© April 10, 2018 | Schulter Etyang
We all have heroes. All of us. Some of our heroes are our parents, community leaders, siblings, kids, teachers, spiritual leaders, political leaders, authors, guru’s, captains of industries and even peers. We have this one person or persons that exhibit and express what we could become. They inspire us to reach for more and live up to our full potential. They exist to give us meaning to our existence.
The self-made man or woman doth protest rather too loudly at this idea. In their objection, they give away the identity of their hero – his or her self is the hero. They are their own hero’s.
I have heroes of my own. My late Pastor Harun Lihanda is one of them. My mother is a hero of mine. My siblings are heroes of mine. My wife Jenny has become a hero to me. When I came to South Africa for the first time, a couple hosted me for some months. They are my heroes. My first job in South Africa was at a church. The pastor and his family that employed me are my heroes. Certain peers of mine are my heroes. I have heroes I have met and others I admire from afar.
How does our 21st century contemporary culture treat its heroes?
We live a culture that worships its heroes, albeit blindly. We also live in a culture that easily demonizes and discards heroes when their fallibility is exposed. Our contemporary culture is notorious for idol worship and grinding the idol to dust when it has served its purpose. Our culture enjoys savoring the meals that our heroes cook for us, but when we find a bone in the meal, we spit out the meal with such disgust.
This year, two major figures in world history passed on. Evangelist Billy Graham and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela and a struggle icon of her own right. Their eulogies were received with mixed reviews.
Billy Graham was celebrated as a man of immense influence. He was able to influence the spiritual and cultural landscape of the United States and the world. He was a spiritual advisor to most US presidents during his lifetime. He was credited with leading millions to Christ. He was a humble man, they say. However, voices have risen that have disputed his influence or lack of it on the civil rights movement. They say he was ambiguously quiet when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was fighting for the rights of the black people. Anthony Bradley, a professor at the King’s college tweeted that Billy Graham was certainly a prophetic gospel preacher, not a prophetic voice for black equality.
Why was he silent? Why was he vocal on other cultural issues such as abortion and malevolence sin, yet he was silent on racism and laws that perpetuated systemic injustice to the black people? Could he have lost the majority white evangelical donor class if he had voiced his support for the cause? We don’t know. We can only speculate. His critics insist that his silence must be highlighted in order to bring a balanced picture to someone who the white evangelical class speaks of in hallowed terms. We might never know.
The same shade is being thrown at the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela. Yes, she was a struggle icon of the highest caliber. Yes, she continued on with the struggle for freedom when the ANC leadership was out of the country. She didn’t flee. She stayed put and fought against the apartheid system. At the same time, she was a very controversial figure. Many of her critics are quick to point out the scandals and controversies that plagued her life. Mondli Makhanya, the editor-in-chief of the City Press in his op-ed called her the damaged goods that came back from Brandfort. Why was such a woman with incredible struggle credentials become such a hated and even divisive figure within South Africa? Upon her death, why did she elicit such mixed reviews?
Recently, in Kenya, the leaders of the two major parties who happened to be leaders of the two major tribes that have jostled for power for decades made peace. They broke away from their ranks, met, shook hands and declared a truce – for the sake of their own legacies, of course. The supporters from both tribes were blind-sided by the actions of these two leaders. The supporters felt betrayed – especially by one of the leaders who had been a struggle icon for many people in Kenya and around the world. Many felt he had betrayed the ethos of the struggle and had settled for his own personal aggrandizement. Why did he settle? Why did he make peace? Had he run his course? What did this reveal about his character? Can we whitewash over all his accomplishments because of this one move? We don’t know. We will never know.
One of the ways we can understand our heroes is to look at how the Bible describes its heroes. All Bible heroes had a dark part to them. All of them. The Bible highlights both the light and dark parts of all the heroes therein. The inspired writers of the sacred scriptures are careful not to whitewash the weaknesses of its heroes. The Bible lays bare the weaknesses and strengths, failures and successes of its heroes. Take for example the strong man, Samson. He was a man of immense physical strength yet was ravaged by an insatiable hunger for sex and promiscuity, which ultimately cost him his life. David, was the man after God’s own heart, a king, priest, prophet, musician extraordinaire, lyricist, poet, and yet was also consumed with lust, murdered one of his best friends, and had bad parenting skills.
Jesus our true hero
So, should we view our heroes?
The gospel offers us a way forward. The gospel points us to the truest hero – Jesus. He was the epitome of what heroism is. The great Jonathan Edwards preached a classic sermon titled the Excellency of Christ. In this sermon, he described Jesus as having diverse excellencies. He says, Jesus is the lion and the lamb,
The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God
He continues to list the diverse excellencies that marked his life
- There do meet in Jesus Christ infinite highness and infinite condescension.
- There meet in Jesus Christ, infinite justice and infinite grace.
- In the person of Christ do meet together infinite glory and lowest humility.
- In the person of Christ do meet together infinite majesty and transcendent meekness.
- There meet in the person of Christ the deepest reverence towards God and equality with God.
- There are conjoined in the person of Christ infinite worthiness of good, and the greatest patience under sufferings of evil.
- In the person of Christ are conjoined an exceeding spirit of obedience, with supreme dominion over heaven and earth.
- In Christ do meet together self-sufficiency, and an entire trust and reliance on God, which is another conjunction peculiar to the person of Christ.
Unfortunately, none of our human heroes could live up to such diverse excellencies. Winnie Madikizela Mandela was a brave and fierce woman, but many claim she was proud and ungovernable, and preferred being the star act who headlined rallies and marches, writes Mondli Makhanya.
What are we to say or write about our heroes when they die considering that dead men tell no tales or cannot defend themselves?
We must be careful that we don’t paint our human heroes as those who didn’t err. Our human heroes are just as fallible as we all are. Pointing out where and why they failed must not be seen as if we are discrediting their legacies. We are simply pointing out their humanity – that they are just like us. At the same time, we also celebrate their tremendous achievements in spite of their personal failures. We should actually see that as a plus not a negative.
So while we celebrate our heroes – and rightly so – we should be careful to celebrate their achievements and at the same time hold them accountable them for their failures. If we don’t do this then we run the risk of placing too much emphasis on their heroism at the expense of alienating those hurt by their mistakes.
For gospel Christians, we should hold them under the gaze of the truest hero that ever lived – Jesus. Their heroic achievements must pass through the magnetic glare of the character of Jesus. In some ways, we might see that they were just like Jesus. And also, in many ways, we will see that they fell short of the glory of God. When we have this view, we will be able to have a better handle of their legacies.
It is only the holy scriptures that lays bare the heroic acts and the character flaws of its heroes in equal measure. Hence, when Christians see our modern-day heroes, we hold them in the proper view – heroes and deeply flawed human beings – because they are replicas of who we know in our holy scriptures.
One main thing that our human heroes could not do – none of them – none could save us from eternal damnation. Jesus is the only hero whose death saved his executors, the Jewish nation, and the whole world. This is a special shout out to the greatest hero who ever lived.
Only Jesus can say this to be true
I can kiss away the pain
I will stand by you forever
You can take my breath away
You can take my breath away
That’s what grace looks like