What is courage? Is it something demonstrated on the field of battle, where bullets cut through flesh and heroic acts dance a pasodoble with death? Is it giving up a high-dollar promotion to be the father that makes it to his son's soccer games? Might it be standing up to the bullies that tease your little brother? Running into a burning building when everyone else is running out is courageous, right?
At a time when being part of the LGBT community is vogue and celebrated, our society (or at least the media) has deemed it courageous just joining the party. Celebrities are hailed for their courage when they're photographed (for big money from magazines) without make up. Rock stars are courageous for releasing books that tell the world all of the antics they did that the rest of us already assumed they did. Politicians are courageous for admitting wrongdoing after having been caught. One wealthy, politically savvy woman is courageous for running for president while another wealthy, politically savvy woman is courageous for being black and living in the White House. CEOs are courageous when they go undercover and spend a weekend working an entry-level job in the companies they lead--and it's even more courageous if they do so on a TV show that will promote their company. Having special dietary needs is courageous. So is riding a bicycle. Courage, is turning your cell phone off for an hour.
When everything is courageous, nothing is.
When I think of courage, I think about Polycarp. Most of what we know about Polycarp comes from a letter he wrote to the Philippians and another letter someone else wrote and circulated to the Second Century churches. That second letter was on the topic of Polycarp's martyrdom.
Polycarp became a Christian as a child. He studied under the Apostle John and eventually became the Bishop of Smyrna. During his lifetime he argued against Gnosticism, to include Marcion, a heretic of great note. But what makes Polycarp truly courageous came when he was 86 years old.
For whatever reason, Rome determined that Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was an enemy of the state. When the Roman centurions came to arrest him, he fed the soldiers dinner. He then proceeded to pray for two hours. Eventually the guards took him to Quadratus and a screaming mob of fans that packed out an arena.
While the spectators demanded Polycarp's death, Quadratus demanded that Polycarp deny Christ. Polycarp responded. "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"
After some banter, Quadratus lost his temper and threatened to burn Polycarp on the stake. This time Polycarp responded, "You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly." Quadratus, in his anger, demands that Polycarp be burned alive. The letter says that the fire did not burn Polycarp so a guard stabbed him with a spear and killed him.
The Roman government felt that an 86 year-old Christian pastor was dangerous to their way of life so he tried to silence Polycarp. Instead, Polycarp, firmly standing on his convictions, gave up his life for Jesus Christ and continues to speak today. He would not recant. He would not back down. And we still remember him for his faithful courage.
History probably holds records of more courageous acts. But there is something about Polycarp that should inform about us what courage looks like. Compare Polycarp's last day to many of the things called courageous today. It's almost laughable, isn't it? Maybe we should think twice before we call someone courageous, unless he or she really is indeed courageous.