A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Valedictorian Speeches: It's Not About Courage, It's About Integrity

As a United Methodist pastor, I serve in a tradition that practices infant baptism. Many years ago we had issues with candidates for ordained ministry that would hide their opposition to baptizing infants until they were ordained. Then after their position was secure they would announce that they would practice only believer's baptism and therefore would only baptize adults upon their confession of faith. When I was the chair of a District Committee on Ordained Ministry, the first committee to interview possible ordinands, I would say to candidates struggling with the practice of infant baptism that it was OK to raise questions about the practice, but if they decided that they could not in good conscience baptize infants, then they needed to show some integrity and find a church tradition in keeping with their views. I suggested that it lacked integrity for candidates for ministry to hide their views and then announce them after their ordination.

Honesty is critical for integrity. Deception destroys it. When we hide our intentions to break the rules even though we agree to them, at least implicitly, we lack integrity.

Meet Roy Costner IV, the Valedictorian for 2013 at Liberty High School in Liberty, SC. He was told by the school board that he was not permitted to mention religion in his speech and that his words had to be approved ahead of time. He agreed to the ground rules and never revealed his intentions to scrap the speech in favor of reciting the Lord's Prayer. Costner said, "'I decided God is such an important part of my life. I feel like if we take Him out of school, it's going to hurt the school more than help. But I've noticed this past year more types of arguments, more types of fights going on that I think could be prevented with bringing God back into school,' he explained."

Now, I am not going to get into the issue of what it means to bring God back to school, which I find to be a real strange perspective. Rather, I want to suggest that young Roy Costner IV, who I am sure is a fine young man, demonstrated a serious lack of integrity in doing what he did without informing those who were laying down the ground rules of his speech that he was intending to recite the Lord's Prayer, something that was against the rules. This is not an issue of whether or not one agrees with the rules; rather it is a matter of honesty. To hide one's intentions, even though one knows the rules, and then break those rules lacks integrity in a way that detracts from the gospel instead of representing it.

If young  Mr. Costner wanted to reflect the image of Jesus, he should have made it clear to the school board that if he could not mention his faith, then he could not in good conscience speak. Thus, he would reflect honesty and he would be true to his convictions, while letting the school board know those convictions and then allowing them to decide whether or not he could speak. Instead, he went ahead and submitted something that would be approved and then dishonestly did something else that he knew was against the rules. Can one imagine Jesus being this deceptively dishonest?

Can we also imagine someone sitting in that graduation ceremony, who is perhaps on the edge of their faith, not sure if they believe or not, and then to have to endure a follower of Jesus willfully and dishonestly doing something other than expected, something that he ahead of time agreed to do? What would persuade that person to follow Jesus, who supposedly is the truth, when his followers cannot be honest with the truth? Jesus himself said that Christians should be the kind of people whose words reflect their character... so much so that they should not need to take oaths that they are indeed being honest-- let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matthew 5:37).

Many years ago, I received a phone call from the fire chief in the town where I lived wondering if I would offer a prayer of dedication for the new firehouse. In the midst of the conversation he said to me that my prayer would have to be generic and vague since there would be people there of differing religious convictions. In other words, I could not mention Jesus in my prayer. Since I am opposed to vague prayers offered to a non-specific deity, I respectfully declined to offer the prayer saying that as a Christian I had to pray in the name of Jesus, so in respect to the ground rules of the public prayer, I would pass on the invitation. It would have been a lack of integrity on my part to agree to the ground rules and then break them to make some point about the gospel in a crass and dishonest. way. Integrity demanded that I graciously decline the offer.

To my fellow followers of Jesus, I say get over your desire to be in charge and in control. Our salvation is possible only because our Lord and Savior gave up his control and submitted himself to death on a cross. And you undermine the truth of the gospel when it is more important for you to one-up the non-believers, than to bear witness to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we cannot do that without integrity.

And without honesty, there can be no integrity; and no one will take Jesus seriously until we act in ways that we must be taken seriously.


Ed said...

I simply disagree with the idea that it is integrity. It really may be courage, but it depends upon which side you agree with. I practiced infant baptism and still would, but there are plenty of theological arguments for the other side. I am afraid that when we refuse to let that other side express itself, then we lose that side of the complexity of theological voices.

Oloryn said...

I think I have to agree with Allan. If you're engaging in deception or in hiding the full truth in order to have an opportunity to express yourself, this is an integrity issue.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Taylor Burton-Edwards gave me permission to quote his response to my post he wrote in another forum. It's worth our attention.

All public forums have ground rules for the kind of speech expected and acceptable in them.

Call it a basic social compact. Or Civics 101.

When I agree to address a public forum, I do so understanding what its ground rules are and understanding it is my duty to the leaders of that forum and the people gathered for it to observe them. If I believe I cannot do so in good conscience, I politely decline the invitation.

We have ground rules in the kinds of speech we engage in Christian worship, do we not? There are plenty of things we would consider out of bounds for a service of worship. We would not praise Satan, or give extended lectures on microbiology, or offer what might be understood as sexually suggestive images, would we? Any of those things might be "in bounds" in other kinds of public assemblies (such as Satan worship, or a university lecture, or an art museum).

The school principal and school board in this case were clear about what was in bounds and what was not for a graduation speech, another kind of public assembly. They were in their rights to do so, both by law and in principle, as they are ultimately responsible for the conduct and outcome of this assembly.

It's not a question of persecution. It's not a question of censorship. It's also not a question of "control" over the lives of others, except in the limited circumstances of the specific assembly or forum in question.

It's a question of public decorum, and whether we will keep it.

Thanks, Allan, for calling this one as you have.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I agree with your comments about openness and allowing all voices to speak. The issue here though is different. Ben is right. This is about deception, which makes it a matter of integrity.

Oloryn said...

"To my fellow followers of Jesus, I say get over your desire to be in charge and in control."

I think this bears repeating. This desire, and the oftentimes manipulative ways it's pursued, affect things far beyond this issue. I dare say many a 'church fight' could be traced down to this on one or both sides. And I'm afraid that some Christians have the idea that when dealing with non-Christians, our duty is to be 'in charge and in control', which feeds the desire and harms our witness.

Patrick said...

On reflection, I agree with the view the kid should have boycotted the podium. Having said that, I still admire that kid.

Can't help it.

bthomas said...

Hum... "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Very appropriate. Very much appropriate.