Humans and Heroes

“Yes, Witherspoon’s actions were very human, and the gospel of Jesus Christ can even save slave-owners. But given what he could have, and should have, known, should he be reckoned as a hero?”

Jacob Huneycutt, A Response to Kevin DeYoung on John Witherspoon

Americans seem to have an unhealthy obsession with “heroes.” Granted, we’ve traded much of that for an obsession with “celebrities,” but a rose by any other name… We prop up idols of human perfection and call them by whatever term is most worshipful, but Huneycutt’s article about John Witherspoon got me thinking: what if we simply called them Human?

Being a Hero

Being a hero often means being glorified for just one thing, not because they only did one thing, but we tend to over simplify others until they look like whatever matters most to us. Consider the way we often tell people about heroes and celebrities.

  • John Adams: famous for being a founding father of the United States of America
  • Susan B. Anthony: famous for being a social rights activist
  • Frederick Douglass: famous for being an abolitionist
  • Billy Graham: famous for being a Christian evangelist
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: famous for being a civil rights activist
  • Tom Cruise: famous for being an actor
  • Elon Musk: famous for being a billionaire
  • Taylor Swift: famous for being a singer/song writer

You might be thinking, “All of those be people did a lot of things,” but that’s my point. Of course they’ve done lots of things. John Adams didn’t just help found the United States. Billy Graham wasn’t just an evangelist. Elon musk isn’t just a billionaire. But, ask anyone to tell you why someone is their hero or favorite celebrity and you’ll often get something like the above: an over simplified, watered down, often singular description of something they did or accomplished.

Being Human

Being human is the opposite; it’s a complicated, multi-dimensional narrative that can be described as “messy.” Being human happens when we acknowledge the complex gradients of life, interpersonal relationships, cultures, beliefs, etc. It means being honest about accomplishments and failures. It means not lifting people too high and not diminishing their humanity. In other words, truly identifying people as human means that we can neither exalt them as “heroes” nor treat them as less than.

It’s counter intuitive, because we often aspire to become like our heroes, but turning people into heroes denies their humanity. It’s another, less obvious form of dehumanization. Making heroes out of men and women takes what once was human and makes it other, and obsessing over heroes and celebrities often implies that we, ourselves — we mere humans — are somehow lesser.

No One Is Good

Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Luke 18:19, NRSVUE

I was reminded of this verse when I read Huneycutt’s article. It holds a lot more of the human experience for me, now, than it did when I was younger. I’ll circle back to that in a minute.

I was also reminded of Paul:

What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all, for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
   there is no one who has understanding;
        there is no one who seeks God.”

Romans 3:9-11, NRSVUE

Recognizing people as humans rather than exalting them as heroes might help us resist the temptation to either defend them for their accomplishments or dehumanize them for their failures. In the case of Witherspoon, why should he be called a hero? Are his perceived theological accomplishments so great that he should be exalted as more than merely human? Or, why should he be called evil? Are his failures so heinous that he, more than we, deserves to be called less than human? “Are we any better off?”

Is there anyone “good” enough, “righteous” enough, or “understanding” enough that they should be elevated to the pedestal of “hero?”

Community Heroes

Communities, no matter how large or small, have heroes. Heroes have been part of every cultural narrative I’ve encountered. From cultural mythologies to inspiring community leaders, heroes can help rally and unify people. They can shape the courses of humanity in powerful ways. Just look at Jesus and the apostles!

We know almost nothing about Jesus and the apostles, historically, and because of that, the reality of their lives and their theologies is largely lost to us. Scripture provides only glimpses of them, and those glimpses are only the understandings of a few writers who may not even have known them. It’s easy for us to dissociate them from the messiness of being human. The same can be true for saints and clergy.

I think this is why it can be so shocking when our heroes’ flaws are revealed. For many, a hero’s “fall from grace” is really a return to humanity charged with feelings of betrayal and disappointment. Something similar happens when others attempt to humanize our heroes, as well; it feels like (and perhaps is) an invasion of our sacred spaces. Maybe this is why it’s easier for our heroes to be long dead. Better yet, so ancient that not even history can adequately challenge our mythologies.

It seems to me that the dehumanizing of heroes is a powerful phase in communal formation, even a necessary one, but perhaps it should be just that: a phase — a developmental step on our path toward maturity and wisdom. It’s the binding step that unifies and directs cultures and communities. The author(s) of Genesis captured it at Shinar: “…otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4, NRSVUE) Like the builders of Babel, however, perhaps we have overstayed in the realm of heroes.

Deconstructing Heroes

Deconstruction is a hot button word for a lot of people, but that’s essentially what we’re doing when we re-humanize our heroes: deconstructing them. This is similar to deconstructing our beliefs about God, religion, etc.; we take a serious look at our assumptions and try to be honest about them. Questions are an effective way to practice this.

  • How do we describe our heroes? Be specific. Think of a particular hero, and imagine how you’d respond if someone asked, “Who’s that?” Do you describe them by their accomplishments? What adjectives do you use?
  • What does our description highlight, and what does it leave out? Be honest. Things can start to get uncomfortable, here. Try to be objective.
  • How much do we really know about our heroes? Did you know enough about your hero to answer the previous question? Did you know about their interpersonal relationships and failures and the beginning, middle, and end of their life?

There are plenty of other questions we can ask, but these are decent places to start.

The more important a hero is to us or our communities, the more uncomfortable it can be to re-humanize them. Just like with deconstructing beliefs, the deconstruction of heroes can leave us feeling uprooted, ungrounded, or uncentered. When our individual or communal identities are rooted in a hero’s narrative, deconstructing that hero can feel like deconstructing our identity; it may feel like we’re unraveling who we are, and this is often true in seasons of growth.

Re-Humanizing Heroes Is Growth

Re-humanizing (deconstructing) heroes can sometimes feel like a step backward. If it causes us to feel uprooted or without a clear identity, we may start to think we were better off before (“at least I knew who I was”), but re-humanizing heroes is growth.

John Witherspoon was passionate about theology and religion and devoted much of his life to religious education. He was also a slaveholder who refused to acknowledge the terrible disconnect between his way of life and the Way of Christ. There’s an irreconcilable tension between those things. Can we still call him a hero? Should we call him a villain?

What if, instead, we called him Human? What if, instead, we called all of our heroes what they are: the same as us. I don’t mean that we should be delusional about our own shortcomings. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to be elevated, evolved, or transformed. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t seek after wisdom or fix our eyes on Christ. Quite the opposite: we should free ourselves from the shame of being less than so that we can also be free to grow into something more, not as heroes or villains but as human beings.


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