“Hero” is a kaleidoscopic term that philosophers and pundits love to twist into a fascinating array of shades and shadows.
They often find the connotations more intriguing than the denotations, the tangential more arresting than the essential. “Hero,” therefore, can be a protean notion whose various shapes turn on the whim of the shaper.
It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. But, as Goethe countered, it is only because the valet himself is not a hero, and only a hero can rightly appreciate another hero. Many hold that a hero must do something that is unquestionably good. The French moralist, Rochefoucauld, for one, argues that, “There are heroes in evil as well as in good.”
Some believe that a hero’s deeds must be well known to the public. Yet, as the German essayist Jean Paul Richter wrote, “The grandest of heroic deeds are those that are performed within four walls and in domestic privacy.” Is bravery the mark of the hero? Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted that it was “self-trust.”
Do heroes stand up under close scrutiny? Or does contact with them cause their heroic luster to pale? Are heroes creatures of chance? Or do they accomplish their heroic exploits by dint of sheer determination? Are heroes restricted to the battlefield? Or can we have heroes from the world of sports, literature, politics, philosophy or even the cinema?
Despite its many shadings, “hero” is still a serviceable term. A hero must stand out among others. His accomplishments must be truly extraordinary. He must triumph against the odds and attain something that is, as one writer puts it, like the “mountains, the highlands of the moral world.” He must be admirable, self-forgetful and firm in the face of danger. He must be prepared to assume grave risks for the benefit of others.
Christ personifies all of these qualities. Yet, I would not regard him as a hero. By consensus, America’s greatest hero of the 20th century is Charles Lindbergh. Yet, and most appropriately so, his best known nickname is “Lucky Lindy.” A hero, in the historical understanding of the term, must be lucky. This is the case because his heroism is dependent on circumstances, opportunities and situations that are not of his making.
How many people have performed heroic acts only to die without their heroism ever being known?
It would be blasphemous to think that Christ was lucky. He fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament and acted by virtue of his free will. His life and legacy are replete with purpose. He was the Messiah, not a champion of opportunity.
Furthermore, a hero is known for a particular exploit. The notion of “Saturday’s Hero” is tied to a specific football game. The following Saturday, in all likelihood, a new hero is crowned. We like to serialize our heroes. Old heroes do tend to fade away.
It is impossible for mere mortals always and unceasingly to behave as heroes. The example and accomplishments of Christ, on the other hand, are co-extensive with his entire life. In no way is he a momentary phenomenon.
In addition, though heroes are praised and admired, their singular accomplishments can hardly be imitated. Can anyone imitate James Bowie at the Alamo or Eddie Rickenbacker in the skies or Michael Jordan on the basketball court? In fact, a hero is more heroic to the degree he is inimitable. Christ, however, offers a way of life that is to be imitated in every facet of our moral existence. Christ does not ask his followers to be heroic, but to be like him in very unheroic, quiet, unceremonious ways.
Culture offers high praise and public fanfare to its heroes, as well as to its celebrities and superstars. This is largely because culture likes to put on a show. Celebrities and super-stars can be famous without having achieved anything at all of significance. Paris Hilton’s name leaps to mind. Their notoriety is given to them and is not necessarily earned.
Christ, therefore, is not a hero, or a celebrity or a superstar. He is, as we all should be, a role model. He is a light that warms and illumines each moment of our lives. He is a father, companion, friend, who eschews the limelight because it would obscure his essential message, which is to teach us how to love one another and not to be distracted by the ostentation and noise of the world.
The same might be said of any Christian. Heroism may be an accident in his life, and he may even be somewhat embarrassed by it. But his primary concern is to be a model of love and virtue that will be a light for others.
His is the unsung, everyday work. Being a hero is not exactly practicable. One cannot be a hero by profession. Being a Christian, however, is within reach of everyone.
Christ is not a hero, in the narrow sense of the word, because he is something far better: a role model, an exemplar and a source of grace who teaches us how to live and become, in our own turn, role models for others.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles College
and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.