People see a good deal of dishonor in our world. Honor is always being sacrificed (or is in danger of being sacrificed) at the altar of pragmatism. It is senseless. It is too expensive. It is inconvenient. It is not profitable. It cramps my style. (The movie “Wall Street” comes immediately to mind.)
But I have also seen a great deal of honor. I have seen people suffering terribly and still able to be happy; even blessed. You know people who have been terribly wronged and will not become vengeful or bitter. This is honor. It is self respect married to respect for others.
Two movies come to mind; one true and one fictional, “We Were Soldiers Once” or “Saving Private Ryan.” People were brave in the midst of horrible circumstances. They look fragile in the midst of it...as though a breath would blow them away. But they endure. No. They are triumphant (John 16:33). They overcome the uncertainty, the pain, the horror and the hopelessness and they give others courage. They give others life. They give others a reason to live. They make us want to be honorable; to be brave and noble. They tell us that sacrifice and nobility endure and embolden people.
This cynicism; this realism as it is called, is the wrong perspective. It is an ignoble and evil perspective. What happens to us when we have no honor? What if honor becomes a casualty of our culture? What if we decide it is too expensive? We become less than human. Our bankbooks may be full but our souls are barren. We may be alive and well but we are broken and hopeless. And we know it.
Jacques Ellul and T. S. Elliot had much to say about this. But my money is with Albert Camus. He was an atheist. He frankly confessed he could not believe. Yet, he fought the Nazis in WW II. He confronted hopelessness in its most pernicious and despicable forms. He stood against it, wrote against it, spoke against it; lived against it. His writings challenge us to be honorable; to be noble. You may believe his honor was an illusion but he maintained it in the face of a world he could see no hope in. His respect for people would not allow him to give in to cynicism.
In “The Plague” Camus wrote of an atheist, Tarrou, who speaks with the doctor, Rieux, about this honor; this respect. Bubonic plague is devastating the city where they are living. Day after day they wage a quiet war against death. The doctor has a clear purpose; he is a healer. But Tarrou is a mystery. What makes him take on this horrible enemy day after day at mortal risk to his own life? One evening Tarrou says, “It comes to this...what interests me is learning how to become a saint...Can one be a saint without God? ...that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” (p.237, Vintage Books)
To be a saint? Maybe it means to respect others. Maybe it means to respect oneself. Maybe it means to have honor in the face of helplessness, hopelessness or uncertainty. “Death before dishonor” say soldiers and they serve and some die. “Honor all men...” (1 Peter 2:17) said the apostle who knew honor and dishonor and made a choice. We call him a saint. Now the choice is ours; can we be saints...with God?