The Luxury of Integrity

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Let’s begin with a true story from the western highlands of Guatemala. It is January 1996 in a country that has been torn apart by 36 years of civil war. Violence has become infectious, an accepted way to solve all problems. In one town, a group of Mennonites and Pentecostals have been collaborating on a study of the role of the church in the quest for a just society. A member of the class, a woman named Hilda, goes to the open-air market in the town square one day and suddenly comes upon a mob scene. A teenage boy who was caught robbing a woman’s purse has been tied up in the middle of the square. The crowd is about to burn him alive for the crime.

Hit the PAUSE button and hold that image. We’ll get back to it.

In my first year of teaching Freshman English, one of the essays I included in the reading list was “The Luxury of Integrity” by Stuart Chase. I thought of it recently, recalling that it had made a lasting impact on me. Though I hadn’t laid eyes on it for almost 50 years, I wondered how it would stack up today. It took me only a few minutes and an inter-library loan request to track it down. Written not long after the 1929 Crash that launched our country into the Great Depression, inevitably it felt dated in its details and had lost a good deal of its rhetorical power. But in our own day, when the word integrity is a radically cheapened coin of the realm, one sentence stood out in my re-reading: “It is my contention that for uncounted millions of Americans the price of integrity is more than they can afford.”

With the almost daily revelations of corruption in government, business, and industry, the cheating in classrooms at all levels, the use of illegal performance-enhancing steroids in athletics, the appalling lapses in media accountability, and the estimate that cheating on federal income taxes amounts to as much as seventy billion dollars a year, who can argue with the current applicability of Stuart Chase’s conclusion?

But what, some will ask, is integrity? The most minimal research will turn up sophisticated philosophical analyses of various shades of meaning and, for good measure, add a survey of how the term is used in a half dozen different fields. Without denying that our daily lives are shot through with ambiguities, I would argue that most of the time we know very well what is the right thing to do. The real question is whether we are willing to pay the price to make integrity a living reality.

Let’s go back to that marketplace in Guatemala. Here is what happened.

Without hesitation, Hilda pushed her way through the mob, stood next to the boy and announced that if they were going to set him afire they would have to burn her too. That simply angered them more, and they began to splash gasoline on both her and the boy. But two other members of the Bible study group suddenly appeared on the scene and joined her in support. After several intense minutes, the crowd gave up and dispersed. The next day in class, the woman broke down as she said, “I never believed that we might have to live out the Gospel to that extreme.”

The story is told by missionary-journalist Paul Jeffrey in his book Recovering Memory: The Guatemalan Church and the Challenge of Peacemaking. Jeffrey adds that the experience took on epic proportions, and became a parable for the creative—not to mention courageous—role that people of faith could play in a violent society. Though most of us will not be called upon for gestures so dramatic—or so clear-cut—our decisions in the unrelenting stream of ordinary daily life will be an even better measure of whether we can afford the luxury of integrity.