Time was when the idea of consciously trying to set a good example was seen as unbearably priggish, smacking of Victorian do-goodery and implicit hypocrisy. Quite apart from the fact that I think we are unjust to the Victorians, I’d argue that the notion of setting a good example is one we need to re-visit. In the West we are only too ready to step away from responsibility. Politicians exclaim, ‘I have done nothing wrong!’ when caught out being greedy or in some shady activity. Parents exclaim, ‘They are out of control!’ when seeking to excuse themselves for their offspring’s behaviour. Even bishops have been known to disclaim all knowledge of what their priests have been up to. It is refreshing when someone has the courage to say, ‘The buck stops here. I take responsibility.’ But we need to go further. It is not just responsibility for what has been done that we need to accept, but responsibility for creating the conditions in which certain behaviours are seen as acceptable. In other words, how we set a good example is something we all need to consider.
A short examination of conscience can be extremely helpful. The standards we actually live by, as distinct from those we publicly espouse, will soon show us what sort of example we are setting to others. Honesty, kindness, courtesy, hard work and so on are not specifically religious qualities, inasmuch as they are shared by many who would not claim any religious affiliation, but they do tend to point to the strength of our religious commitment. The intersection of public and private morality can be very difficult, and it is not made any easier by the way in which legislation can seem hostile to the open expression of someone’s beliefs. Wearing a cross or offering to pray for someone is not acceptable in certain situations, and I think most of us can understand why even if we do not always agree. It is much trickier when reservations about the morality of certain forms of research or corporate policy are in question. I remember, years ago, a banker friend putting his job on the line because of his objection to an advertising campaign which encouraged household debt. I am sure you can think of many similar instances.
The fact that something is difficult, however, does not mean that we can avoid making a decision, or ignore the fact that our decision, whatever it may be, will have an effect on others. We have recently celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day, and I was reminded of all those non-Jews in Occupied Europe who chose to put the Star of David on their coats to show solidarity with their persecuted fellow-citizens. We shall never know who was the first to do that, but the example he/she set was surely a good one. May we, in our turn, be just as ready to set a good example in both the big and small things of life.