by Scott Simpson
I had a handful of heroes growing up. I’d love to say one of them was Jesus, but I’d be lying. Don’t get me wrong—I admired Jesus. I aspired to follow him. But somehow he didn’t feel heroic to me.
My heroes came from movies, TV and a few books:
- Charlton Heston, especially in Planet of the Apes, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur
- Clint Eastwood, in every spaghetti western, and as Dirty Harry
- Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, Han Solo
- Strider and Gandalf (from Lord of the Rings)
I learned that these men, and of course they were all men, were heroic because in every case, they found themselves in desperate situations, with others depending on them, and they always solved the problem and saved the day… and usually got the girl. Their tools, beyond cleverness and grit, were guns, whips, chariots, fists, cars, star-ships, lasers, phasers, light-sabers, swords, spears, and magic.
My two favorite Christmases were the Christmases I received a BB gun, and a .410 shotgun handed down from my great-grandfather via my grandfather to me. I had an old revolver that my dad’s uncle brought back from Europe after the war. It didn’t work, but I holstered it and practiced drawing in front of the mirror. The first big purchase I made was a HUGE hunting knife that cost me a solid 60 bucks (which was a lot for a high school kid like me) I had nowhere appropriate to wear it (it went from my belt more than half-way to my knee). Once I started reading Lord of the Rings, the knife was too short and I purchased two swords—one broadsword and one replica of the one carried by El Cid (Charlton again).
I eventually became enthralled with Grizzly Adams, Jeremiah Johnson and the idea of becoming a mountain man, and I grew a big huge beard, bought lots of leather and fur garb, a couple of muzzle-loaders and set about trying to move to the mountains somewhere.
I’ve owned two shotguns, a deer rifle, a .45 automatic hand-gun and a .44 magnum—“The most powerful handgun ever made. It could blow your head clean off…” (Dirty Harry).
My heroes have always been powerful. Heroes ARE and SHOULD be powerful, but how you define power… that makes all the difference.
How does something like the Sandy Hook shooting, Columbine or the Aurora movie theater shooting happen? I don’t know. “Don’t blame guns,” many people—many Christians—will tell you. Okay. Guns are just tools, like cars, like pencils, like can openers. But there are no red-blooded American kids fantasizing in front of the mirror with can-openers or pencils. And IF they are fantasizing with a car (as I did briefly after getting my learners’ permit, screaming “Get them Duke Boys!!”) then you can be sure that there’s trouble on the way… at an unsafe speed!
I don’t know what causes the senseless violence we see in our society, but I know that a strong contributing factor is our American definition of power. Read our definition via our solutions. The US spends almost as much on militarism as all other nations combined. The US incarcerates a larger percentage of its own citizens than any other developed nation. US citizens own more than 90 guns for every 100 people—almost twice the per capita rate of the next country in line—Yemen.
The American definition of “power that solves problems” is intertwined with the cultural mystique of guns and violence.
Once my definition of power changed, a few years ago, my heroes did as well:
- Martin Luther King Jr. who said in the midst of racial persecution, “The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”
- Mohandas Gandhi who said, in the midst of liberating his nation, “Hatred ever kills, love never dies. Such is the vast difference between the two. What is obtained by love is retained for all time. What is obtained by hatred proves a burden in reality for it increases hatred."
- Dirk Willems, the 14th century Anabaptist who stopped to save his own pursuer from freezing to death in a lake, only to be captured because of this act of kindness and burned at the stake for his beliefs in 1569.
- St Francis of Assisi who prayed the prayer our choir at college sang at every gathering:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
when there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
And, of course, Jesus who said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:38-45
American Christianity, like most of Christianity since Constantine, has made heroes of individuals who are willing to argue, fight and even kill to promote “the Christian ideals.” As far as I can tell, Christ’s highest ideal—as demonstrated by his death on the cross—was to serve even the most ardent enemy at deep, or even ultimate cost to self. That’s the power in the cross—in the death and resurrection; the power of selfless sacrifice trumps the power of death-dealing violence.
I don’t see that message very often. When I do, many times it’s not coming from Christians. In the US, conservative Christians are more likely to be
- Pro-death penalty
- Pro-torture (for the purposes of interrogation)
- Pro-gun rights
- Anti-welfare and food stamps
Is it possible that many Christians, like me, have grown up with a starkly separated view of the “Jesus” they confess for the salvation of their souls, and the heroes they long to embrace for the salvation of their bodies, lifestyles, bank accounts, culture, institutions and comfort?
If I don’t really believe that the power of self-sacrificial love is sufficient to save everything that really matters in my life, then do I really believe it was enough to save my soul?
The myth of redemptive violence and its violent heroes draw all of us closer to more and more shootings. If we, the salt, have lost our saltiness, if we, the light have grown dim and don’t even practice the core tenant of Jesus’ ministry, the central defining characteristic of Christ followers for the first 300 years of this movement—over powering violence with self-sacrificial love, then how great this darkness is that we are in!
But if they see us reflect Christ—as the world saw the small Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA in 2006, attending the funeral of the man who shot their daughters, comforting his family, loving in the midst of their own grief, the world will see the impossibly beautiful power of the cross.
But I have to be honest. Maybe it’s the part of the country in which I live, or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but from my vantage point, those who are looking at Christians from the outside see more gun-obsessed hateful bigots than selfless peacemakers. My Facebook news feed is filled with messages like this, forwarded from Christians:
If we start right now by giving up our old heroes—our old definition of power—by adopting Jesus’ definition of power, then perhaps we can join God’s process of overcoming darkness with light, of saving lives rather than planting the seeds of the next act of violence.
Otherwise, I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.
Scott Simpson was an English teacher at the high school and university levels for twenty years, holding faculty positions at York College, ACU and Black Hills State University. Scott also served as Executive Director of Camp Blue Haven in Las Vegas, NM for two years. He is currently an Educational Specialist working with schools on and near Lakota reservations in South Dakota. The Simpson family lives and worships in Spearfish, SD on the northern end of the Black Hills. Visit Scott's wiki at: [http://dsimpson.tie.wikispaces.net/].