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Following Jesus

What Makes a Real Hero?

June 21, 2019 by

The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs) and means “protector” and “defender.” Every culture has its heroes and heroines; valiant tales of their exploits have captivated and inspired over the centuries.

Our family also enjoys such fantastical stories. Adventure fiction like Tolkien, the Prydain Chronicles, and classic mythology (especially Norse) are our favorites. We’ve just said farewell to the Avengers and are waiting to see what’s next for the Skywalker clan. Apart from the original Skywalker, my adolescent heroes included a couple of ’80s action movie protagonists – tough guys who shot first and asked questions later, who are now balding and paunchy. I think kids should have the space to explore and be inspired by these stories of good versus evil.

Then we all have to grow up.

When I think back on people I knew growing up who actually helped me to find my path in life – many without even knowing it – I realize that they are the real heroes. They were quite down-to-earth, but their lives had purpose. They sacrificed for what they believed in: they endured, forgave, and carried the weapons of the Spirit (Eph. 6: 10–17).

The true heroes in a child’s life – the ones who protect, defend, and inspire – should first of all be their parents. After all, it is primarily a parent’s responsibility; Proverbs says to “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). And we parents want to give our kids examples of real world heroic qualities – like having the strength to forgive rather than retaliate. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut speaks of the difference between a vengeful adherence to Hammurabi’s Code – an eye for an eye – and the greater heroics of forgiveness:

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” Any “real man,” obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all of their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”
His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. . . . “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

To give emphasis to this and other truths, we should also introduce our kids to heroes of faith: people we admire, who endured things we may never have had to face, people like Ernest Gordon.

painting of Ernest Gordon by Jason Landsel

A Scotsman, Gordon served as a captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fighting the Japanese on the Malayan peninsula. He was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and forced, with thousands of other captives, to build a railroad through the jungles of Burma.

It was pure hell. In his book To End All Wars he wrote, ‘‘We were treated worse than animals. The conditions were worse than you could imagine. For a long time hate, for some, was the only motivation for staying alive.… We hated the Japanese and we would willingly have killed them, torn them apart, if they had fallen into our hands.’’

Not initially a man of faith, Gordon found God in the camps. “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God.… It is luxury and success that makes men greedy.” He writes, “We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrasts between the forces that make for life and those that make for death. Selfishness, hatred, jealousy, and greed were all anti-life. Love, self-sacrifice, mercy, and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men.”

Gordon survived the camps. After the war he joined the ministry and became Dean of Chapel at Princeton University. He was an opponent of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, and served as president of the Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents, which advocated for the release of Soviet Christians.

In 2000, Gordon journeyed to Thailand for a cameo role in a film being made of his book. Here he met and reconciled with Nagase Takashi, a former Japanese officer at the work camps. Instead of retaliation, he offered forgiveness.

Painting by Jason Landsel of Ernest Gordon

No one can tell what battles life will bring, what unexpected tragedy may befall. We need to inspire and hold ourselves to this “essence of life” – love, sacrifice, mercy, and creative faith. Then together we will survive, and be able to protect and defend along the way.

So who are your heroes?


Artwork by the author.

About the author

Jason Landsel

Jason Landsel

Jason lives in upstate New York at the Woodcrest Bruderhof.

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