The second question Jesus asked the multitudes concerning John the Baptist, points out another characteristic of the type of men we need now.
“What went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?
In 1940, as it was becoming obvious that the war that was devastating Europe and Britain was about to draw the United States in as well, Walter Lippmann, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, spoke to the thirtieth reunion of the Harvard class of 1910. He began by quoting the words of George Washington written when it appeared that the Constitutional Congress would fail:
If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.
Sounding like an Old Testament prophet, Lippmann went on to tell those assembled, and the country, what must be written on that standard. He said it must say,
You have lived the easy way; henceforth, you will live the hard way. . .
For every right you cherish, you have a duty which you must fulfill.
For every hope that you entertain, you have a task that you must perform.
For every good that you wish to preserve, you will have to sacrifice your comfort and your ease.
We need self-sacrificing men. John had lots of reasons to live life in a more comfortable manner than his camel raiment and locust diet. He, was after all, a very popular preacher and could have leveraged that popularity. He was the cousin of Jesus and could have used that to his advantage. Or he could have simply decided to declare the coming of the Messiah while ensconced in better accommodations than the wilderness of Judea. But he knew the “hope he entertained” required he be the second Elijah. Some things are more important than a nice suit.
Self sacrifice is not in vogue. Self-indulgence is the flavor of the age. We see this from politicians, to actors, to sports figures, down to the community, and our tacit approval encourages its propagation.
We need men that wish to preserve good. The message John preached was in some ways condemning, but there was plenty of hope. The speech that Walter Lippmann gave that day at Harvard was also upbraiding, but without actions on its truth there would be no hope.
You came into a great heritage made by insight and the sweat and the blood of inspired and devoted and courageous men; thoughtlessly and in utmost self-indulgence you have all but squandered this inheritance. Now only by the heroic virtues which made this inheritance can you restore it again.
The disaster in the midst of which we are living is a disaster in the character of men. It is a catastrophe of the soul of a whole generation which had forgotten, had lost, and had renounced the imperative and indispensable virtues of laborious, heroic, and honorable men.
We need men that are willing to do the hard things. Once again, as he closes, Lippmann sounds as though he is calling to our generation, to our men, to put on the virtues of John the Baptist:
We shall turn from the soft vices in which a civilization decays, we shall return to the stern virtues by which a civilization is made, we shall do this because, at long last, we know that we must, because finally we begin to see that the hard way is the only enduring way.¹
That generation did cast away the soft vices and the soft living. It did return, by necessity, to the stern virtues on which civilizations are preserved. It did reclaim the inheritance for the next generation. The great need of this generation is to do it again.
This post is an edited portion of a Father’s Day sermon
¹Walter Lippmann, “The Easy Way” in William Safire,ed. “Lend Me Your Ears”
( New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 589