Courage vs. Conformity

Courage vs. Conformity


Dear Friends in Christ,

I recently read a quote that stuck with me:  “The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”  The author is Jim Hightower, columnist and long-time populist from Texas.

Those words continue to echo in my reflections because we don’t typically think of courage dying in the hands of conformity. Courageous images tend to be images of soldiers bravely defending a country, or a passerby stepping in to prevent someone being attacked. To have courage is to stand out as someone with bravery and selflessness.  

After musing on this quote, it’s hard not to think of courage as a quality that is much more accessible than we realize. If we have the capacity to conform, we also have the capacity to act with courage by not conforming.  But the ease of conformity can drain our courage, making it easier to go with the flow instead of stepping up to do the right or fair thing.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the story of King Herod ordering John the Baptist’s beheading. It is one of the more gruesome stories in The Bible, and is horrifying as a reflection on Herod’s desire to please his daughter and guests more than refusing to take a man’s life. We often focus on the way John the Baptist was dehumanized in order to justify killing him. Yet, looking at this story through the lens of conformity, we see a very different kind of dynamic. Rather than an example of dehumanizing an other, this story reveals the ease of conforming with a graphic example of abdicating one’s call to be courageous – to refuse to conform.

Conformity is seductive. It slips into our every day lives quietly and calmly. It is what makes things go smoothly in often productive and benign ways. Conformity is not a bad thing, on its face. But it can generate acts that lack reflection, compassion, mercy, and justice. Conformity also works quickly and in frightening ways when a crowd turns into a mob – and this is often justified by twisting conformity into a perversion of courage. Mob violence is not courage in numbers. It is the opposite of courage; it is conformity.

Jesus was a courageous human. And, I believe this was so because of his capacity to perfectly reflect God through prayerful reflection, compassion, mercy, and a laser-like wisdom when it came to questions of justice. Stories of his ministry give us example after example of his refusal to conform when it threatened to enervate his teachings on compassion and mercy.

Practically speaking, our daily lives cannot be sustained without conforming. The challenge, in this tension between conformity and courage, is to reflect and ask ourselves, “Am I conforming in order to truly help others, or am I conforming to avoid God’s call to lean in where justice and compassion are needed?” 

As Christians, the even better practice is to take this question to God. How might our open-hearted prayers reveal God’s yearning for us to step out of the ease of conformity to be courageous on behalf of another?