created by God with unique gifts and talents; I believe that God has a plan for each of your lives; and I have faith like the writer of Philippians that ‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on unto completion’. I believe that as sinners, none of us can hope to become virtuous on our own, but that it is God’s work in our lives that can make us more temperate, more prudent, and more charitable. The Bible says in James that if we come near to God then he will come near to us. If you choose to pursue a virtuous life, you will not be alone in the task.
My charge to you, Class of 2013, is to strive to be more tomorrow than you are today—strive to be virtuous and to lead a virtuous life. I want to encourage you to try every day to be the best versions of yourselves. And I suspect that you will both impact and inspire those around you in a significant and meaningful way.
Congratulations. Class of 2013. God bless you.