Fragments on Heroism

Hopefully you’re somewhat like me in that you have heroes; figures that you look up to and occasionally reflect upon. As I ask the usual existential questions of, “why am I here?’ “What is my purpose?”  It is easy to desire a grand purpose similar to those I admire. I look at Bonhoeffer, King Jr., Wilberforce,  and think of how much they accomplished with the time they possessed. Other than the depressing question, “what have I done in comparison?” I examine these individuals to ask myself, “why are they my heroes? And What in particular makes them heroic?” On a simple level, what separates them from the crowd? Or if we want to probe deeper intrinsically, would I have been able to do the same thing? Do I already have what it takes?

Heroes are heroic partially because they are doing something that the majority is not.  The above mentioned “personal heroes” fought the norm in their respective societies. Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazi Party, King against segregationists, and Wilberforce against Parliament (particularly those in support of the slave trade). On the surface, generally everyone recognizes the accomplishments of these individuals, but I believe that we rush over the stories too quickly. Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the Reich Church (the official church of Germany), signing of the Barmen Declaration, his voicing direct opposition towards Nazi Germany is too well-known, making the sacrifice seem rather easy. Since we are on the other side of history, we know that the holocaust was wrong. We also know that most of the world finds the very idea horrific and probably don’t know anyone personally who would support a second holocaust. So, if we were alive back in 1936 in Germany, we would be against it too! … right? Would we? I’m not so sure.

Germany was recovering from an embarrassing defeat and surrender agreements from WWI that many, including Bonhoeffer, viewed as miserable, humiliating, and excessive. So, here comes along a political figure that somehow seems to embody German pride. He recognizes that inflation is high, he knows that families are struggling to survive, but he also has an idea of how to get out of this mess. This man can restore the fatherland to its former glory. He does spout off some terrible rhetoric at times, but all politicians manage to do that at some point. Plus, this man seems to bring hope to your family and neighbors that you haven’t seen in ages. He seems a bit crazy, but some of his policies make sense. We all know that in times of economic hardship, pocket books tend to outweigh social issues.

You start to notice that it isn’t just your friends and neighbors that have hope, but your professors and colleagues at the university. Your country is starting to recover! You don’t have to carry a wheelbarrow full of cash around to by a single loaf of bread. Dignity is starting to return. The dignity that the French and English robbed from you.

Things are going well, but things start to get a little stranger. The new leader convinces the official church of Germany to align their views with his. Something is not quite right. His rhetoric was a bit off, but he was stepping in places that he clearly shouldn’t. The new leader says some crazy things, takes some issues inappropriately too far, but everyone seems to like it. You notice that your professors, pastors, friends, neighbors are all in support. All of these individuals can’t be wrong… right? You start to wonder if it is actually you that is thinking incorrectly. The country is in the best shape it’s been in years, how could your suspicions hold any validity? No matter how many times you try to dissuade yourself of the skepticism directed towards this new leader and political party, you can’t. He clearly crosses a line, unfortunately you are the only one who sees it.

Here comes a new line of thinking. Your conviction, while unpopular, is still the one you’re sticking with, but you now have a choice. Will you be vocal or will you stay quiet? Will your voice reach anyone? Or will your voice drown in a vast sea of opposition? Will you lose friends? Will you lose the respect of your family? Will your colleagues despise you? The only question that you know the answer to is the one that reads, “will my voice, if heard, cost me dearly?” Yes.

Yet… this is the very climate where a hero must speak.


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