Saturday, December 20, 2008


Here's a serious essay, as opposed to my normal satire. It's a little long if you're not used to reading articles, but I did drastic cutting when I was editing it.

Today I'm writing about heroes. Not the ones in comic books, not the Greek or Roman legends like Hercules or Achilles, nor the practical but vague heroes like "all firefighters" or "school teachers." They are fascinating subjects, but the ones I want to talk about are moral heroes.

Some are super pastors (pastors of mega churches, a television audience, leaders in a movement, or very popular local pastors). Others are practical moral heroes like Gandhi or Mother Teresa, scientific geniuses like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, or historical political leaders like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.

They didn't set out to become heroes. They set out to change the world. Few set out to become a figurehead for a movement or a moral maxim and there are plenty of people who set out to change the world for the good who didn't become heroes.

Our society creates these heroes out of subconscious nostalgia. When we were young, our parents seemed infinitely wise, moral, and powerful but we were disappointed by their finite nature. We long for the lost image of perfection. We want to know someone has the answers and strength to protect us and lead us to a promised land.

So we put people on pedestals and hold them to standards that mirror our lost faith. However, even with the best heroes, each is human and destined for the failure.

The failure of Jim Bakker led to the disillusionment of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Christians. The stream of Catholic priests who have been implicated in the molestation of children have caused many Catholic Christians to turn away from the church. Some of those affected in both camps lost their faith in God altogether.

Even in the all-too-brief honeymoon period where the hero seems perfect, few people use the inspiration to accomplish anything. Mother Teresa was an inspiration to millions, but few of those millions did anything to help Calcutta or even their own neighbors.

Even the thought of giving more than a few dollars to a cause is beyond our imagination. We create heroes so they will give us hope and make us feel better about our world, not to spur us on.

The tenor of Gandhi's life was such that Albert Einstein said, "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one, as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." Einstein wasn't attributing divinity to Gandhi. The was speaking of the strength and compelling nature of Gandhi's teaching.

But even the few people in the west who admire Gandhi's teaching do nothing to right the wrongs in their own society.

As many Christians are fond of saying, "You have to do something with Jesus. You can't learn about him without choosing to believe or choosing to disbelieve." We have photos and video of Gandhi and Mother Teresa, and recordings of what they said in their own voices. We know with scientific certainty that they existed. Our heroes' lives often demand a reaction. Either they are wrong, or nearly every level of our culture is wrong. If they are right, the changes required in our lives is devastating.

But we don't want heroes that makes us question our lives. We don't want to question whether it is right to participate in a war or tolerate an immoral government. We don't want to concede that the people who went to Iraq to act as human shields weren't loonies. We want to believe that they were misguided and unpatriotic so that we don't feel the guilt of doing nothing to prevent a grievous evil. We don't want to question whether our sixteenth hour of television this week might have been better spent helping people in a homeless shelter or mentoring children in broken families.

So, we latch onto the rumors we hear about them.

It wasn't really Gandhi's non-violence that won India its freedom. He was mean to his wife, abusive to his children, and inconsistent in his approach to lower-caste people. Therefore, he is wrong and those who admire him and his teachings should shut up and learn to appreciate the necessity of violence.

Donations to Mother Teresa weren't properly accounted for. She was more concerned about making converts than she was about helping the sick and dying. She had lost her faith in God and no longer felt his presence from shortly after she left for Calcutta until the day she died.

It doesn't matter how incredible a hero is, the hero is still human. They have some failing and if we haven't found one yet, we'll criticize something unimportant so we can dismiss their message. Perhaps Mr. Gandhi-of-Today drinks Lipton tea, or shops at Wal*Mart. Maybe the Mother-Teresa-of-Today doesn't agree with our doctrine, is harsh in her speech, or doesn't follow the popular reality television programs.

We go through mental gymnastics so we don't have to re-evaluate our lives.

If we are unwilling to be changed by our heroes, we might be happier if we weened from them and avoid the emotional whiplash.

But I don't believe we should ween ourselves from heroes.

Instead, we should accept that they are human and that they will fail. We will never find heroes who are perfect who will never fail us. We should take the example of their lives and use it to give us the strength we need to change our world.

The courage to act (along with the correct action) is what being a hero is about, not about perfection.

As a special note, the knowledge of Mother Teresa's struggle with faith has been a bittersweet comfort to me. While some latched onto the idea that Mother Teresa's struggle was a sign of her unfaithfulness, it reminded me of my own doubts and pains. That someone of her level of faith and accomplishment would wrestle so deeply with the substance of faith for so long gives me strength and inspiration.

Ammon Hennacy is my hero, but it's kind of hard to write this essay about a man so few are even aware of. If many were aware of him, he would be much more controversial than any other hero I mentioned here.

"You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result."

"Love has a hem to her garment that reaches to the very dust. It sweeps the stains from the streets and lanes, and because it can, it must."
-Mother Teresa

"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
-Martin Luther King Jr.

"We really can't change the world. We really can't change other people! The best we can do is to start a few thinking here and there. The best way to do this, if we are sincere, is to change ourselves!"
-Ammon Hennacy

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