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Thursday, March 8, 2012

A critique of heroism

My boys constantly remind me of the power of heroes to capture young imaginations, and to inspire heroic fantasies in their young minds.  One of my childhood fantasies was standing calmly at the free throw line in a championship game, no seconds on the clock, with my team down by one.  I hit two free throws, we win.  And of course we always do so to great applause and accolades.  From Gilgamesh to Harry Potter, literature ancient and modern is filled with heroes, people who overcome, conquer, achieve, build, and avenge, by their own strength and intelligence, and always against great odds.  And we humans are always looking for heroes who emulate greatness, give us something to which we can aspire, and save us from the various kinds of monsters we fear.

Christian thought in general, and the Bible in particular, take a contrary view, countering the tendency of human cultures to venerate heroes with exhortations like Paul's "power is made perfect in weakness."  In the world of heroes and hero worshipers, which is to say the world in which we all live, this is utter nonsense.  In this world, power and strength are made perfect in power and strength (cf. Nietzsche).

The Bible's only real candidate for hero in this classical sense is David.  Yet upon closer look, David's claim to fame, according to the Bible, is that he is a man after God's own heart.  Time and time again, the figures that stand out in scripture do so because of faith that allows God to be at work in them.  Those who try to be the hero end up falling flat on their faces.  Moses is not permitted to enter the promised land because he was trying to play the hero.  The Bible can never let the story be about Moses, but God.  Naaman grouses about submersing himself in the Jordan seven times, rather than being asked to perform some heroic deed.  Even Jesus proves to be unheroic, only faithful.  Faithfulness is all that is asked of us.  Saints and martyrs are remembered for faithfulness, not heroism.  It is also worth noting that some of the Bible's prominent figures are  not only weak, but scoundrels, such as Jacob, yet God is at work in them.

Tripp York has written a haunting little book called The Purple Crown:  The Politics of Martyrdom.  York describes the Christian culture of martyrdom in the early church.  Christians saw martyrdom as a privilege, and gloried in it, almost morbidly so.  Yet even as Christians desired martyrdom, seeking martyrdom was prohibited, as was behaving in a deliberately careless way so as to ensure torture and death at the hands of Roman justice.  No heroes welcome!

In a hero worshiping world, how do we create an environment where faithfulness is celebrated rather than heroism?  Any ideas?  I offer this for our Lenten reflection.


Tim Foley said...

Phil - interesting and important thoughts. Not just our kids,influenced as they are by Hollywood, but all of us, may tend to forget the scandel of the cross, of God revealed in weakness. How do we create an alternative environment? We could do better, most of us, by honouring those parts of the body usually considered less honourable, like those who serve in so-called menial roles in society (the elderly? the poor? teachers? low paid city workers?)and the church (chldrens' ministry? hospitality?). We could use our public meetings and services less for showing our very gifted people for music, arts, speaking and instead have if reflect the actual make up of our body. And the 'losers' - lets not forget them, and how easily we use a wordly definition of this category of person. In a Bar on Hively Avenue Elkhart, where I have made some contacts which may become friends, I have benefited from a warmth and personal interest not always found in our churches, and met people alineated from Mennonite churches, either because of the putative confusion around patriotism at GC (we hate America?) or ex-Mennonites who do not feel welcome in church due to personal weaknesses (marriage failures). Losers? maybe, maybe of the kind that were accepted by and attracted to Jesus (but maybe not the likes of me). Tim

Phil Waite said...

Tim, Thank you for these thoughts. You lay out well the task at hand.

Anonymous said...


My grandaughter's boyfriend in New Hamburg, Ontario wrote this article about James Loney. http://www.newhamburgindependent.ca/news/held-captive/

I think it is a great example of Christian faithfulness AND heroism.

Carol Beller Miller

Phil Waite said...

Thank you Mary for that link.

Phil Waite said...

I meant thank you Carol! I had just sent an e-mail to someone named Mary.