When Discernment Looks Like Dissent

In his book Integrity, Stephan L. Carter explores the topic of integrity and what it might mean for an individual to act with integrity. Carter’s definition, which is deceptively simple, is that integrity is an action that requires three distinct steps. The first step, which I will paraphrase, is to discern a well-informed stance or belief. The second step is to then act in ways which are consistent with these discerned beliefs, “even at personal cost.” And the third and final step is to state these beliefs and how they inform your actions. Carter concludes that the individual who lives a life consistent with this definition of integrity is leading an integral life.

It is perhaps easy to accept Carter’s technical definition of integrity and find little to fault. However, the implementation of such a framework is not far from controversy. Discernment necessarily requires the individual to be judgemental and designate “right” from “wrong,” which presents us with a bit of a dilemma. What happens, and further who is “right,” when being integral requires nonconformity to accepted norms? Or put differently, is it better for the individual who is living an integral life to follow the rules and laws of government and society, or to act in consistency with their beliefs? Carter digs deep and concludes that indeed living an integral life is not always about following the rules, and in fact at times acting with integrity may require rules to be broken.


Given this, how, or perhaps where, do we locate integrity in the issue confronting us following President Trump’s speech which has purposefully forced us into a cultural debate? On the one side, we have devotees of patriotism and civil religion demanding proper respect for an object and practice that symbolizes a victory over conflict earned through the sacrifice of many. On the other are individuals who see the promise of freedom and equality not yet fulfilled. Who is more integral? Those who have discerned that their beliefs dictate that standing in respect for the flag and anthem? Or perhaps those who have discerned that it is necessary to act in the only way possible and draw attention to a broken system?

The reconciliation of these two is not trivial, and I find it troubling that Trump continues to use this narrative to divide us. Further, Trump’s insistence that this is all about one side of the argument, about respect for the symbols of a civil religion, lacks context and wrongly belittles the integrity of Colin Kaepernick, and those who have joined his cause, and why he chose to kneel. This is not leadership, is it bullying.

Aside from standing or kneeling, the critique of National Football League (NFL) players has included an assertion that players should just stick to football and not be political activists while on the job. Martin Luther, a bit of a nonconforming activist of his time and also an individual who strove to lead an integral life, has something to say about this and an individual’s baptismal vocation. The Evangelical Luthern Church in America (ELCA), has published a social statement called Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, which makes the following statement

One of the ways the Church participates in society is through its members. In dying to sin and rising with Christ in Baptism, Christians are called to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-11). They fulfill their baptismal vocation in ordinary life as family members, friends, citizens, workers, and participants in voluntary associations. Since “daily life [is] the primary setting for the exercise of [the] Christian calling,” it is in that setting that Christians are to serve God and neighbor.

An integral life is one lived in the journey of discernment and played out in whatever vocation it is we perform. Lastly, Carter challenges us to not view our differences as dissent, but rather a necessary process that will inform our discernment, for we will not know if we are acting from “deep and steadfast principles until those principles are tested.”

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