War is such an unpleasant and messy business that it's not surprising most Americans spend little time following the details of our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan except when it's a situation that has gotten scandalously out of hand.
Certainly, it's much more enjoyable to scan the stock pages or the baseball box scores than to read about the latest young men and women who have died in combat halfway around the globe. Blood and body counts don't make for a good mix with the morning coffee.
With all the endless diversions we have in this country, it is easy to forget that men and women are fighting and dying each day in Iraq and Afghanistan. All too often, the only way for the war to manage to recapture our attention is for it to somehow intrude upon our pleasant diversions. For the many Americans whose diversion is sports, the death of Pat Tillman did just that.
In the early Afghan evening of April 23, Tillman was killed in an ambush while serving with the Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment. His fate was not unlike the hundreds of other young men and women in the U.S. military who have paid the ultimate price defending our country since Sept. 11, 2001.
The circumstances, however, that brought Tillman to that fateful day in Afghanistan were unique enough that, for a few days, the war on terror dominated the sports pages and reacquainted many Americans with the realities of war.
It turns out that during the 2001 NFL season, Tillman was the starting safety on the Arizona Cardinals football team. Although he was undersized for his position, Tillman was an over-achiever on the football field. In fact, the Cardinals thought enough of his play to offer him a $3.4 million contract following the 2001 season. This is where the story gets interesting. In a decision that can only be described as shocking, Tillman decided to leave the $3.4 million contract on the table, preferring instead to enlist in the U.S. Army and accept an annual salary of only $18,000.
In the prime of his career, Tillman walked away from both the game he loved and financial security to serve his county. His motivation for this decision: the events of Sept. 11. In Tillman's mind, the need to address the impending threat of terrorism took precedence over that large stack of money and comfortable living of a professional football player. For Till-man, the time had come when tangible sacrifices were needed to deal with evil.
Amid a culture that fawns over material success and the arrogant self-serving publicity antics of its sports “heroes,” Tillman was a man who could renew your faith in the professional athlete. Rather than desiring to bring attention to himself, a trait that is rare among celebrities, he denied virtually all media interviews after he enlisted. He realized his decision to enlist was no more worthy of attention than the thousands who had enlisted before him. It is ironic that in death, the media attention he so spurned in life has caught up with him, brought to bear by a country badly in need of a tangible hero.
I have read numerous articles about Tillman since his death, all of them mentioning the many fitting tributes that have been paid to him: Flags were flown at half staff throughout the state of Arizona; his alma mater, Arizona State University, will retire his No. 42 jersey next fall; and the Arizona Cardinals have set up a memorial outside team headquarters.
While these are all fitting, there has been little mention of what would be the best memorial to Tillman's life, and it is something much more dynamic and personal than a faded jersey set off behind a glass frame. To understand how best to honor his memory, it is necessary to understand the magnitude of what Tillman did.
Tillman, like many men before him, gave us his life as a gift, a sacrifice to ensure our freedom. Many might argue about the details of the war he participated in and whether it was just or not, but in Tillman's case, it is hard to argue that his decision to serve was anything less than a gift to this country and all who inhabit it. We live in a fallen world, one in which the human heart's capacity for evil too often becomes fully evident. At such a time, it is necessary for men and women to meet the challenge head on.
That will always entail the type of sacrifice that is an essential part of the Christian life. It is the paschal mystery of redemptive suffering in which we are all called to participate; it is the antidote for a fallen world.
Certainly, Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate antidote, but the story does not end there. Rather, Christ allows each of us to be active participants in the great cosmic struggle between good and evil, a struggle that manifests itself on the evening news but is waged silently in the depths of the human heart. It is in those depths that we encounter the gravity of the freedom we have been given, the ability to choose between life and death.
We have been given what we need to choose wisely, but unfortunately we don't always follow through. Christ came to free us from death, but his gift is lost on us if we don't accept him and alter our lives. Likewise, men like Tillman have given us a free land, full of unbounded promise, but that is lost on those of us who refuse to live a life equal to that promise.
Accepting our freedom cognizant of this responsibility is the ultimate tribute to Tillman and the others who have gone before him. It demonstrates we understand his gift just as asking God for forgiveness demonstrates recognition and appreciation of the gift of his Son. I'm sure you have heard the phrase, “Life is God's gift to us, what we make of it is our gift to him.” Well, the enduring freedom in our country is Tillman's gift to us, what we make of that freedom is our tribute to his memory.
Unfortunately, freedom has been bastardized in our country. Freedom now entails the liberty to do whatever you wish, with whomever you wish, whenever you wish. If we follow this path, we make a mess of our freedom. If we choose the self over self-sacrifice, we are no longer free and Tillman and many others have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen; rather, we must take a lesson from Tillman.
I do not know his religious convictions, but Tillman demonstrated the essence of true Christian freedom, the freedom to choose the good, no matter the personal risk.
Tillman recognized the debt he had to those who secured him this freedom in our country's previous wars, but more importantly he realized the responsibility inextricably linked with this freedom. The two cannot be separated. In America, we are free to live the lives that Christ has intended or we are free to live our own way. While recognizing that we have such a choice is important, deciding how Christ wants us to use it is even more crucial.
Such groups, though, do not stand alone. In fact, all of us have succumbed to the age-old temptation of taking our freedom into our own hands, trying to transform Christ's will to our own. Real freedom, though, has it the other way around. Real freedom is found in a daily dialogue with Christ and a willingness to allow him to transform our will into his own.
Through such an encounter, we give our lives completely to the service of Christ in much the same way Pat Tillman gave his life — turning down fame and fortune — completely to the service of his country. It is only through this act, the free gift of the self to Christ, that we can hope to use our freedom — which has been purchased at such a price — wisely.
Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
- May 23-29, 2004