download program: Service Program, 5-16-10
© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
For those of you who have been here over the last two weeks and heard the messages on heroism – or those who have read them – perhaps you have thought about the topic and whom we call heroes. Two weeks ago we considered the idea of everyday heroes and how we can practice heroic imagination – how we must think about and plan ahead – how we will act in situations where we face significant risk and danger. Last week, as we focused on women and their roles, we sought to redefine what it means to be a heroic female or male in our culture. The hero is not necessarily the mother who sacrifices all for the sake of family nor is it necessarily the woman who pursues a career outside the home. It is the person who freely and boldly chooses his or her own path in life despite what cultural norms might say.
In order to conclude this series on heroism, I want to consider today some of those mythical and fictional heroes of books, television and movies who often personify our cultural heroic ideals. These are figures like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or Spiderman – who still capture our imagination. Young boys and girls over the last hundred years have dreamed that they too could grow up to be just like Superman – a mythic figure admired by millions, who flies through the air, who possesses great strength and who stands for peace and justice. (show superman clip)
Many of us want to be like Superman because of his many heroic qualities like his strength and his goodness. And that is generally the case with the many other fictional superheroes who have become a part of our popular culture. Batman and Spiderman fight the bad guys. Wonder Woman is a beautiful but strong and intelligent woman. It is interesting for us to note, however, that all of the pop-culture superheroes, as well as the several Bible heroes we know, are also vulnerable and flawed in certain ways. When we idolize a superhero, we do not want him or her to be god-like in perfection. They must retain aspects of humanity that allow them to be accessible and identifiable. In that regard, our heroes can be great but they must not be so great as to make them individuals we cannot emulate. The writers and creators of the superhero stories designed them to reflect us in our greatest aspirations about ourselves and, also, to reflect us in our so called feet of clay. To be a hero is not to be strictly god-like but to also be very human.
Superman, as we all know, spent much of his life disguised as his alter-ego Clark Kent, a mild mannered reporter. Clark is usually depicted as the classic 1950’s nerd – with large glasses, bumbling ways, and a lack of confidence around women like Lois Lane. The superhero Batman likewise spends most of his life disguised as Bruce Wayne who was orphaned as a child when he personally witnessed his parents being murdered. Batman fights crime but he has a dark and sinister side that is not afraid to use violence to fight violence. Spiderman is an ordinary teenager in disguise named Peter Parker and Wonder Woman is the alter-ego of a demure and old-maidish secretary named Diana Prince. From the Bible, Moses, as the preeminent Jewish hero, was at first a confused and indecisive figure. David was the classic ninety pound teenage weakling before he killed the giant Goliath. And Jesus was also a soft and compassionate man who anguished over his impending arrest and who cried out to God on the cross complaining about the unfairness of his death. A consistent and important part of our cultural hero stories and myths, indeed of how we look at heroes in general, is that he or she must be someone we can relate to in terms of their human frailties.
We see, in them, reflections of ourselves who yearn to be great and powerful but who are too often weak, vulnerable, shy or morally confused. The reality of life and the reality of ourselves is that while we aspire to be better, we are also human. Too often we are constrained from acting heroically by our failures and our flaws. The heroes we admire do not shrink from fighting for what is right. They do not refuse to be powerful or heroic. What is distinctive about any hero we admire is that they act in heroic ways despite their flaws and despite their humanity. They rise above their basic humanity – their weaknesses – to act in ways that are seen as superhuman.
Many of the fictional heroes will also only appear in public wearing a costume that accentuates their powers. During the rest of their lives they remain hidden and closeted and fearful of the wider world understanding or knowing who they really are. Clark Kent even says about Superman – and ultimately about himself, that “maybe he keeps a part of himself hidden so he doesn’t scare people away.” We can all identify with the idea of wearing a mask or a symbolic costume to prevent the world from knowing who we really are – what are our flaws and real thoughts. We can also identify with how we show only a part of ourselves to the world – the good side that is culturally acceptable.
The message of the fictional superheroes, I believe, and the lesson we can learn from the topic of heroism is not to simply copy all of the qualities we admire – like bravery, strength and power. Even when we honor real life heroes, we must not turn them into persons so unlike ourselves that it is impossible to be like them. Heroes are not gods. They are human beings who simply act in ways that we admire. As I have proposed many times, the Jesus we honor and study is not a heroic god. He is us. We are him. In spite of his humanity, in spite of his humble birth and in spite of the several ways he acted less than heroically – when he cried, when he revealed his temper and when he showed fear – Jesus could still point us to the high ideals of compassion, forgiveness and advocacy for social justice.
On the night before his execution, just a few days after he overturned tables in the Temple in a fit of temper against greedy religious merchants, Jesus knew he would soon be arrested. The Bible story says that Jesus was highly agitated and even sweat blood in his anguish over whether to flee or submit to arrest. And, on the cross, the Bible stories say Jesus cried out to God asking why he was being subjected to such a death. Indeed, I believe it does Jesus an injustice to call him a god for in doing so we have made him perfect and thus all of his great attributes are no longer extraordinary. A god should act perfectly. But a flawed and weak human being must struggle and overcome long odds in order to be heroic. We can admire Jesus all the more because, as a human being and not a god, he acted compassionately and was able to forgive his enemies and those who hurt him. He rose above his humanity and his weaknesses to be a hero – a man whose teachings resonate for us still today.
And that is precisely what Superman achieves. Out of the human nerdiness and bumbling ways of Clark Kent emerges a hero who fights for decency and justice. Out of the closet of his identity as Clark Kent he becomes a powerful and capable hero. And the same is true of Wonder Woman – another superhero in our popular culture. She was created not as a feminist hero who is equal with men but as one who is superior to men. As William Marston, the psychologist who created her said, our culture has come to despise many of the traditional feminine characteristics because they are perceived to be weak. He said, “the obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” (show Wonder Woman clip)
Echoing what we considered last Sunday on Mother’s Day, in a fun and campy way, the message of Wonder Woman is that the demure, soft and bookish woman can also be feminine and strong. Even though much of how Wonder Woman is portrayed panders to some of our cultural stereotypes for women – that they be sexy, have flowing hair and wear perfect make-up – the other message from her is that women can also be smarter and stronger than men. From the apparent weakness of an overly feminine nature can emerge a hero – to be admired by girls and boys alike.
And that is what we find important when we consider how hero stories and myths apply to us. Humanity and imperfection are what make us real. But we need not be held captive by such weakness. Superheroes, like many of us, feel a need to mask their vulnerability and that part of themselves which is despised by the prevailing culture. Superheroes nevertheless are able to transcend such weakness and act with power and ability. Moses was a man who fled from responsibility only to become the one who would lead the Jews out of slavery. Jesus was a poor, sensitive kid conceived out of wedlock who became, arguably, one of the greatest prophets and moral leaders in history. Superman is an alien, from a distant planet, who is raised on a small farm and who grows up to be a cowardly reporter, hiding his identity. He has, however, become the archetype of the masculine ideal – a man who is strong, handsome, moral and works for good in the world. Wonder Woman is a bookish and weak secretary who becomes a sexy and powerful crime fighter.
Indeed, the same standards that we apply to our cultural superheroes are what we apply to our leaders and our President. We want them to be handsome, strong and intelligent. But, what often makes them great in our eyes is not their heroic attributes but when they are able to transcend their flaws. Abraham Lincoln was a strong and resolute leader despite his ordinary and awkward appearance and his modest small town background. FDR pulled the country out of a depression and acted as a bold commander in chief despite being a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. Lyndon Johnson became only second to Lincoln in advancing civil and equal rights for African-Americans despite his southern, racist roots. And, despite being a deeply flawed man, only Richard Nixon, who made his career as a communist baiting colleague of Joseph McCarthy, could open relations with Red China and begin substantive nuclear disarmament treaties with the Soviet Union – both of which have made the world safer. We see, therefore, a common thread even in our leaders whom history applauds.
What heroic actions are in us, hidden by our ordinary and flawed masks? What muscular and strong caped crusader who fights against injustice in this world lurks in our mild mannered bodies? I certainly do not claim to be a hero – far from it – but I have had to step beyond my hidden and inner flaws to become more genuine and true to the world. It was not easy coming out. It was not fun to leave a comfort zone where the world considered me normal. But I am finding that in my weaknesses and in my humanity are the elements of what can make me strong.
For this month of May, when we celebrate both Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, I believe we can better define what constitutes a hero. In doing so, we can better understand ourselves and how we too are called to everyday heroism. We see that in being heroic we must not just act in a good or courageous manner. We must risk ourselves – our lives or our reputations. We must transcend that which is within us that tells us we are too weak or too afraid or too confused to act. And we must then choose the path or the action that is our own way and not subject to what the culture defines for us. As women move beyond tradition and feminism to embrace the strength to choose what is good for them, as gays and straights defy cultural norms to be honest and loving citizens, fully equal in society, as any person who moves beyond past weaknesses or hurts, we can transcend our flawed humanity. Despite our fears, we can boldly serve this inner city community, despite our own needs and wants, we can generously give of our time and resources, and despite that which makes us weak – our past hurts – we can be heroically transformed. There is a quote at the Freedom Center exhibit on lynching, by Thee Smith, which says, “Let’s work together to rescue ourselves and our children from the fate of becoming bystanders in a world without sanctuary.” The superhero in each of us must transcend our own human fears and weaknesses and refuse to any longer be a bystander to inequality and injustice in this world. I propose to us today that this church, as an entity itself, must refuse to be a bystander and it too must commit itself to heroic deeds. That hero in us, and in our church, yearns to be free, to come out of the closet, and to act boldly and compassionately to change the world.