The virtue of honor once played a more prominent role in the conduct of individual lives and communities in our nation. When people showed higher levels of honor for life and property, law also played less of a role than it does today.
In the early days of our Country, the duty to honor others functioned as a healthy motive for restraining inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. Honor, as a valued social virtue, was taught in the context of family life, mentored through parental example and reinforced through community expectation.
Honoring others means among other things that I treat them with a protective form of respect. It flourishes in humble hearts that place a high value on their fellow citizens. To harm another or to ruin his property is to dishonor him. Such actions imply a devaluing of others. Honor shares the company of virtues like gratitude, courtesy and respect. The disappearance of these virtues is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America.
This is where things begin to break down and liberty is put at risk. Absent the virtue-forming influences of family and wider cultural expectations, social authority in the form of law and punishment must enforce honor and respect. A culture lacking a shared value of honor, leads to expansive social authority over individual conduct. A culture of law, however, is not a good substitute for one of honor. Law is more of a consequential force than a positive culture shaping reality. Obviously, human flourishing cannot exist apart from some degree of law and law enforcement, but expansive law rarely provides the best context for such flourishing.
The undaunted American spirit of rugged individualism is often itself a great threat to a shared virtue of honor. When everyone does what is right in his own eyes and looks out for himself at the expense of others, society suffers and law enforcement increasingly steps in to regulate individual lives. The fact that America has put more of its citizens in prison than any other nation (1 out of every 100) should be cause for alarm. Our prisons are overcrowded and unable to be effective places for reform. Our legal system is weighed down and sluggish. Our families are dysfunctional and our tax burden only increases.
What should be done to correct this spiral toward social ruin? Increased government is the default mode of politicians but it has obviously not helped. Throwing more money at government programs simply prolongs the agony on the way to our inevitable demise.
The American experiment has taught us that a free society is the best context for human flourishing. But freedom itself cannot flourish without deeper commitments to personal and civic responsibilities that promote healthy social order. We cannot afford, therefore, to be indifferent to the need for virtue-forming influences through families and Churches. Without widely shared virtues like honor, narrowly defined self-interests will threaten our common good. Liberalism without virtue and character ultimately destroys itself.
I believe that Churches must renew their roles in the lives of families and communities for the common good of society. As Churches become the humble, redemptive and truth-telling communities of love that Jesus intended them to be, they will serve as surrogate families for redeemed people. The Church is directed to: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). In a pervasively dysfunctional society, regaining such a vision for the Church is not only a matter of obedience to the Lord, it may also be the best hope for our nation.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551