THIS WAS NOT BRAVE, declared fashion blogger Jessica Kane, as she posted a photo of herself in a swimsuit. “I've been told how brave I am for not having a coverup,” she said, “but going without a wrap would only take bravery if I cared what others thought of me, but I don't.”
Kane added, “Things that DO take bravery? A family battling tragic illness, a mother trying to beat addiction, a person trying to break free of domestic violence, reaching out for help when you have already planned your suicide and feel like you can't breath one more day. THAT is brave.”
Comediennes Mindy Kaling and Chelsea Peretti have voiced similar sentiments. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kaling dismissed the notion that her positive body image is “courageous,” calling the praise for her decision to wear a crop top a “backhanded compliment.” Likewise, Peretti poked fun at the #nomakeup selfie trend, mocking the idea that such barefaced Instagram photos get lauded for their “unparalleled bravery.”
These women have made important statements about beauty in our culture. But their remarks highlight an issue that transcends body image: the dumbing down of “bravery.”
Courage has become the virtue du jour, both inside and outside the church. Countless books, blog posts, Facebook statuses, and tweets exhort women to “be brave.” Brave was the title of the 2012 Disney movie showcasing a free-spirited and fiery young heroine, and of Sara Bareilles’ Grammy-nominated anthem last year.
”Brave” is everywhere, but it often looks a bit more superficial than traditional notions of courage. Saturday Night Live satirized this disconnect in a music video set to Bareilles’ hit song. As the singer belts out the words, “I wanna see you be brave,” the actresses “bravely” decline party invitations, eat the last cookie, and admit they’ve forgotten an acquaintance’s name. As often as I have seen “You Are Brave” calligraphied on picture frames and inspirational graphic art, the satire doesn’t seem so far from reality.
Traditionally, courage is synonymous with fortitude and perseverance, the ability to do something difficult or fearful. However, the church has understood courage even more narrowly. Courage has historically been included among virtues like prudence, justice, and temperance, all of which must be grounded in love. As theologian Thomas Aquinas put it, love “directs the acts of all other virtues.” Christian courage is therefore enabled by love—“perfect love casts out fear”(1 John 4:18)—and motivated by love (1 Cor. 13).
In short, Christian courage is facing one’s fears for the expressed purpose of love. Martyrs lay down their lives out of love for God. Martin Luther King Jr. braved persecution out of love for the oppressed. A mother courageously carries her terminal baby to term, all for love.
Without this love of God and others, courage turns into something precious and sentimental that encourages a love of self. Without the anchor of love, courage can also drift into meaninglessness. C.S. Lewis captures this latter pitfall in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape instructs a younger demon in tempting humans, explaining:
Whenever [Christians] are attending to [God] Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills….When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave.
Screwtape then adds, “Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.” In other words, one can feel brave without actually being brave.
I worry that’s what happens when “brave” is so overused, becoming a catchall term for wisdom, truth, self-care, confidence, vulnerability, and provocation. Sure, these expressions can sometimes be brave, but not inherently. Speaking a difficult truth, for example, is not always brave; sometimes it is just honest, or loving. It can even be judgmental, or intentionally outrageous. Likewise, courage is not the same thing as survival. One can overcome an illness, a heartache, or the death of a loved one begrudgingly or timidly. Christian courage, with its emphasis on love, asks us to consider how we endure.
It’s tempting to apply “brave” so broadly because courage is the most romantic of the virtues. Most of us would like to think of ourselves as brave. Temperate and prudent? Not so much. ”She is brave” sounds a lot more glamorous than “She makes good decisions” or “She is patient with her kids.”
However, as much as we might fancy ourselves brave, the work of courage is actually quite hard. It requires selflessness, self-sacrifice, and honesty about our fears, none of which our human nature is inclined to do. So, we’ve found shortcuts to courage. If a person’s actions seem brave, she must be brave. If I feel brave, I am brave.
The problem is, by paving over the distinctions, we risk robbing courage of its meaning, and shortchanging the other virtues as well.
Our world cannot afford this. The poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the lost are crying out for a courage that is motivated by love. Jesus answered their cry by going to the cross, and our call is the same. To follow him, we must face the fears that keep us from love—rejection, danger, uncertainty, humiliation, loneliness, and loss—and live in a way that is actually brave.
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