Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Holy smokes, there is a lot going on that sentence. As Paul speaks these words – or as the person reading Paul’s words to the folks in Rome speaks them – I can imagine their voice rising steadily in intensity and excitement. Here in Paul’s letter there is this sequence, this holy chain of cause and effect, all of which lead us to the love of God through the Holy Spirit.
Like a lot of things in the Bible, these words come and go so fast that they are done almost before they begin. As the sportscasters sometimes say, blink and you’ll miss it.
So, what I’d like to do this morning is to zoom in on this sequence. If we had an hour together, we could look at every step. But given the limits of time, what I would like to focus on with you is one idea or virtue in particular, and that is character.
Character is kind of an old-fashioned notion or word, one that we hear about today less than we once did. Although I think that we mean something very similar very similar to character when we talk about integrity. Maybe you have seen the sign on the wall of the classroom at a child’s school.
Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.
And there is something to that saying. To find a wallet, for instance (and I have actually found multiple wallets across the years, I don’t know what that means) is to be faced with at least a tiny bit of temptation. Everybody likes found money, there are few things as delightful as five dollars blowing in the breeze, manna from heaven. Except when that money is within a wallet – here are driver’s license, credit card, everything – you have the means to return it to its owner. And no one will know if you don’t.
To have integrity, absolutely, is to return the wallet and its cash even though no one is looking. And the more that you practice doing this, the less of an internal debate it becomes, the more it becomes a virtuous habit. Your character is supported and indeed created by behaving in a moral way. And to pop back a little earlier in Paul’s sequence, all of that is supported by your experience of suffering: because you know something about loss, you have the moral imagination to know what it must be like to lose a wallet. And so the virtue gets a little easier every time.
But I want to argue with or add to the sign on the school wall a little. And I think I’ve shared this with you before, but I am thinking of it in a new way now. In addition to saying integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking I want to add:
Integrity is doing the right thing when everyone is looking and expecting you to do the wrong thing.
One of the things of which I am most ashamed happened in the schoolyard when I was, maybe, ten years old.. And I had a classmate who, maybe, we somewhere on the autistic spectrum. We didn’t use or know the word autism back then. We just knew that this classmate – I’m going to call him Paul – was weird.
Paul was a popular target with bullies. That’s because Paul cried and yelled – and I don’t understand this about human beings, but I know that it is true – and there was something delicious to us about drinking in other’s pain.
On this particular day at camp, a group of children had Paul surrounded. There was a circle, Paul was in the middle of it, and the children took turns lobbing taunts at him. It looked a little bit like an ancient scene of someone being stoned.
Paul’s fists were bunched up, his face was the picture of terror and rage:
Leave me alone! he screamed
Leave me alone!
And I stood there.
And I did nothing as Paul pleaded for it to stop.
I am thankful that a photograph of that moment does not exist. I am thankful because I don’t know what I would do to be confronted that directly with evidence of my passivity before cruelty, before evil. And I am thankful for another reason. I am thankful because I am afraid that in that photograph I might see evidence on my face that I too was taking pleasure in Paul’s suffering, that I too was drinking of his pain.
What if I wasn’t just passive?
What if I liked it?
Eventually, a classmate who had more character than me intervened. He stepped into the middle of the circle and put his arm over Paul’s shoulder and led the shaking and weeping boy away.
The horror of George Floyd’s murder is not only a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It is three other police officers watching and doing nothing – nothing, that is, except to make sure that none of the neighbours intervene. And in a way, their passivity and complicity is almost the bigger horror. Because an individual police officer or soldier or prison guard or plain-old citizen behaving in a deeply cruel way is something that we can explain away as the actions of a psychopath – those actions are awful, but they hold no comment and no condemnation for the rest of us. But when a horror is facilitated by a circle of police officers or a circle of children that is awful at an entirely new level.
It has been almost forty years since I watched Paul’s humiliation, Paul’s stoning. Almost forty years since I did nothing. Almost forty years since, God forbid, I maybe enjoyed what I was watching.
I want to believe that I would act differently today. I want to believe that I have more character now than I had then. And if that is true, if my character or integrity has grown since those days, then I owe that in significant part to my classmate who stepped into the middle of the circle and rescued Paul. That classmate showed me – showed all of us – that another, better world was possible. That we are not condemned to watching evil passively, to participating in evil.
It is Richard Rohr who says that Jesus always goes towards the pain. And that is what my classmate did all those years ago. He stepped into the middle of that circle of pain and he rescued Paul and, maybe, he rescued all of us, all of us who were debasing ourselves by participating in that schoolyard stoning. In the midst of suffering, he enduringly showed us character. Character which leads to hope. And hope which does not disappoint us, because always, always leads us to the love of God.