Back to Top

The Three Hardest Moral Acts

At nine years old, I decided I wanted to become a journalist. It was the same time my brother Fred and I started delivering the Chicago Daily News. The newspaper was the third largest circulation behind Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Fred and I had twelve streets of subscribers.  We’d deliver the latest news of crime, sports, and advice from Ann Landers. My brother and I tied the papers into travel size and threw them on the porches of two storied brownstones or trekked into apartment building mazes to make sure seniors had their sacred crossword puzzles. 

When my brother and I finished our routes, I delved into reading every column of the Daily News. I was attracted to a cranky, witty columnist who was amazingly funny. His name was Mike Royko. His columns were must reads on all things political: boss Mayor Richard J. Daley and the lovable Chicago Cubs, which were my two favorite topics. Royko’s writings, to me, was commentary journalism at its best. I wanted to become the black Mike Royko.

His ability to say much with few words was worth every bit of my fifty cents

On March 4, 1978, I was no longer delivering newspapers, but still reading Royko’s columns when the Daily News published its last edition. Mike Royko took his skills to the Tribune and I followed him there. Future Fox News magnate Rupert Murdoch’s company absorbed the Daily News and he purchased the Chicago Sun-Times. I brought two newspapers every day from 1978 until I graduated from high school in 1980. 

It was in the Sun-Times, that I discovered another amazing columnist who was a towering figure in commentary. His name was Sydney J. Harris. Harris was the master of short essay commentary. His ability to say much with few words was worth every bit of my fifty cents from the corner newspaper stand on Roosevelt Road and Central Park Avenue in Lawndale. Royko was still my guy, but Harris was gaining ground quickly.

Harris’ weekly “Strictly Personal” was in at least 180 newspapers throughout the United States. He was the former drama critic for the Daily News and taught at University of Chicago in his spare time. His wisdom about life and living struck me as similar to the writer of Ecclesiastes or the succinct grounded words of Proverbs. Harris knew how to turn a phrase like nobody’s business. 

The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical nor intellectual, but moral acts

Harris, along with Jesus, was my rabbi in practical living that made a difference in the world. All of life boiled down to the three hardest tasks in the world. Christians have tried, and failed, (repeatedly) to live up to living out righteousness as more than a holier-than-thou slogan. Harris aptly remarked, “the three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical nor intellectual, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say ‘I was wrong.” These words centered life again on the kind of well -being that doesn’t make the evening news and is not picked up by a social media algorithm. 

Harris concluded when people return hate for hate, the world becomes more blinded, bitter, and divided. Research suggests that constant wars of violence never led to any substantial or long lasting peace, but movements of non-violence reversed the cycles of violence into cultures of peacemaking (Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox, p. 20-21) Harris, who was raised in the Jewish faith, might had seen the dark side of violence in his lifetime before his death in 1986. 

When we exclude the excluded, humanity feeds the need to create an “us vs. them” scenario. From politics to science to sports, our default has always been to pull up the ladder from those below us. Exclusion of the excluded creates a sense of personal safety and well being at the expense of making others a little less human for our own egos. Harris’s wisdom of including the excluded was the strategy of Jesus by choosing the twelve working men rather than Ivy League elites. When we include the excluded, we invite equity and equality than resentment and rejection.

Reconciliation with God and neighbor begins with admitting our mistakes

The hardest of these tasks is admitting mistakes.  In the current context of American life, owning up to your mistakes is not lauded as appropriate or commended these days. The common virus shared regardless of race, culture, or religion is self-justification. In the probing book on self-justification, psychologists Carol Tarvis and Eliot Aronson describe the effects of the virus. They wrote, “self-serving distortions of memory kick in and we forget our past events, we may come to believe our own lies, little by little. We know we did something wrong, but gradually we begin to think it wasn’t our fault…we underestimate our own responsibility, whittling away at it until it is a mere shadow of its former hulking self” (Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, p.6)

Harris knew self-justification fights tooth and nail in the struggle to admit mistakes. We choose our own prisons rather than having the “truth set us free”.  Reconciliation with God and neighbor begins with admitting our mistakes in order to crucify the idol of self-justification. Communities under Jesus’ conditions are quick to admit mistakes rather than dying on the lonely mountain of self-righteousness.

Sydney Harris recognized that the hardest moral acts on the planet have the power to make a new world. Jesus said the exact same thing 2,000 years ago. A different world begins right here.    

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.