This piece is the third in a series. This piece is a call to action for Citizens who wish to improve our country in these extraordinary times. The previous pieces were more Christian than this will be, including an identification of the spiritual nature of our moment and the presence of a very dishonest enemy of our midst.
Now, I’m going to make a big claim. The general understanding we’ve had about how to preserve or create a good society is wrong. Very briefly, I’m going to describe why it is wrong. Then, I’m going to show a better way to create a good society. Then, I’m going to apply it to the current moment.
The General Understanding of “Rights” is Objectively Wrong
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” That’s a funny phrase, and one that is used to describe how individual citizens are free to speak and act. Not only is it applied to swinging fists, but to speech, to parades, to business, to property rights, and just about everything else.
The problem with this phrase is that it is objectively false. The tort of “assault” is commonly defined as follows:
In other words, you don’t need contact to be guilty of assault. Therefore, objectively speaking, your freedom to swing your fists ends long before it reaches someone’s nose.
I bring this example up to show that many things that people think about the governing principles of our nation (even if they are said by Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill, and Abraham Lincoln) are actually not very accurate. Humorous? Sure. Accurate? No.
I don’t have the time to explain how businesses, property rights, parades, speech, and the whole gamut of “rights” are viewed wrongly, but I will just use this example to proclaim, “it’s wrong.” The simple fact is, it’s not working.
For too long, we have used false and anecdotal ways of communicating the fundamentals of our free society. We need new ways to guide citizens about how to create a just and peaceful society. As for what we’ve had so far, how are those things working?
We need something better. As we have seen in the past week, that free society is collapsing around us. Something is wrong. In light of this, it is time to think about new duties for ordinary citizens. Instead of “Rights” and “Freedom,” I say that ordinary citizens must champion “Courage” and “Virtue.”
Looking Back at an Old Event
There is an event that occurred in Ohio several years ago. In our cultural memory, it has been described as yet another example of governmental oppression of black men. While still be sympathetic to the injustice, I would like to describe it primarily as an act of the cowardice of ordinary citizens.
In 2014, a 12-year-old child named Tamir Rice was shot by police. A grand jury was convened, but did not indict. The reason the grand jury did not indict is because there was a 911 call from a citizen who observed that there was a guy with a gun that was probably fake, pointing at other people. He wanted the police to take care of it.
This “probably fake” detail was not passed on to the police, who responded to a call about a “guy” (not a 12-year-old child) in a park with a gun. When they approached the “guy,” the 12-year-old Tamir rice approached the officers in trust, apparently to show them that the gun was fake, as he drew his fake gun, an officer in training pulled his very-real weapon and shot the taller-than-an-ordinary-12-year-old Tamir Rice, killing him. It was an action that was within the bounds of his training considering the information that he had received. Therefore, it was not a crime. It was a tragedy.
But it was a tragedy that happened because an ordinary citizen did not have the ordinary courage to confront a boy with a “probably fake” gun and handle it himself.
For too long, we have assumed that if we, as citizens, simply aren’t actively bad, then we can go on with the peaceful nation we’ve always had. This is false.
There is a warning about this in the Bible, when it describes the New Heaven and the New Earth, where everything is made right:
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5-8)
Wait… …what? COWARDS? What are they doing there? Why are cowards put in the same category as the sexually immoral and sorcerers?
Because as Tamir Rice and dozens of other examples show, cowards get people killed. We do not (yet) criminalize cowardice, but the fact of the matter is, cowardice — the absence of active virtue and courage — gets people killed.
But it was “probably” fake. What if it is not fake? Then put your big-boy pants on, Sir, and get ready to be brave. If you want a peaceful society, you cannot be a coward. You must be courageous and you must be virtuous.
As Ahmad Aubrey showed us not long ago, it’s not merely some governmental overlord that is the danger to our peace and brotherhood. The danger is in the citizenry. We elect our representatives, you know. The enemy is us.
The Way to Be Virtuous
I wish I could say “be virtuous” and that people would understand what this means. Unfortunately, I do not think that people know how to do that. Therefore, I have to teach. I won’t pretend that I am a better person than the reader, but I do think I’ve been shown things that most people don’t see themselves. So let me pass on what I have received for the benefit of all.
Our Incorrect Way of Understanding Virtue and Justice
If you look around, you can see that we have a dual way of looking at issues in the public sphere. We have “the left” and “the right.” We have “the oppressor” and “the oppressed.” We have “guilty” and we have “innocent.” We have “generous” and we have “stingy.” We have “brave” and we have “coward.”
Unfortunately, this is wrong. There is not a single spectrum of courage and cowardice.
The Old Way of Thinking About Virtue
What I would like to do is revive an old idea about how to think about virtue. This isn’t a call to politically “come to the middle” (even though in some cases, it might have that effect). This is much deeper than that. It is a call to think again about what “justice” means at all.
The first main person to speak of “Virtue” was Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue of Socorates, “The Republic,” the men describe what a virtuous human being is. He divides the person into three parts for the benefit of explanation: the body that hungers, the emotions that feel, and the mind that reasons.
Then, he shows how each part can be virtuous.
- He says the virtue of the body is “prudence” when it only eats, sleeps, drinks, and reproduces, as much as it should: neither being a glutton nor a sluggard nor a drunkard nor a whore.
- He says the virtue of the mind is “wisdom” when it knows what it should know and doubts when it should doubt: neither pretending to know what is not known, nor pretending not to know what is certainly true.
- He says the virtue of the emotions is “courage” to like what one should like and dislike what one should dislike: neither rejoicing in dishonor nor being ignorant of what is good.
When all three of these virtues are active in a person, that is when JUSTICE is shown. It is JUSTICE to hold back from excess in prudence. It is JUSTICE to speak the truth in wisdom. It is JUSTICE to act in ways that are honorable with courage. But it is only justice when all these virtues are working together. One who courageously lies and courageously destroys is not an agent of “justice” but rather a very dangerous agent of evil.
That is why Virtue is the new duty of ordinary citizens in these times. We must be prudent, wise, and courageous, so that JUSTICE will exist both in our nation and in ourselves.
If you’d like a further explanation, we can go to Aristotle, who was even more fine-tuned than Plato and Socrates. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle his own guide for what it means to be virtuous. As this helpful crash-course video summarizes, this is what it means to be “virtuous”:
Imagine a person who always knows what to say, who can diffuse a tense situation, can deliver tough news gracefully, confident without being arrogant, brave but not reckless, generous but never extravagant.
This is the type of person that everybody wants to be around and be like. Someone who seems to have mastered the art of being a person.
This may sound like an impossible feat, but Aristotle believed that while rare, these people do exist. And they are what we should all aspire to be: Virtuous.
This is the duty. YOU, individual citizen, must master the art of being a person. We can no longer lean on our “society” to pick up the slack. We can’t depend on “the system” to bring justice. This is a more complicated way of looking at Virtue that is better than our current “virtue signaling” culture. Virtue is not being the furthest point on a spectrum.
Instead, it is doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. There is no dual-spectrum of good/bad, with virtue on one end. Rather “Virtue” is the perfect spot on a spectrum of human responses, depending on the situation itself.
Putting this into practice, look at this visual representation of the virtue of courage:
This is how we must think to individually achieve justice.
Instead of thinking in a dual way about issues in our society, it is the duty of every citizen to be much more sophisticated. Expand this thinking beyond mere courage and cowardice. Think of every virtue in this way.
Applying Old Systems of Virtue and Justice to the Current Moment
If one sees a man killed and has no reaction, no feeling, and no concern, this is obviously not good. But one does not grow in virtue by reacting in the extreme, being overcome by feeling and emotion, and by making this event the one driving concern of an entire nation.
If these responses grow, they will become more evil than the man who shrugs his shoulders and says “oh well, what does that have to do with me?”
As cities burn, stores are looted, and people are murdered in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I hope this truth does not need to be explained further.
The Call to the Full Spectrum of Virtue in Our Dangerous Times
In the past, you may have thought that if you didn’t actively do anything bad, you were by default “a good citizen.” But you must be more than “not bad.” You must be brave. You must actively put yourself in danger when the good of your community calls for it. You must refuse to be either reckless or a coward. You must be ruled by internal justice, not greed like a looter or passion like a zealot. The police do not enforce justice. YOU do. If you will not rule yourself by wisdom, then the police will rule you by violence.
Additionally, in the past, you may have thought that you could be a good citizen by being “informed.” But you must be more than informed. You must be wise. You must refuse to believe what is false. You must reach wisdom and not mere knowledge, especially in an age of social media.
In the past, you may have thought that you could be a good citizen by calling someone to take care of a problem. But you must be more than mindful and responsive. You must be responsible. You must act, especially in an age of societal strife.
In the past, you may have thought that you could create a good society by finding bad people and showing that they are bad. But you must be more than an identifier of “bad.” You must actively foster good. You must forgive. You must be magnanimous, neither self-righteous and puritanical nor conceited and vindictive.
As cities burn and nations are torn apart, we must remember that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:20)
The next piece will give a general suggestion to address the issues of police misconduct in light of recent events.