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Message 19, Heroic Sacrifice, 5-2-10

Download program: Service Program, 5-2-10
© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, all rights reserved

As we begin this month of May, I hope to focus our attention over the coming weeks on heroism and the values we use in celebrating that trait. This hopefully applies for us not only on the last day of the month, Memorial Day, but also on any other day of the year. As humans, we have a long history of elevating certain unique persons to heroic status and then worshipping them almost as gods. The practice approximates that of religion and, often, religions are created because of human hero worship. Indeed, we might say that Christianity itself began as a form of hero worship – a great figure was martyred and his followers struggled with how best to continue both his memory and his teachings.

We can examine many aspects of heroism and the attributes used in its determination, but our greater purpose might lie in examining whom we choose to consider heroic and, further, how we might also act in ways that are heroic. Memorial Day, as we all know, is celebrated as a way to honor our nation’s war dead. It is not an exaggeration that most people bestow the title of hero to all of those women and men who have died in service to the country. Fittingly, most historians trace its origins to a commemoration of Civil War dead and its first celebration on May 1st, 1865 by over ten-thousand former slaves who assembled to honor fallen Union Soldiers in Charleston, North Carolina. And it is what these newly freed slaves chose to honor that I want to examine in today’s message. Whatever caused those soldiers to serve in the military and whatever causes any other person to serve in the armed services, there is sacrifice involved. Indeed, for those dead Union soldiers honored at that first Memorial Day, they had sacrificed their very lives for not only the cause of holding our nation together but also, ultimately, for the freedom of millions of black slaves.

For most people, the definition of heroism is focused on the idea of courageous commitment to a morally noble ideal. That person must not only struggle but he or she also must face significant danger and risk of losing life, health, reputation or wealth. My goal this morning – and I hope the subject of our reflections – will be not on remembering past heroes but finding in their actions ideals we can understand about humanity and about ourselves. Far from aspiring to great and historic acts of heroism, most of those people we call heroes often acted on impulse and in ways that reflected their conscious decision to courageously sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. How can we too be heroic? How can we prepare for a moment when we will be called upon to act quietly and humbly not just in love or compassion or charity but to risk all that we have?

In the twentieth century pantheon of well-known heroes, we might include people like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Rosa Parks. In the pantheon of fallen soldier heroes we honor on Memorial Day, we can include Medal of Honor recipients like Sergeant Rafael Peralta, who after being wounded in Afghanistan, chose to then roll on top of a live grenade and smother the blast – not for the sake of his country and our war effort for to save the lives of his comrades. That list of soldier heroes includes Private James LaBelle who similarly rolled on top of a live grenade at Iwo Jima in World War Two and Corporal Richard Anderson who did the same in Viet Nam. Whatever our views about these wars and warfare in general are, it goes without saying that these soldiers, in positions of great danger, could have either saved themselves or, as they did, sacrificed their lives for the lives of others. That is not military heroism – it is everyday, split second decisions of ultimate sacrifice. And each of the well-known heroes like Nelson Mandela also sacrificed themselves for the sake of a higher good – Mandela enduring over twenty-seven years in prison because of his vocal opposition to the racist policy of apartheid.

The humorist Will Rogers once said that, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.” Despite his comment, many others disagree. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Each man and each woman is a hero and an oracle to somebody.” And that is the point I want us to consider today. The term “everyday hero” has been used often in recent years and it has even been the subject of psychological inquiry. A noted psychologist and author named Philip Zimbardo coined the phrase, “the banality of heroism” to indicate that heroic actions and heroic sacrifice do not need to be of the grand and famous scale. Great sacrifice might be accomplished by lesser known women and men – but their deeds often go largely unnoticed or, in some cases, completely unknown.

In a book I discussed in one of my March messages on finding personal meaning, Victor Frankel in his book The Meaning of Life recounts the years he spent at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. In it he describes horrors that we cannot begin to imagine. Death lists were routinely compiled on which prisoners were divided between those who could still work and thus justify their keep and those too weak or sick to work and thus expendable. Women and men fought and connived to be kept off of that list. Many would bribe or lie to avoid appearing on a death list. They would try and substitute somebody else’s name for their own. Those on the daily death list would not see nightfall again – they were marched off to the gas chambers and crematoria. As horrific and gut wrenching as it must have been to see starving men and women fighting each other in order to live or bribing guards to put another name on the death list, Frankel describes how some otherwise healthy prisoners would quietly put their own name on the list as a substitute for a friend, a relative or even a complete stranger. Such unobtrusive acts of sacrifice were barely noticed in the hell of Auschwitz. Human beings were reduced to brute savagery just in order to live and yet some few persons, in everyday acts of heroism, refused to succumb.

And Frankel also writes of Nazi guards who were mostly unfeeling in their disregard for human life. Some guards did have feelings and could even be kind hearted. A few but significant number were hideously sadistic. Most of the guards simply followed orders and stood by when the meanest of guards tortured prisoners. A very rare guard or two, however, would not stand by when mistreatment took place but he or she would intervene and work to prevent a beating or other cruel act. What caused the rare guard to risk himself or herself for the sake of Jews, who were considered by the Nazis to be subhuman? Such were the everyday heroic acts witnessed by Frankel that he chronicled with wonder and awe – acts like giving up one’s food for a sick inmate, doubling one’s work quota for a weak friend or, ultimately, dying in the place of another. What was needed, writes Frankel was a fundamental change in one’s attitude toward life. Men and women in the concentration camps had to learn that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

In the recent prison scandal at Abu Graib in Iraq, photographs came to light which showed American guards taunting naked and humiliated Iraqi prisoners with dogs or electric shock. One notorious picture showed an American guard standing and laughing over a literal pyramid of naked prisoners. In the background is a clearly visible group of ten or more American guards passively standing by and watching – they are not participating but they are not intervening either. This gruesome depiction of the banality of evil – how a misguided war dehumanized even supposedly moral Americans into treating fellow humans with cruelty – makes most people shudder in disbelief. How could that happen? Even further, it calls each of us to examine what we would do when faced with a similar situation. Why were there so many guards who did not torture prisoners but who did nothing to stop it? And this banality of evil is fortunately contrasted with everyday heroism. Sergeant Joseph Darby, an American Army reservist at Abu Graib, compiled a CD of the abuse photographs and gave them to a superior officer who promptly initiated an investigation. Darby was later harshly attacked for his actions. His family back in the US was subjected to harassment and death threats. Darby himself has been forced, due to the many threats against him, to change his name and live under the witness protection program. Is he someone we might also remember this month of May when we honor military heroes?

For many of you who have studied psychology, you likely are aware of the famous Stanley Milgram experiment completed in 1960 at Yale University. In it, a group of students was divided into teachers and learners. The teachers were told by official looking experimenters dressed in lab coats to ask the learners a series of questions and to then to induce an electric shock on those who gave incorrect answers. The learners were told that the shocks would not be real but they were asked to pretend as if they were and to act with fake pain. The electric shock dials used by the teachers were clearly marked in increments that gradually increased to lethal levels. Despite initial reluctance to initiate shocks, the teachers were continually urged by the experimenters to shock the learners. A large majority of the teachers followed instructions from the experimenters and repeatedly shocked the learners. Many of the teachers reached the supposedly lethal level. All of the shocks were initiated despite screams from the learners and pleas for them to stop. The teachers in the experiment were everyday, randomly chosen students. Notably, a few of the teachers did refuse to continue the shocks at early points in the experiment. The question we ask again is how could this happen and what causes some to go along with inhumanity and others to heroically stand up against it? Indeed, of greater concern to us is what evil or allowance for evil lurks within any of us and, just as important, what everyday capabilities for sacrifice and heroism are also within us?

I believe the impulse for doing what is morally right lies within each of us. A common refrain within my messages is that the moral imagination in humanity advances the arc of justice and equality ever onward. Evil and injustice persist but they are continually battled and incrementally reduced. In this month of May, I hope we might reflect on how we can not only remember past heroes but also practice everyday heroism and thus advance, by our own individual efforts, the arc of progress. Such efforts are not only sacrificial but they also cause us to risk our comfort, pleasure, status or wealth. I, myself, have been far too blessed in life and have faced relatively minor threats. Have I been so softened by my life experiences that I cannot rise to heroic action? And, equally as compelling, I must ask myself what should motivate heroic actions on my part? Will I play the martyr and seek the acclaim of others? Will I undertake sacrifice but seek heroic status as a form of reward? Or, do I possess within me the ability to be an everyday hero, a normal person who simply, quietly and often anonymously sacrifices and takes risks for the sake of changing the world for the better – even if it is one life at a time?
As I spoke earlier of the moral imagination in our world, many have also proposed that humans can practice heroic imagination. This involves seeing ourselves in particular situations and then determining how we should or will act. Faced with risk but knowing that our actions will further a greater good, will we shrink from acting and merely be a bystander or will we commit to heroism – not sure of success or failure but knowing that our cause is just? Would I roam the hallways and persistently wrench open shut doors to free people trapped in a burning building similar to the World Trade Center – much like one relatively unsung hero named Frank De Martini did on September 11th, 2001? He saved over 70 lives despite repeated calls for him to evacuate. In the end, he perished when the building collapsed. Or would I escape like so many others did – saving only myself? In heroic imagination I must see myself choosing to help others, resisting the impulse to not act and refusing to succumb to fear.

Would we, if confronted by significant fraud by our company or work superiors, look away and pretend ignorance fearing the loss of our own job? Or would we report the crimes? Will I confront others when I see everyday unkindness, bullying or insult – even if it means I will be less liked? Will I one day face death without complaint, without fear and with thanks for the life I have been given – or will I go into eternity angry, bitter and unthankful?

What ways can I dream of quiet heroism and everyday sacrifice? I believe we can and must imagine heroic deeds in ourselves. Such dreams establish what values we hold dear and the ideals for which we are willing to risk our reputations and our lives.

We are, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, each heroes in the making – in our homes, in our jobs and in our communities. We are not merely agents of change or of charity. We have boldness within us to seize moments of risk and make them our own. I aspire, like all of you, to something greater than myself and, as Emerson’s statement implies, we will each have that opportunity. This may or may not involve sacrificing our very lives or risking our reputations but it will call us to quiet nobility – heroic sacrifice in our families, in our relationships, in our church and in our work. We will not require the parade of acclaim that Will Rogers laughed at. We will have simply answered the call of life – to live boldly, to love endlessly and to risk ourselves so that this world, this earth drifting in the black of space, is better, truer and greater because we were here. May we each dream of great risks, of difficult sacrifices and of everyday heroism.