“Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ”
One of the striking features of the last few months has been all the new heroes which we now have.
Healthcare-heroes and key-worker heroes have been thanked for all their work on the frontline of virus care. They are the ‘everyday heroes’ who have inspired us all with their continued dedication to their patients, delivery routes, and customers.
It’s right that we honour such dedication, but we can run in to difficulty here, too. Defining a group of people as heroes sets them apart from the rest of us. Heroes are heroes because of the amazing things they do, but the point is, they do things ‘normal’ people don’t or can’t do. They’re ‘other’ in an almost untouchable way.
Which is why it’s worth reflecting on the words of doctors and nurses who have taken to the media to try and dispel this heroic view a little. One nurse spoke of the stress she found herself dealing with on a Covid-19 unit:
“Please, don’t imagine we’re heroes. We’re not heroes, we have no special superpowers to deal with this…”
She’s desperate for us to know that she’s just as vulnerable as the rest of us. And yet, we do feel that instinct to honour and uphold them. Why is that?
When you think about it, the heroic has held a fascination for humanity for centuries. Whether your preference is for Odysseus or Luke Skywalker, Hercules or Steve Rogers, Achilles or Natasha Romanoff, the heroic seems to carry an irrepressible draw. And all of that history has helped us develop a view of the superhero.
The problem is, mythology doesn’t quite translate into real life does it?! When real people do heroic things, it isn’t because they’ve been bitten by a radioactive insect, enabling them to love and care in a super-human way. Instead, something within us knows that they are loving and caring in a real-human way. The tension between the destructive, self-centred, curved-in sinful nature which we all carry, and the distorted-but-persisting image of God is felt in these moments. Deep down we know which of those is meant to be ‘truly human.’
So, as our society celebrates its heroes, and those heroes shift according to new values and circumstances, we can look into each of their faces and be reminded of the one truly human hero—the true fulfilment of our humanity as found in the perfect life and obedient death of Jesus.
At the same time, our fascination with the heroic ideal points us in another direction. If you’ve visited a local Co-op recently you may have heard announcements, praising you as a “local hero.” Listen to adverts elsewhere and it turns out that we’re all “stay-at-home heroes” who have helped overcome the first phase of the pandemic.
When you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense. Again, isn’t the whole point about a hero that they do things which go above and beyond the call of duty? In one sense, although they aren’t different from us by nature, they dostand out either because of what they accomplish or how they accomplish it.
So, there’s something odd about this use of ‘heroic’ language here too. If I’ve been a hero just by staying at home, what does that mean for people who really have done heroic things?
To bring the heroic down to the level of ‘what we all do’ pretty much dissolves it as a category. Then, as Syndrome put it in The Incredibles: “when everyone’s super, no one will be.”
For Christians this hits home when we think about the standards Jesus sets. Some of his most famous turns of phrase have become standard descriptions of a moral kind of heroism. Heroes might ‘turn the other cheek’ or ‘go the extra mile.’ Meanwhile, the Good Samaritan is so attractive precisely because he goes further than others in loving his neighbour.
But here’s the thing: Those are commands. Jesus doesn’t say ‘if you’re up for it, you can go beyond the ‘norm’ by doing these things—it’s up to you.’ He says, ‘this is what being my follower looks like.’ In effect he lays on us a duty to go beyond the call of duty.
How does that work?!
We need to consider more closely what following Jesus means. When he calls, he isn’t merely setting an external example. He’s integral to the whole process because he gives his Holy Spirit. He empowers our following. As he does, our capacities to love him and others grow.
Spirit-empowered, expanding capacities for other-person-centred love help explain how Jesus can call us go beyond duty like this. As we grow, the standards we’re drawn on towards grow too. For example, what was once generous behaviour for a new Christian, might well be recognisably stingy if it hasn’t changed 10-15 years later, because Jesus calls us to grow in our likeness to him.
That happens as we depend more and more on Christ as the hero, and as we’re challenged by the examples around us. That’s why Paul so frequently says things like “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (E.g. 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1, Phil 3:17, 4:9, 1 Thess 3:7 and 9 to name a few!)
Which means that if you’re a Christian you actually have been called to a a transparent heroism which puts not us, but Jesus on display as the hero.
So next time you hear celebrations of ‘everyday heroes’ or you’re included in that number, whether as part of one group, or as part of a society patting itself on the back, there’s an opportunity for a counter-liturgy.
We can remember Christ, the hero of history and of our salvation, and press on in the upward call which he has given us to follow him, onwards to glory!