Finding the Courage to Make a Better World for Others

The Hon. Seth Moulton ’01 preaches at Memorial Church

Sermon by The Hon. Seth Moulton ’01, MBA-MPA ’11, United States House of Representatives, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Professor Walton, thank you. It is an honor to be here. It is hard to put into words what an honor it is to be in this place that has meant so much to me. There are not many buildings in life where you can say, “My life would be entirely different if not for this place.” My parents who are here today could have raised me in a different house; I could have studied physics in a different classroom and done just as poorly at quantum mechanics; I could have lived in a different dorm room freshman year and gone on just as many freshman year dates as, which was not many. I even used to take dates to show them the Memorial Church organ. My dating life at Harvard was not terribly successful.

But I do not believe I would have joined the Marines, and therefore would not be in Congress today, if not for this very church in the center of secular Harvard.

I came here for the music, I stayed for the preaching, and I left with a sense of purpose because of what is written on these walls—the names, yes, the names of true heroes who humble us with the mere presence of their memory. But more specifically because of a quote, my favorite of all quotes, which is written atop of the Memorial Room—the room, incidentally, through which every Harvard student was supposed to enter and leave the church by design every Sunday morning. Many of you know it well:

"While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies, that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others."

It’s not just a memorial; it’s a call to action. And to me that quote summarized what I learned in these pews: that it’s not enough just to graduate here with some good ideas, some good beliefs—a lot of knowledge under your belt. You ought to do something with it, and it ought to be something that benefits others, not just yourself.

So how do we find this courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others? What exactly does that entail? I’d like to reflect on that today. I think that two values are especially important.

The first value is, not surprisingly, courage itself. But the second, which I think is just as important, is humility. I have spent my last three years as a United States Congressman, and my observation is that both courage and humility are in short supply today—in Washington, yes for sure, but in plenty of other places in our world as well.

So let’s start with courage. We gather in a church built to honor what we think of as the very definition of courage: courage in battle. The courage to risk your life for your country. Giving your life for your country is a whole other thing, a whole other level, but it’s worth noting that the courage is in the risking, not in the giving. The veterans we remember this weekend are by definition the ones who returned home, the brothers and sisters of those on these walls. We admire the courage and sacrifice of the fallen; we admire the courage and sacrifice—though of course not the ultimate sacrifice—of those who came back.

But so much has been said about courage in battle that I don’t know what I can really add. The question for all of us, posed by President Lowell’s exhortation, is what to make of “courage in peace.”

I graduated from the college in June 2001, so even when I decided, after looking at many options, that I would answer the call to service I heard in this church by doing my service in the Marine Corps, I expected us to be at peace. In fact, I remember fondly sitting downstairs in the Reverend Professor’s office and explaining to him that I wanted to join the Marines because I simply had so much respect for the 18 and 19-year-old kids who are willing to put their lives on the line for our country. And I think Harvard kids ought to do their part, too. And Peter looked at me and said. “Well, I don’t love the fact that you’re joining the Marines, but I think you’re making this decision for the right reasons. And then he added, “I’m just glad there’s not a war going on because you’d probably get yourself killed.” Three months later of course was September 11th and the next seven years after that weren’t easy for either of us.

So I thought that spring a lot about what courage and peace might mean, not in principle but in real experience. As I headed out into the world, one of the few people in my class without a high-paying job at a prestigious firm, I quickly had a better appreciation for the fact that to actually “spend our lives making a better world for others” takes courage. It takes conviction. It takes a sense, not just of purpose, but of higher purpose in our lives.

When I explain the role of this church, and in particular the role of Peter, in my life, I explain that Peter taught me that it’s not enough just to believe in service or support others who serve—you ought to go out and find a way to serve, to yourself be in service to others. Peter is the greatest man I have ever known—a friend, a mentor, an inspiration. Indeed, from one of his sermons faithfully transcribed by Muffet in row 12, Peter said:

I say to Harvard students all the time: "You don't need more information—you’re overwhelmed with information—there is data on every hand. We do not need any more information about what it means to be good. We know it already. What we need is courage to act upon what we already know, courage to put into action what is already in our hearts.”

I do think courage is in short supply these days. For the students here this morning, how many times are you taught about the virtues of courage in college? From my experience over seven years here, Harvard seems more interested in making more and more rules and restrictions every year to dictate how to safely avoid doing the wrong things rather than teaching you the courage and virtue to do the right things.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ill prepares you for the real world; you don’t have deans and resident tutors and disciplinary committees after you graduate. Harvard was once a place that taught you how to build and maintain a fire if you arrived not knowing how to do so yourself. Now it walls off its historic fireplaces as if that’s how you should handle every encounter with a fireplace for the rest of your lives—by hiring a mason to brick it off.

But Harvard isn’t the only place that doesn’t prize courage. Sometimes people ask me, “Seth, what’s wrong with Congress?” (I know it’s hard to believe I get such a question—I’m part of such a high-performing organization.) But they’ll say something like, “Seth, how can Congress not believe in climate change?” or “Don’t your colleagues know what’s going on with ____ (I won’t be political so I’ll let you fill in the blank.)  My observation after three years is that most of my colleagues are pretty smart. I understand there are some exceptions. I also know I’m certainly not the smartest one there myself. But I think what’s lacking in Congress is not intelligence.  It’s courage.

It’s courage to do the right thing, to vote the right way, even if it might be unpopular with your base back home. Courage to do what is right even if it is not in your self interest—indeed, if it might hurt you politically or otherwise, but it’s in the interest of others. And don’t for a second think that this only happens on one side of the aisle. The vast majority of my colleagues know what’s going on, and they’ll share their honest views in private, but then too few are courageous enough to share them in public.

And by the way, I understand that it’s sometimes hard. I’ve upset people here in Massachusetts by sometimes voting my conscience not my political consciousness. But I’ll tell you one thing: it’s not as hard as what they did [pointing at the wall]. And that’s why they have a lesson for each of us— “that we might learn from them courage in peace.”

Now I speak of politics just because that’s my own experience at the moment, but to defer to another apropos quote from Peter:

Referring to Richard Nixon and Archibald Cox, he said, "Not everybody is called to defy the president of the United States, although I hope a good many of you will. But each of us in our way and in our time has built within us the capacity to act upon the right and the good as we know it. The courage is available to us; we already know what the right is; the greatest courage and gift is to act upon it."

Courage comes in ways big and small, but the test we are offered today is whether your courageous act serves others.

Yesterday in my hometown of Marblehead, and in dozens of other cities and towns across the country, veterans gathered to participate in a new civic tradition called the Veterans Day Town Hall. It’s an opportunity for veterans to share stories about their service that influenced who they are today, helping to bridge the gap of understanding between veterans and everyone else. Speaking before the communities they know, love, and risked their lives to defend, veterans find the courage to share some of their darkest times, most painful memories, and deepest emotions. And in so doing, they bring us all together. I’ve heard from young Marine veterans who despise the war they were told to fight, from an Air Force General who admitted he looked forward to war, from a World War II liberator of a concentration camp, and from Vietnam veterans who were proud to serve and those who were ashamed of what they did. If you haven’t been to a Veterans Day Town Hall yourself, you should make a point of going to one next year—or even organizing one for your own community.

And speaking of courage, just look at the courage of some of the victims of sexual abuse these past few weeks and what it has meant to so many others— it’s truly remarkable. And at the end of the day, it’s all come not from some investigation or research or technological development. The only real thing that’s suddenly changed is that enough victims—the last people who should have to have this responsibility—have found the courage to share their stories. They’ve often risked their careers, opened themselves to vicious public attacks, and relived their darkest memories to do so. But while they may never be fully healed themselves, it’s given other victims the courage to find some peace and redemption. And it’s saved others from becoming victims in the first place.

So these are a few words about courage. But I don’t believe that courage alone is enough. The Statement of Purpose of my high school just north of here reminds us that “goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous.” Well courage without goodness is dangerous, too.

Today, people can be so polarized—not just in politics but in all sorts of things—that goodness can even be hard to define. Who would have imagined a few years ago that goodness could be measured in the PSI of footballs? There are some sports fans here.

So I’m not going to be presumptuous enough to stand up here and try to give you a comprehensive education on what goodness is and what it is not. That’s Professor Walton’s job! But I do know this: If you want to find goodness, you ought to start looking by being humble.

Which brings me to that second value so important to finding courage in peace: humility. Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Churchill was not one likely to invoke humility by name, but sometimes it does take courage, or confidence at least, to be humble.

Now I don’t think I need to build much of a case that in today’s deeply divided country, we could all benefit from a lot more humility—on both sides of whatever divides we’re thinking of at the moment. The case I would like to make to you is that we can’t wish for others to be humble—or to be better or kinder or smarter or whatever—if we aren’t willing to look ourselves in the mirror first. That’s one lesson from Jesus we should never forget. It’s a lesson I wish more of my colleagues, including in my own party, would be willing to heed.

I was introduced a few weeks ago at a dinner by someone who knew me at Harvard and who noted that I was someone who came to church almost every single day. This is true. I noted in reply that perhaps it said something about my college career that I felt I needed to come to church every single day.

Indeed, the truth of the matter is that I didn’t come to church out of some feeling of religious obligation to do so. I came because I felt like it made me a better person. In other words, church was a humbling experience for me.

Now, coming to church wasn’t always easy. Our first reading today, from Corinthians, is “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." (I Corinthians 10:12). We’ve all fallen at times in our lives, and I think, for example about one morning when I was riding my bike down Garden Street from the Quad and was cut off by a commuter hurrying to work down a side street. I slammed on the brakes, and the front ones naturally being in better shape than the rear, in short order I found myself flying over my handlebars, through the air into a little heap beside this commuter’s luxury vehicle. While I collected myself and my bike from the pavement, the window slowly descended. And a man peered out from his luxury leather seat and he leaned over to me and he said, “Did you scratch my car?”

Now if this wasn’t indignity enough—I was going to Church! And I sat through Morning Prayers that morning in blood-stained pants, and as I read the psalm and sang the hymn, I had little doubt in my mind about what—and who—was right and wrong in this world.

Now coming to church this morning was comparatively carefree for me. Perhaps it was harder for you—perhaps you came here through some other personal or emotional struggle. However you came, you deserve our thanks and praise for being here. But you don’t deserve to sit here righteously. I shouldn’t have sat there righteously in my bloody pants. My real problem that day was not in knowing that the man in the car was wrong, but in how much I enjoyed believing I was right. A nobler, stronger person—a better person than I was—would have sat there humbly, recognizing that my sacrifices were nothing compared to the one we worship through the ages—nothing compared to the sacrifices we honor on these walls.

Worse, regardless of how you got here or what it took, I think the motivation we sometimes feel for coming to church is not just that we enjoy the hymns, or need a healthy dose of the Bible after a Saturday night out. But rather, we sometimes come to church because we feel morally righteous in doing so. Have you ever heard a politician talk about going to church with a sense of indignant moral righteousness?

Church is effective when it shapes our moral values, but it can be more satisfying when it simply reaffirms them. We can come to confirm those values we feel we already know well—values which are much easier to say "Amen" to in church than to adhere to in our daily lives. I’ll never forget the day I walked out of this church and said to Peter, “I loved your sermon today.” And not missing a beat, he said to me, “That just means you agreed with it.”

This is all to say that while it’s easy for us to find examples throughout our world of leaders—presidents—who could use a dose of humility, by definition being humble must start with us, and we ought to start right here.

By the time I got to this church as an undergrad I, like most Harvard students, had grown pretty accustomed to success. After all, we had to be successful—and lucky, mind you—to get here. God knows there are at least a few times when “not getting caught” was as key to getting into Harvard as good grades and extracurriculars.

But when I joined the Marines, and was challenged for the first time in important ways that I had never been challenged before, I felt like I got a good dose of humility—humiliation even—quite regularly. And if training wasn’t enough, let me tell you that war itself is incredibly humbling. Many a warrior has gone to battle confident and returned home humble. Indeed, it takes the utmost humility to believe that your life is worth less than the lives of those around you—and believe that so deeply that you don’t hesitate to lay yours down for your brothers and sisters.

And indeed, in a similar way, it is only by finding humility in our own lives that we can truly dedicate ourselves to serving others—that’s another thing we can learn from those veterans on these walls.

But there’s another reason that humility is especially important in America today, and it comes back to the fact that we are such a divided country.

In 2016, a certain kind of frustrated, angry, even hateful politics was in ascendancy. I have to tell you I have learned a great deal of empathy for those Americans who feel hurt and left out, and they are downright angry about it. I know a lot of them, I served with some of them, and I represent many more in my current job.

Most of them are not hateful people—our politics has just brought out the worst. It’s up to better leaders to call out the better angels in our nature and turn our politics and indeed our country—around. But whether this will happen in the next election or two is still a very open question. We could be in this hole for a long time if both sides aren’t willing to do some serious, humble soul-searching about what’s gone wrong.

But as someone who is eternally optimistic about our country—not just about what America is today but what we fundamentally strive to be when we live out and live up to our core values—I believe we can drive the divisive politics of the day out of our daily lives.

But when we do, there will be many in the opposition—the “resistance” as it’s now proudly called—who will want to sing out in triumph with great moral righteousness, look down upon those who were on the other side.

This would be a terrible mistake. It would not heal our country but reopen our wounds, and ultimately threaten to tear us further apart.

There are a lot of things that would make this world a better place—we know it’s a long list. It can feel like a depressingly long list. But for all those things, Peter used to point out that the world would be a much better place if people were simply polite to each other.

So that’s why I believe that simply having the courage to stand up and resist and fight the challenges we face today is not enough. We must all, in our own ways, do so humbly. And we should remember, in so doing, the greatest of all values that Jesus taught us: that of love.

There’s a great line from a popular folk song that says, “Love is not a victory march.”

Love is not a victory march.

When this era in politics is over, those of us who feel left out in the cold politically will feel redemption and there will undoubtedly be a lot of people taking a victory march or even proclaiming that their victory march is based in love. There may be some truth in that for some, but it’s not what our country will need. We will need to heal our divides, not triumph over them. We will need love genuine enough to be humble not haughty. Love courageous enough to be magnanimous not sanctimonious. We will need to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: to love and to forgive.

"While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies, that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others."

That’s a high call to duty. It will take a lot of courage, humility, and ultimately love. But it’s worth aspiring to because it’s something that our country desperately needs.

Let us pray. This is from The Memorial Church’s “Prayers for Private Devotion in War-Time” published in 1942, 1991, and 2003: Lord, look with mercy upon our sins, especially our sins against the truth; forgive them and help us walk this day in the light. Deliver us from timid silence; give us courage to speak the truth with boldness and grace to speak the truth with love.