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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

On Being Good

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Published Sunday July 12, 2015

Real Clear Politics this morning carries a fascinating piece by David Shribman on how presidents want to be remembered:

And so tucked into the president’s eulogy to Rev. Pinckney — perhaps you noticed it, too — was a comment about the South Carolina state senator and pastor that could not have been a casual aside. It was the president’s assessment of Rev. Pinckney as a good man, and, reading the excerpt that follows, it may be hard to repress the notion that the president was thinking, too, about his own hard passage:

What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized — after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.

Interesting….  I have heard, “He was a good man,” in eulogies many times over, usually in an effort to set apart a life remembered that was otherwise very ordinary.  It had never occurred to me that someone of extraordinary accomplishment – like getting elected POTUS – would want such a eulogy.  Is it a false humility?  Is it a reflection of the fact that the office did not provide the personal satisfaction they had hoped for?  Is it trying to cover up for perceived failure?  I’ll never know – that level of accomplishment is just not in my bag of tricks.

But it does raise the question of what is goodness?  Who really is a good man or a good woman?  What is the yardstick against which we measure such a thing?

One thing I know – it is not about personal morality.  King David of Israel was called “a man after God’s own heart.”  Certainly if God is good, then such a sobriquet grants to its bearer, among other things, the quality of goodness.  And yet David’s personal morality was sordid indeed.  Most know the story, he committed adultery and then had the husband of the object of his affection killed.  That is not anywhere near the definition of “morally upstanding.”

I also know it is about more than just the desire or effort to be good.  Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?  In the early portions of the book, Raskolnikov rationalizes the murder he commits to the point where he is convinced it is a good thing to do.  In committing a heinous crime, Raskolnikov is certain it is a good act.  Clearly, we can be confused or confuse ourselves to the point where we commit evil in what we think is the pursuit of good.  The desire or the effort to be good is not enough to actually be good.

But these two stories do reveal the first aspect of goodness – to publicly realize one’s own failing.  We have the many Psalm’s of David in which he confesses to God his sin.  Raskolnikov eventually turns himself in.  All people fail at goodness, but a good person recognizes when they do, acknowledges it and endeavors to never repeat that mistake.

For leaders, the question of goodness is very complex.  Contrast the presidency’s of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.  Bill Clinton is undeniably a moral and personal reprobate.  Jimmy Cater is a man of upstanding moral character and a man of deep faith.  But Clinton is almost universally regarded as a far better president than Carter, and it is therefore arguable that Clinton did much more good than Carter.  Carter’s policy with regard to Iran has lead the world down a path where death from radical Islam is now virtually uncountable.  Does that not therefore, in some sense, make Carter’s policies evil?  This is a complex question, but it does point out than in leadership, especially large leadership like POTUS, goodness is measured not just in personal goodness, but on how that goodness, or lack thereof, plays out in their policies and actions.

For most of us life does not extend beyond a small personal sphere.  For leaders that sphere is larger, and depending on what is being lead, the sphere can have ramifications far beyond its own boundaries.  For a president, the sphere is the world.  Which leads me to a second important attribute of goodness.  I like it best as described in Philippians 2:

 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

For a leader, goodness is measured in part by his or her ability to see beyond their own concerns and take on the perspective of the other.  And I might add, even if they disagree with that perspective.  That means more than just an intellectual comprehension of the argument of the opposition.  A good leader will be able to understand the perspective of their opposition sufficiently to understand the mental, emotional and spiritual ramifications of forcing their perspective on that opposition.  A good leader will know when to force something and when, despite their conviction of rightness, to let it ride – precisely because of those other than policy ramifications.  Turning an opponent into an enemy is an evil act, and this is a leader’s example of doing evil in the perceived pursuit of good.

Hugh discusses generosity as a key to happiness.  I also think it is a key to goodness.  Generosity is another way to look at the attribute I discussed in the previous paragraph.  Generosity comes in so many forms.  It can be material, but it is so much more.  It is generous to listen to a friend in emotional distress.  It is generous to lead an organization the way it wants to go rather than the way you think it ought to go.  It is generous to abide by the rules, even when they are inconvenient.  Generosity is a hallmark of goodness.

Thankfulness is also an attribute of goodness.  This is related to what I said above about knowing when we fail at goodness.  Thankfulness acknowledges the goodness and generosity that you experience from others and the role that others play in helping you be good.  No one can be good of their own accord.

I could go on with attributes of goodness and their ramifications for a very long time.  The Apostle Paul gave us a list of good attributes:

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

We each have to work those out in our own spheres, large and small.  If we want to be good people, these attributes are the place to start.

I too want to be remembered as a good man.  So though I fail miserably and often it is on these things that I focus.  Who will join me?


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