HEROES AND HERETICS
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on Februray 2, 2003
Yesterday morning, for the second time in this very young millennium, we woke up to the dramatic news of a major national disaster. Again, as we did on September 11, 2001, we sat before our TV screens transfixed as more and more details of the tragedy unfolded. Again, pictures of catastrophe assaulted our senses, framed against a background of beautiful, clear blue sky -- what would otherwise seem to be a perfect day! I am sure we will see the picture of those multiple white contrails heading toward earth again and again both on TV and in our mind's eye, just as we did the pictures of the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers. This experience is now a permanent part of our personal and national memory.
The seven people on board -- more scientists than astronauts -- are already being hailed as heroes. Indeed, they were, in the sense that they performed a dangerous job that contributed some good to humanity and society, and did it well, we presume. I am sure we will hear a great deal more about the challenges of flying into space, and the difficult mission they were on. I know we will, as a nation, applaud their careers and memorialize them as true heroes. As we should.
As we do so, however, we should remember two things. First, the heroes of ancient times and of mythology were extraordinary beings, possessed of superior powers, often depicted as at least partly godlike. Joseph Campbell says that the hero of myth is a being who does what no one else can or will do, because they have superhuman strengths and abilities. When we hold mortal humans up as heroes, we run the risk of setting them apart from the rest of us; of making their accomplishments more than they were; of moving them into the realm of the supernatural. If we turn their lives into myth and legend, we make of our heroes demi Gods, and their accomplishments unattainable by ordinary mortals.
The second thing we need to remember, as was true of the police and firefighters after the 9/11 tragedy who were also held up as special heroes, is that they died doing the job they chose and were trained to do. No matter how brave, patriotic, valiant and outstanding they were, both as individuals and as a group, being astronauts, police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, and so on is what these people do. It is their job. They choose to do it, and are highly trained to do it well. They would probably do it again the next time they were asked, with no hesitation. As one friend of the astronauts said, "they took on the mission and the danger with happy hearts, willingly, with enthusiasm." They knew the risks. I am sure that they would not consider themselves heroes, but citizens doing a particular job.
I think it is important that we remember this, and not raise to some degree of sainthood those individuals who happened to die while doing their jobs, while forgetting about many others who also do important, dangerous jobs every day. In a sense, anyone who wears a uniform is facing risk. All are brave, whether they be soldiers going to war, astronauts going into space, firefighters carrying hoses up staircases, or medical personnel probing into the human body. Sometimes I think it is not so much the personnel who face danger every day as part of their jobs, but the visionaries who look beyond the ordinary who are the true heroes.
That brings me to the second category of people I wish to discuss this morning -- the heretics. Both the words "hero" and "heresy" derive from the Greek term hairsis, which has as its root the word meaning "choice" or "assertive self-will." It implies choosing one's own personal will over against other options. So, our heroes in uniform are people who chose their professions, knowing the risks, but wanting, for some reason, to assume them in the pursuit of some high purpose. Similarly, the heretic is a person of independent mind who does not simply accept what is commonly believed to be true. The heretic doubts, questions, and often rejects the dominant belief in the society in which she moves. A religious heretic might reject the beliefs taught by his church; a political heretic might vote against the platform of her party; a social heretic might flaunt acceptable standards and practices of society, and behave outrageously. All these people have examined the situation and, using their independent thought, considered different possibilities and chosen the way which, to their minds, best represent the truth.
Throughout history, as we look at famous men and women, it seems like many heretics turned out to be heroes; and many heroes were, in fact, heretics. Those heroes who remain in our memories are those whose thoughts or deeds stand out in some special way. They were not just doing their jobs, or following what was expected of them -- no, they went beyond, often against, what was expected, and did something unusual, extraordinary, different. It is clear from an impartial study of history that heretics have played invaluable roles in human society. They have been the agents of change, of progress.
Why is it, then, that the word "heretic" is charged with a negative emotional quality? We love heroes; we hate heretics. We would like to think that the ability to think for oneself is a desirable quality, and that those whose thoughts bring them to conclusions that differ from the norm would be admired. But the name heretic is usually regarded as a term of reproach; it has an unsavory taint so that there are few who are willing to be known as heretics. I suppose it is partly because we are mostly a society where conformity is considered the highest virtue, and the person who dares choose some thought or action other than that commonly accepted is viewed as a traitor, a dangerous individual who is disrupting the unity of the group. The word "heretic" is charged with a sense of disloyalty, of threat to society.
It is important to note that a heretic is one who questions or attacks his or her own society, religion, or group. It is easy to stand outside and criticize others. It is an act of heroic heresy to remain inside and risk one's life, freedom, job or family by daring to judge the thing of which one is a member. This is one reason why heresy is considered harmful, and dangerous.
Also, of course, heresy is loaded with religious meaning. It is an opinion or doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs; especially dissension from or denial of Roman Catholic dogma by a professed believer or baptized church member. Every Protestant sect was established because some heretic questioned Catholic doctrine. Now, most of those resultant sects have their own established dogma, and those who disagree with it are also considered heretics. Unitarian Universalists, have heresy as a basic tenet of our established belief system. It is written in the fourth principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning! We encourage heresy; we admire it; we celebrate it!
And, we honor those heretics of the past who have brought us new thoughts and ideas. We could begin, I suppose, with Jesus of Nazareth, who knowingly stood against the leaders, the moneychangers, the customs of the day. He consistently said and did things which were unheard of and which shocked people. He modeled the truth as he saw it through numerous small deeds, a quiet willingness to act for others, an attempt to teach the ignorant, lift up the fallen, and comfort the miserable.
Jesus was not the only hero to be killed for the heresy of teaching what he thought he thought to be true. Socrates was compelled to drink the hemlock because he questioned the pantheon and "spoke disrespectfully of the gods," and corrupted young men. His student and disciple, Plato, met a similar fate. At his trial, he said, "If you think that by killing men who disagree with you that you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure to the judges who have condemned me."
In our own religious history, we remember Jan Hus, a member of the Catholic clergy, who looked up at the castle and cathedral on the hill in Prague, and around at the poverty and squalor in the city center, and chastised the church for squandering its riches on magnificent buildings and gold-encrusted altars, while ignoring the plight of the poor. He also called for communion to be shared with all the people; not just the priests. For this heresy, he was burned at the stake. But as the flames rose around him, he declared, "Today you burn one goose, but the fat from that goose will fuel the flames of freedom forever." Our flaming chalice derives from this event.
Then there was Michael Servetus, also a priest, who looked at the Bible and found there no mention of a trinity. He wrote a book declaring Catholic doctrine mistaken, "On the Errors of the Trinity." For this heresy, he, too, was burned at the stake, with copies of his book strapped to his thigh. And Faustus Socinus, who built up a thriving town in Poland, complete with University and printing press, where scholars and theologians and others could study and learn and question and write and publish what they thought to be true, even when it differed from established dogma. His town of Rakow was ravaged after a few years, all his followers were banned from Poland, and he himself was killed.
But not before he influenced a young minister in Transylvania, Francis David, who in turn convinced not only the king of Transylvania but the majority of the people there that different religions should tolerate one another, live together in peace, and practice what their consciences told them was true. This was heresy, indeed! After the untimely death of the Unitarian King, John Sigismund, the new king allowed the established religions, including Unitarianism, to remain, but insisted there be no further "innovations." David, however, felt that truth was not static, and he continued to evolve his ideas. When he decided Jesus was not divine, and had no place in Unitarian theology except as an exemplary man, that was too much for the Catholic king, and Francis David was convicted of heresy, taken to the top of a citadel, lowered into an airless hole and left to die.
If history proves anything, it is that the "heretics" are sometimes, at least, the prophets of god. The unbelievers of the day have been the believers of the century; the doubters of one time have brought truth for all time. Heretics are the luminous points in the chapters that tell of human progress.
Men like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, who dared to stand up to King George and question his authority and rule over the young colonies. They were all accused of heresy at the time; both political and religious heresy, for all were labeled godless infidels for doing what they thought was right. (Of course, all did have strong Unitarian connections!)
Possibly the best-known hero-heretic of the time was Thomas Paine. After he wrote his little book, Common Sense, he was a hero everywhere he went and he could have lived comfortably for the rest of his life making speeches and accepting awards. However, following his motto: "The world is my country and to do good my religion," Paine went to France and got involved in the French revolution and elected to the new French parliament, where he fought to save the life of the deposed king, Louis XVI. He was so vociferous in his objection to the guillotinings of Louis and Marie Antoinette that the French threw him in prison as a traitor. There he wrote another book, The Age of Reason, in which he said that he didn't think Jesus had any divine origin, nor did he believe the story about Mary and the ghost and virgin birth. He hated the barbarity of the Old Testament and questioned the authenticity of the New Testament and said that "if Christ had meant to establish a new religion, he would have written it down himself." After he was released from jail, he returned to the United States, where people had turned against him. He died lonely and broke. Six people attended his funeral.
Last Thursday evening, I had the privilege of hearing Martin Luther King III speak in Mankato. He talked about his father, of course, and suggested we still have a long way to go before his dream will be realized in America. He reminded us that his father stood against three things - he fought against poverty, against racism, and against militarism. He felt the three were so interconnected that none could be solved without addressing the others. And he spoke strongly against the impending war in Iraq, reminding us that his father got into the most trouble when he began speaking out against the Vietnam war. He was labeled a traitor and heretic; we remember him, of course, as a great hero.
Another person we think of as a hero was Paul Wellstone. He, too, was a heretic in the sense that he went against the great wave of mindless patriotism sweeping across America and had the courage to vote against president Bush's war resolution - the only senator who was up for reelection who had the courage to do so. Like Jesus and Dr. King, he also fought for the little person, and worked to eradicate poverty and injustice and racism and militarism. I was proud to use the word "hero" to describe him when we had the memorial service here at the church to honor him.
Some of our heroes are important people, in high positions, who can do something because of their place in society. Some are simple, ordinary people who show some considerable courage and take some personal risk to do what they think is right. One person we shall all remember as a hero was the little guy in Tiananmen Square, who stood before the tank that was entering the square to quell the demonstration that was embarrassing the Chinese government, because it showed the truth to the world. The image of this one small man challenging that big tank, showed the world that the actions of an ordinary individual can light up the whole globe for an instant. It gave us a moment of hope for democracy and justice.
Similarly, when Time magazine selected three women as their "persons of the year" and showed them on the cover, I got goose bumps. Here were three heretical heroines, for sure -- heretical because they cared and dared to challenge the institutions of which they were a part, and to tell the truth about what was really going on. Heroes because they did so by choice, knowing they might lose their jobs, or worse, because of their heresy. Most whistle blowers get perhaps a moment's attention, and a lifetime of harassment and harm.
That these women were praised for their courage in the national press gives me hope. Perhaps, in these difficult times, when we need brave people to stand up against what they see as evil, we can again appreciate the heretics among us, who tell the truth as they see it, and point out the fallacies that might end in disaster. We are seeing heroic people march against the war in Iraq; we hear heroic citizens questioning the initiatives of our executive; we observe heroic people every day going about their lives in the face of lost jobs, lower incomes, poor health, and other adversities.
Not every one can be a hero. Not every one chooses to be a heretic. But all of us can be heroic. The "heroic" points to certain positive features of flawed human beings who are in fact a mixture of virtues, vices, and motives. The heroic person is guided by wisdom and ruled by love. The heroic person needs no age nor fortune to be effective; asks for no special trials, only the ordinary tests that come our way as part of our being in the world. The heroic course is one of quiet effort, constant adjustment, and renewed striving. What makes our efforts and strivings heroic is that we undertake them from a moral stance; that we try, in whatever small way we can, to improve upon the state of the world and the situation of humanity. In other words, we try to live a life which is good -- good for us, good for others, and good for the world. We can be heroic heretics.