Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who are your heroes?

I am increasingly seeing the word hero used to refer to those in the armed forces. The logo of Help for Heroes appears everywhere. I’m sure they do good work among ex-service personnel, and I have no doubt these people need help – the numbers of ex-army in particular who end up homeless, in prison, or with mental illness, is simply shocking. But the assumption that people in the armed forces are inherently worthy of the title ‘hero’ seems to be to be a serious travesty.

For a start, while they certainly do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, are they any different in that respect from the police, or coal miners, or those who working A&E? Do we automatically treat them as heroes?

It also begs the question of what we find truly heroic. Is it heroic doing your job, risking your life, to look after your friends, your country, your people? Sometimes. But they’re doing a job they have chosen, doing what they are told, looking after their own friends. At the end of the day, they sign up knowing that, should the situation arise, they will have to kill or be killed. As Jesus simply said, ‘all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26:52b).

Far more admirable, in my opinion, are those people who have the bravery to stand up against their friends, those with the moral courage to stand alone in the face of public opinion and approbation, those with the strength of character to refuse to do what they are told in full knowledge of the consequences. People like my aunt, who as a young school child refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. Like my grandfather who refused to go to war in an era when serving in the military was not an option. Like my grandmother’s cousin who married the man she loved despite the fact that he was Japanese, this was just after the war, and they had to drive all the way across the country to find a state where such a marriage was even legal. In the forces you fight with your friends beside you. It’s much harder to stand alone, and I respect anyone with the bravery to so, even if I don’t actually agree with them.

And that’s the kind of heroism I aspire to. That’s why so many of my heroes are uncomfortable characters, why during the Olympics I had a photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on my desktop. That’s why I’ve rarely been so proud of my son than when his reception teacher commented that he was the one child in the class who was willing to question her when she said something he thought wasn’t right – and why I’ve rarely admired a teacher more, because she said this as a point of praise. That’s why I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday, the day when the country unites to worship and glorify figures of violence while I still long to praise the God of peace.

And there’s another kind of heroism that, in all this praise for military figures, gets forgotten. We can easily praise those who are heroic by doing exceptional things in exceptional circumstances. But it’s too easy to forget the every day heroism of people for whom even waking up at the start of the day and still being there at the end of it is an act of heroism greater than I can ever comprehend. Those suffering bullying or abuse, chronic illness, depression or other mental illness. No-one will ever sing their praises for what they do, but they deserve it far more than most people with guns and uniforms.

So pardon me if I don’t follow the line of Help for Heroes. I have heroes of my own who are far more deserving, and in far more need, of my help.


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