Every marriage has those moments of clarity, flashes of insight when you completely get that your decision to marry this person was either excellent or faulty. My first flash came soon after my freshly married husband and I moved from Los Angeles to Minneapolis.
The Minnesota winter knocked us over with its ferocity and frigidity and piles of snow, and we belatedly understood why our apartment without a garage had been so much cheaper than those with a garage. One frozen, below-zero morning, I looked out the window and saw my husband shoveling the driveway of an elderly neighbor. And I knew I had married well.
He had just freed our car from its snow prison, and now he was sweating away under his woolens, helping out someone he barely knew. The old lady sweetly tried to give him a few dollars, which he just as sweetly refused.
At that moment, followed by many subsequent times in our marriage, my husband showed me that he was someone who would do the right thing even if it was hard, and even if he didn’t feel like it. I am certain that, throughout his career in education, he taught that lesson just by his example to many students and co-workers. He’s a keeper.
We people of faith give a lot of lip service to doing the right thing. When we believe in a higher power, we know that we are called to act with kindness and compassion and courage. When faced with a moral decision, we usually know in our hearts the right thing to do, and that we should do it. But do we?
Sometimes we are scared of the consequences of going against the crowd or leery of drawing attention to ourselves. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend that we didn’t realize what the right thing was until it was too late. Sometimes we rationalize that the price for standing up for an unpopular cause is too high for us to pay. Sometimes we hide behind ethical ambiguity to put off taking a stand. Sometimes we are just too lazy or feel too beaten down to care about anyone else.
The examples we see in the news can deter us from doing the right thing, because there is often suffering involved. Look at Alexei Navalny in Russia, for example, poisoned and imprisoned for following his political conscience. Think of historical figures like Harriet Tubman or Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez or John Lewis, who stood for human rights and fought for the well-being of others at great personal cost.
Church history is full of the stories of religious martyrs who refused to renounce their faith. They lost their lives, sometimes in gruesome ways, rather than abandon their beliefs. The easy thing — the compromise, the deferral — often looks much more attractive to us.
Still, we try to be decent, don’t we? I think of the former first lady’s campaign to “Be Best,” a well-intentioned if grammatically flawed effort to encourage young people to do the right thing, even if some old people were not shining examples of such behavior. Certainly most of us intend to do best and to be our best selves in our daily lives, but haven’t we all wondered if we would actually be strong enough to die for our faith? If we would have been committed enough to hide Jewish children from the Nazis, or shield Tutsis from the Hutus, or protect any other victim from a powerful oppressor? The intentional sacrifice of our personal comfort or safety for the right thing, for the greater good, is hard, hard, hard.
Yet for people of faith, that is our calling.
Next week we celebrate Easter, which for Christians is the most extreme example of doing the right thing even when it’s hard: Jesus on the cross is the epitome of love and self-giving overcoming fear and self-preservation. We will never be so purely good, but we believe in trying. Our faith reassures us that we can handle whatever difficult issues this life requires us to handle. It obliges us to make our best effort to do the right thing, and to encourage others to do the same, even in small matters, like shoveling snow. That’s the only way humanity has ever advanced. That’s the only way the faith we proclaim bears any actual fruit.