By: Matt Gordon
“Land of the free and the home of the . . .”
F. Scott Key could have put about anything there.
Home of the good. Or home of the bright. He could have been materialistic and gone with home of the rich. Or altruistic: home of the true.
So many things could fit, but the quality he chose to describe himself and his countrymen: Brave.
Brave. Bravery. Courage.
What is it about courage that compels? And what makes us loathe its opposite quality?
No one wants to be a coward. Ever get called a “coward”? It is an insult that will make one cower. The word is thought to derive from the French word for tail, perhaps meaning the way an animal “turns tail” and runs. To be a coward then, etymologically, is to be less than human. An animal. A scared, scampering beast.
Mark 14 has bravery and cowardice as its theme, bookended by two characters epitomizing these respective qualities. The first is a woman at a party. In those times women were to be seen and not heard. They had a low standing in society, a cultural misogyny baked into the bread of daily life. But this woman, unnamed here in Mark, did not let the fear of convention, the rigidity of societal norms, stay her hand. No, she took in that very hand a jar of costly perfume—likely worth tens of thousands of dollars—and broke it before Jesus, the object of her worship and, in this case, breaker of her cultural chains (and this aforementioned alabaster jar). She was brave.
At that same party was Peter, a stalwart follower of Jesus for years. Toward the end of Mark 14, Jesus suggests that his followers would fall away—they would not find the courage to stand firm. Peter argues that “even if all fall away, I will not.” He has words, bravado. But his courage is fleeting—it turns tail and runs. When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. On that night, he was a coward.
It is hard to know sometimes if we’ll be brave, isn’t it? Of course, we all, like Peter, think we will be. Some friends and I were discussing the Holocaust recently—just some light conversation, I know. But the conversation spent a few moments on whether or not we’d be the type of people who would have, at great peril to ourselves, harbored Jewish people in our homes. Of course we would. Just ask us.
Some research pertaining to that very quandary suggests that the people who were most likely to protect Jews at that time were those raised with high risk thresholds and adherence for empathy over rules. Often this was a result of being born later in a family. Later-borns, after all, are often forced to risk more to get attention and could get away with more thanks to over-extended parents. Empathy is often born from relating actions not with hard-and-fast rules but with feelings. So rather than being told as children, “Don’t hit!” those who are chided with something like, “How do you think that makes Joseph feel when you hit him?” were far more likely to buck the edicts of the Reich for the whispers of the conscience.
So some measure of bravery is conditioned into our upbringing. Are we rule-followers and first-borns doomed to “Peter” out when adversity comes calling?
But let’s return to the anthem. Before it is the home of the brave it is “the land of the free.” Maybe there is something in that? That courage is a choice. It may be a harder choice for some of us than others, but all the same we can open our doors, our hidden rooms, to what is right regardless of social and familial conditioning.
This brings to mind the Cowardly Lion. The famous character is supposed to be the king of all beasts, yet fears his own shadow. In the books, despite this fear, he approaches Dorothy—which goes against his very moniker. He then chronicles his malady to her, a leap of courageous vulnerability. And off to see the Wizard they go—facing dangers and crossing treacherous chasms along the way.
The Lion was terribly afraid, but pressed on. It was not the sudden absence of fear that moved him onward, but an unrelenting propulsion through it toward something better. The kinship of his friends and the longing for the Wizard had him roar in inner defiance at his own cowardice. He pushed bravely on.
In Mark 14, wedged between the worshipful, perfume-pouring woman and the cowering, creeping Peter is a distraught version of Jesus. Sitting in a garden, awaiting his arrest, he laments: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
Here is a troubled man. He looks at the world around him, at the circumstances marching toward him, and it is not an anthem that springs forth, but a dirge. “Father,” he prays to God, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
He is chronicling his malady, a leap of courageous vulnerability. And in the moments to come, he is arrested, beaten, and nailed to a tree, crossing treacherous chasm—a propulsion through death for something better.
Mark 14 is a study in courage: in being set free to be brave, even when our souls are overwhelmed to the point of death. We lay our cowardice down and walk on into the storms set before us toward the hope of a collective “something better.”
The land of the free; the home of the brave, pushing bravely on.