AUGUST 18, 2013 • THE LIVING CHURCH
n church schools, honor is routinely experienced asaleadingwayofrepresenting,embodying,enforcing,and growing this commitment to character. It’s almostrightuptherewithchapelasaleadingidentifierofwhattheschoolisallaboutinrelationtomoraldevelopment. Aschool’shonorsystemis—dareIsayit?—afamiliar marketing tool.Today’s students grow up in a world in which thelackofhonor(althoughitwouldnotbeputthatway)isalmost taken for granted. Who, when accused of any-thing, ever says “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’m sorry”? Whodoes not first
? Then, if left no room for escape:blame others, or the environment, or mental stress —anything but
Yes, I was responsible, I did wrong,I amwilling to face the consequences
. That last bit gets saidin court only as part of the plea deal. That’s what chil-dren grow up exposed to. Or they have parents who,ratherthansupportingtheteacherwhoreprimandedor punishedtheirchild,blametheschool,thinkingtheyaredefending their child.
he famous sociologist Peter Berger raises somethought-provokingquestionsinhis1970essay“Onthe Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” He beginswith this arresting statement: “Honor occupies aboutthe same place in contemporary usage as chastity. Anindividual asserting it hardly invites admiration, andonewhoclaimstohavelostitisanobjectofamusementratherthansympathy.”Apparentlyoutdated—andper-haps thankfully so — “at best, honor and chastity areseenasideologicalleftoversintheconsciousnessofob-soleteclasses,suchasmilitaryofficersorethnicgrand-mothers.”Bergerpointstoamoralreasonforhonor’ssocialos-tracism:itwasclass-bound,thenormsofanelite.Itwasappropriateformedievalknights,butitwasnotseenasdesirable or even possible for democratic men andwomen. Honor was, Berger observes, an aristocraticconcept, bound up with a hierarchical view of society.The age of chivalry operated on the basis of a moralcode that gave different weight to and had varying ex- pectationsofdifferentparties:“Toeachhisdue”wasthemoralimperativeofthefeudalorder.Thismoralitywastraditional,then,butitwasnotabsolute.Instead,itwasrelative to different groups in society. (This medievalmind-setshowsupinAnselm’sgreatworkontheAtone-ment,
Cur Deus Homo
.)Whatcitizenstheworldoverseektodayisnothonor but dignity, which confers status not according to rankbut according to personhood. Dignity adheres to thesolitary self; it asserts a humanity behind the roles andnorms of society. A naked, abandoned baby in a trashcanhasasmuchstatus,dignity,andworthastherobedking in his castle on the hill. This view is enshrined insuchfamousmoderndocumentsasthePreambletotheDeclaration of Independence and the United NationsDeclaration of Human Rights.Thus the waning of honor, Berger believes, is notsimply reflective of a coarsening of ethics, a moral de-cline,selfishness,oradecreaseinrespectforotherper-sons. That pessimistic historical view, he finds, is tooone-sided.Itfailstoappreciatethemoralgainsmadeinthe wake of the loss of honor. The age that saw the re-treat of honor, he points out, also saw the rise of newmoralities and indeed of a new humanism. Racial andreligious minorities, exploited classes, the poor: all re-ceivedrespectthroughdignity.Thusdignity,nothonor,came to hold unique sway in modern society. Although dominant in modernity, dignity is not a modern invention. The view that humanity has a pro-founddignityhaslongroots:youcanfindthisprinciple,for example, in the Bible, in Sophocles (in the con-frontation between Antigone and Creon), and in other ancient and medieval texts.Wheredothesehistoricalfactsandethicalappraisalsleavetoday’shonorsystem?Isitmerelyanarchaic,elit-ist, snobbery-inducing, class-bound, institution-de- pendentrelic?Isitsreplacementbydignity,Bergerasks,to be lamented as loss or celebrated as liberation?
is a vague word with many meanings. Anhonor system in today’s church school bearsaffinitieswithmedievalcodesofchivalry,butobviouslytoday’s schools operate in a morally complex world. AlexisdeTocquevillenotedasmuchwhenhediscernedthe transformation of honor in the New World of dem-ocratic capitalism. In church schools, honor is mixedwithothersocialandethicalingredients,includingdig-nity and Christianity, as well as — a school’s athleticsdepartment would hasten to point out — impressivecodes of good sportsmanship. Aswebegintoconsiderthemoralissuessurroundinghonor, we might think first of the moral issues — froma Christian point of view — surrounding friendship.
, as Aristotle, Cicero, C.S. Lewis, and othershaveremarked,isavirtue.Amoralgoodinitself,friend-ship can also, as John Henry Newman declared, sum-mon and fortify other worthwhile practices, including patience,self-sacrifice,andcourage.But
isprob-lematic from a Christian point of view. It speaks of thein-group, a self-selected coterie; its tendency is to es-tablish boundaries that exclude.
can, however, be transformed. In Christianethics,thefirstplacetolookforanansweristhelifeof Christ: the way of the Cross.
. A Church of England priest named Hugh Lister servedinLondon’sEastEndasatrade-unionchairman
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