03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Speaking Truth To Power: Where Are The Brave Leaders?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about courage, or the lack thereof. I think about it especially in relation to our Congress, which seems overall just about as cowardly as it is possible to be while still posturing and strutting, pretending to stand for something. Our elected representatives seem far more interested in winning over lobbyists than in serving the citizenry. Is this just corruption as usual, or are we seeing a serious decline in moral courage?

I mean, look at Max Baucus and the other Blue Dog Democrats, whose biggest campaign contributions come from the very companies they are supposed to be regulating. Look at Timothy Geithner checking out his every move by cell phone, at all hours, with Wall Street cronies, and ending up with a regulatory system that does not regulate, but which instead allows for increased bonuses for his banker buddies, for God's sake. How about the sudden dropping of corruption charges on Karzai's government in Afghanistan, congratulating him for winning the election, as if voter fraud had never happened (with a little well-placed paternalistic advice about getting things back on the straight and narrow)? Or Peter Galbraith's ties to billions in oil profits, while serving as an advisor to the Kurds? Is anyone else repulsed by this to the point of gagging?

The usual justification is that they have to get re-elected, which means they can't piss off their biggest contributors. Why, I wonder, is that so important? What terrible thing would befall them if they were not re-elected? In all likelihood, they would end up pulling down huge fees on the lecture circuit, in a cushy job with a law firm, or even (since the regulations we were promised, regarding elected officials returning to the hill as lobbyists, have been "relaxed"), lobbying for their friends, the HMO's. That's hardly being homeless on the street.

Apparently our nation's leaders cannot bear the idea of losing. I am not referring here to a metaphoric losing of principles, nor to losing the battle for a piece of legislation that would serve the people they are supposed to represent. I certainly don't mean losing their souls, which, as the currency of the day, are bought, sold and traded regularly for a mess of pottage called votes and perks. I mean losing the next election. It is as though their very survival depended on winning.

It is not their real survival which they are defending, of course; it is the survival of their identity, as hrrumph, an important person, a member of the United States Congress. They have become their egos. The ego speaks the language of power, not the language of love, faith, or commitment. Whatever it says it is about, it is really only interested in one thing: its own survival. Like the rest of us, the ego wants to keep its job. In order to do so, it must continually win and prove itself triumphant. Each time it does so, it gets to deny the inevitability of death for one more day.

I remember a client who came into my office several years ago with panic attacks. She had a job that was killing her, but was afraid to quit. She had a few million in investments and certificates of deposit. She commanded sufficient respect in her field that finding a new job, after a reasonable healing sabbatical, would be easy. What was she afraid of, I asked. She was afraid she would go through all her savings, then all her investments, and then end up on the street. Absurd as it seems, it boiled down to survival. Cowardice always does. Remember the Germans who went along with the Third Reich in order to assure their survival, and the people who testified for McCarthy, so they wouldn't lose their own jobs?

If survival were assured, we would all be heroes.

In the 1970's, Masterpiece Theater produced a mini-series about British suffragists, which brought me to tears. My tears were tears of shame for my generation, pretending activism, but hedging our bets, fearful of repercussions or disapproval. I remember wondering: Where did these proper, well-bred, ruling class, economically-dependent women with everything to lose, find the courage to chain themselves to fences, and go on hunger strikes? This was not ordinary courage I was witnessing; it was moral courage.

Ordinary courage can be bravado in the moment. It needs approval. Moral courage often costs us the approval of those we think we need. Ego cannot fake or replace it; it comes from a deeper place. I dare say moral courage comes from love--love of something greater than oneself, and faith in something greater, too, greater even than ones own survival. As a child during the Civil Rights Movement, I saw people, armed only with their own determination and belief in a God of justice, stand up to police dogs, insults, lynch mobs and hoses. They drew on the story of the Exodus for inspiration, and they prayed for assistance to the God who led the Jews through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They sang the Gospel songs of endurance that their ancestors had sung in bondage, and the Spirituals that guided them along the Underground Railroad. As they were subjected to every imaginable indignity, humiliation, imprisonment, and in some cases, even death, they held in their hearts and minds the figure of a savior who suffered and died at the hands of evil and injustice, and triumphed still.

If I understand anything about the ministry of Jesus, it is that he spoke truth to power, regardless of how it was going to affect his survival. While the crowds and the marginalized loved him, he pissed off all the stakeholders in the power game: the Romans, of course, but also the Zealots and the Pharisees. He would not play. He was not interested in their game, as he told them all regularly. Because he didn't need their approval, he had no reason to fear pissing them off. He was crucified, not for our sins (a wacky doctrine called substitutionary atonement made up many years after his death, and then seized on by the Church for reasons of, you guessed it: power). He was crucified for truth telling and refusing to capitulate to the powers and principalities, even those in his own camp. Right to the end, Pilate kept asking him to renounce his truth to save his life. But he knew some things are more important even than life, and if he played their game, he'd have lost those. He'd have become like the rest, a slave to his own survival. If his life and death teach us anything, it is that true freedom comes from transcending the primacy of our own sniveling little lives.

I suppose it's asking a lot to expect our Senators to be like Jesus. But I believe we can--and should---ask them to risk their careers, if not their lives, for the principles of fairness we elected them to stand for. No one gets out of here alive--not even Presidents, and certainly not Senators. We're all going to die sooner or later. Given reasonable health care coverage, our elected representatives will die comfortably of natural causes. Their survival is not really at issue. But ours is. As a nation that desperately needs to retrieve and believe in its founding vision, we need our government to show some bravery, to remember the larger principles they vowed to serve. Our leaders need to make their legislative choices not from an addiction to approval and power, but from a commitment to and love of something greater--even if they don't get re-elected.