Moral Courage

By Bill Mefford

One aspect of leadership that does not get talked about much, but has surely been on display lately is moral courage. We tend to know it when we see it (and we know it when we don’t see it too), moral courage is best evident in standing up for what you believe in especially when it is not popular or when you are sure to catch hell for it. The power of moral courage is that it draws people in and commands respect and admiration. I cannot help but admire people who display even the slightest amount of moral courage and the adverse of this is true as well. I literally cannot stand even to be near someone who bows easily to the winds of change and the whims of popular opinion.

I have seen moral courage in the latest controversy involving the NBA and China and China’s continuing efforts to repress the brave protesters in Hong Kong who are organizing and advocating for basic freedoms. Over the weekend the General Manager with the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters and China’s state-run businesses associated with the NBA immediately began breaking ties with the NBA. All because one official with one NBA team said he supported people exercising their God-given rights to protect their freedom.

Many people in the NBA, including the General Manager who tweeted out his support, tried to walk it back in the days following his tweet, but that was not acceptable to Chinese leaders. Totalitarianism knows no mercy. For all of the immense amount of business that China does with the world they remain a repressive totalitarian state that has committed gross human rights violations against minority religious groups and many others. Back in the late 90s when President Clinton began the long process of bringing China into the World Trade Organization he promised that making China a trade partner would alleviate the enormous human rights abuses they had committed and continued to commit. Like any good Republican, Bill Clinton believed that capitalism cures everything.

News alert: it doesn’t. Clinton was wrong about that and a great many other things. And many of us sounded the alarm years ago though we went unheard.

Cut to today and we finally see moral courage in NBA Commissioner Adam Silver who does not condemn the tweet or disavow the General Manager of the Rockets or condemn the the Hong Kong protesters themselves. Silver stands by the GM’s free speech rights even though his league has a lot to lose with China’s businesses pulling out of their partnerships with the NBA. Roughly 10% of the NBA current revenue stream comes from China so this is not a small deal; this is a big deal. But Silver, who has pulled the ownership of the Los Angles Clippers from a previous owner who made racist statements and who has taken a strong stand against police brutality, stood by the GM’s right to free speech. He is walking a fine line to be sure - trying not to wholesale condemn China while also refusing to kowtow to a repressive Chinese regime.

This brought to mind an occurrence several years ago when I worked for the United Methodist Church at the national level. One of the many issues I covered was religious freedom and I was perplexed that practically no one at the national level ever issued statements regarding religious persecution. Religious freedom has a pillar of the United Nations since it’s founding and is something the church should be speaking out for regarding religious minorities in nations around the world.

So, I took it upon myself to write a two page statement about instances of religious persecution happening throughout the world (though I focused mostly on the Middle East, I included China). It was exhaustively researched and well cited and the research was from respected sources, which is important because there is a cottage industry of thoughtless, reactive and frankly, Islamaphobic “Christian” groups who claim they are defending persecuted Christians while they are really focused on spreading a fused America/Jesus-first foreign policy. But the statement I put together was a middle-of-the-road document reminding readers of the importance of this basic human right while calling for change where this right is not being respected.

I mistakenly believed that church officials, timid as they always are about speaking out for vulnerable people (despite what is claimed), would eagerly take this up. I mistakenly believed that religious freedom is such a vital part of our human existence that church politics would be thrown out the window in favor of a chance to do something that could benefit real people.

Like I said, I was mistaken. Church officials from various agencies quashed the statement because they thought it “unwise” to make statements like this and thought it better to work silently behind the scenes building relationships with national officials where persecution of religious minorities exists. Of course, they had been “building relationships” with officials in places like China for literally decades and those relationships have obviously done nothing to stop the ongoing religious persecution of evangelical Christians, Muslim Uighars, the Xinjiang, the Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or a number of other groups. They chose silence instead of speaking out. They chose being present with oppressors rather than standing with the oppressed.

Remember when I said at first that moral courage is attractive; that people who show moral courage draw people to them? We should therefore not be surprised when denominations like the United Methodist Church are hemorrhaging members at such a rapid rate. Moral courage attracts. Timidity and institutional protectionism repels.

Moral courage requires that we be willing to place the interests of others ahead of our own. We have political leadership incapable of doing so and we have church leadership unwilling to do so. We do have people like Adam Silver who give us glimpses of what moral courage can look like, but let us not forget that the true leaders in all of this are the Hong Kong protesters themselves who are daily confronting repression and oppression and fighting for their freedom not only for themselves, but for generations to come. Yes, I will likely be attending a couple of NBA games this coming season, but I am forever motivated to continue fighting for freedom and justice because of the moral courage and the absolutely fearlessness of the Hong Kong protesters.

Out of all of the leaders I have been around during my thirteen years in Washington DC and in the upper echelons of the church, it is not surprisingly the people directly impacted by injustice who provide the leadership necessary to fight the injustice.

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