The courage of love

Tharros, we call it in Greek, or, borrowing from our European neighbors, we use the folksy and poetic courayio. I used to have images in my head for this wondrous attribute, this word, courage. Because of Greek history, the images were military. Leonidas and his three hundred saying to Xerxes at Thermopylae, Molon, Lave, ''Come and take us.'' How I thrilled at those words, which echoed with other laconic phrases through the Greek centuries of existence, reaching down to the decade of my birth with the ''No!'' ochi, to Mussolini.

During the war, the meaning of courage took on many shapes, but the one I remember best occurred in Athens as the first act of defiance against the Nazis.

Two university students, nineteen years of age, climbed the Acropolis, and after four desperate tries, brought down the Nazi flag which was desecrating the air of the ancient rock. After that moonlit night of May 31, 1941, the Athenians woke to see again the purity of the beloved sight, recognized instinctively that the absence of the swastika meant an act of courage, and took heart. What attracted me when I learned of it years later was that it meant defiance without the shedding of blood.

Since then, courage for me has taken on peaceful faces and recognizable names. There have been many, and they belong to various nations and races. But since September, '82, one name has stood for courage in my thoughts, the embodiment of all that special word connotes: enormous self-respect, defiance to injustice, even when practiced by a powerful government, total disregard for personal safety, and a masterly ability to express this defiance, this peaceful resistance, with words.

This is what I wrote when I first saw him, and after months of thinking about him, it is still valid:

A slight man, he stands alone on the stage of the huge, ornate theater in New Orleans, delighted and surprised to be among us. Bishop Desmond Tutu, in a lilting, melodic accent, tells jokes spontaneously and fills the hall with laughter. I listen to him in amazement and know that this black South African Christian is making demands upon my loyalties which I cannot ignore.

Such momentous confrontations have happened very rarely in my life - this experience of being part of an audience, a stranger among strangers, listening to a speaker who is ignorant of my particular existence and yet who is speaking directly to me, changing me.

Bishop Tutu, poignantly funny at first, tenderly personal in his greeting to the thousands of church people whose prayers and political insistence broke down the intransigence of his government and brought him to the United States for nineteen days, grows gradually, despite his stature, into the giant of courage he is.

I listen to him and monitor something remarkable that is happening to me. ''I will never forget his presence,'' I think, ''this man speaks with authority. I will never again allow myself to be intimidated by the powerful when they are unjust to the weak.'' I am making commitments which later will frighten me. Haven't I enough social concerns already? Why should this stranger command me to do more? I have no connections to South Africa. But my heart knows that is not true. As with other loves in my life, this too started with a book.

I read Alan Paton in my twentieth year but allowed myself only to savor the exquisiteness of his prose. Very deliberately, I avoided thinking deeply about the implications of Cry, the Beloved Country, because I could not afford the pain. Paton's book could break my heart if I let it. It was easier to think of it merely as literature instead of a call to commitment. Besides, I was so young then.

Bishop Tutu brings back the initial stirring impression of the book, but it is no longer the impact of a story; it takes on a form and a name. It stands before me as reality. ''I, a bishop in the church of God, rising fifty-one years , don't have the vote in the country of my birth. An eighteen-year-old, happening to possess that wonderful biological irrelevance, a white skin, can vote.''

The sentence stabs at me. What have we made of the color of skin? The biological irrelevance hits me hard, and though I think I lack this particular form of prejudice, the phrase lays the heart bare. I can no longer avoid the commitment which I brushed aside in my youth. I must think about South Africa and apartheid. If I share a bit of the pain, will it make a difference? But I am not a courageous person. Can I speak out against an established order?

His next sentence blows away my fears. ''Let the South African government know that I do not fear them,'' he says, and the voice is the voice of Jesus, of Peter and Paul and of all those who through the ages have defied authority because a greater authority commanded them.

I recognize it. What distinguishes it is the power of love which undergirds it.

This is why his voice makes demands upon me, and I respond in my way. My first act is very simple, and it surprises me. We all know that Bishop Tutu's days in America are few, and he needs to have time to rest and to enjoy his freedom. Though I am in New Orleans as a church journalist, I avoid taking any of his precious time. But when I come upon him at the convention hall, I stop and hug and kiss him and say ''thank you.'' It doesn't matter that he does not know me. I offer him this sign of love like a promise. I ask nothing in return, for he has already given me so much.

I had gone to New Orleans encumbered by thoughts of the suffering in the world. His words do not make this realization less - what he tells us is full of sorrow, that his generation is the last patient one; the next, he fears will not be willing to talk, that brothers in the flesh cannot live graciously together because of the color of their skin - yet, he, whose skin deprives him of the most basic freedoms, is full of joy and courage.

Where does this joy and courage come from?

''We are on the winning side,'' he tells us. ''If God be for us, who can be against us?''

Some of that joy and courage begins to fill my heart.

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