On Barnabas, Caitlyn, Bowie, and heroes
1976 was an amazing year to be a kid growing up in the United States. It was that year, of course that my country celebrated two-hundred years of independence from the yoke of oppression of another country which shall remain nameless (I know I'm outnumbered here). It seemed the entire country was festooned in red, white, and blue, and a spirit of unity and togetherness seemed to play on the very air like a Sousa march as every city, town and village was festooned in red, white and blue and the scent of hamburgers and hot dogs grilling was everywhere. Over and over we told stories of our heroes who stood up to those who would limit our freedom. Now, of course, I know just how limited this vision from my childhood was, and just how inaccurate it was to celebrate two hundred years of freedom, when so many of that country’s citizens came from a culture of slavery and were, in so many ways, still not possessed of the freedom that we were all going on about. And as for our heroes? Now I know that what it means to be a hero is different, should be different than some of the whitewashed historical notions that I was taught. Of course, I didn’t know that in 1976.
The celebrations seemed to go on forever that July, and then, at the end of the month, there were the Olympic Games in Montreal. And what American kid could forget, on the 30th of July, the sight of an All-American Boy, all handsome face and impossibly white teeth, doing a partial victory lap in the stadium with an American flag, after having just won the gold medal in the decathlon? Our hearts swelled at the sight of it, and even if our archenemy at the time – the Soviet Union – took home more medals than we did in the end, none of it mattered. We had our hero, and that moment became an icon of a time, a sentiment, a bond, a pride, an identity, a strength. Maybe that’s what heroes ought to give us.
That hero, of course, has changed dramatically in the nearly forty-four years since taking that victory lap. Gone now is the name that so many American boys of my age wished their parents had named them – that strong, monosyllabic Bruce – replaced by Caitlyn. Everything about our hero is changed, as we learn that even all those years ago when she seemed the All-American Boy, she felt something different. And there are many who would take away that hero’s title – people don’t like their heroes to be anything other than they think their heroes ought to be – many who cannot understand her personal journey and so would wipe it off the history books, making space for heroes more to our liking, perhaps.
In the tension-filled events of these weeks, people have been throwing around the word hero quite a bit. I think we usually make of the word a label which means that someone holds up an ideal that we personally adhere to, without frequently thinking about how others feel. (The toppling of statues – however one feels about that – seems to demonstrate this point quite vividly.) I think we can overuse the word (like when we say someone is a hero for rescuing a cat from a tree – don’t jump on me cat-lovers, I am not advocating just leaving them up there!) and at the same time we can also limit it too much (only someone who has fought in a war or rescued an infant from a burning building is a hero). It is thrown around so much in our common parlance that I think it really has very little meaning at all, in the end. “We could be heroes,” David Bowie sang, but do we really even know what that means anymore? Heroes, it seems, come and go.
And then I think about Barnabas (who got booted off his feast day yesterday due to the celebration of Corpus Christi and so we remember him today) what the truly heroic is all about. His is not a name that one hears a great deal when speaking of the Apostles, as he is frequently seen in Paul's shadow, indeed seems to be primarily known for introducing Paul to the others, vouching for the erstwhile persecutor to some understandably dubious disciples. But what beyond this, what do we really know about him? He went where he was sent, and through his actions and his words, many people came to know the Lord Jesus Christ. He was not a prolific writer like Paul, he was not the faulty Rock that was Peter, he was not the impetuous brats that were James and John. Barnabas simply went where he was sent and did what God wanted him to do and brought people to a better understand of the faith, who then went on to bring others to better understanding, and so on, until we end up here, today, in Norwich and beyond, trying to further understand the enduring faith that he and so many others passed on.
Because, you see, in the end that is a vital component of being a hero: what heroes do must endure, must last far longer than a victory lap or a television interview. And for heroic efforts to bear fruit which endure, they need to be built upon pillars which are solid, timeless, and universal. And the current unrest in our world is forcing us to look at these pillars, not as children who don’t know better, but as compassionate adults who can hear the message that if there are those whose lives cannot allow them to access the solidity, timelessness, and universality that so many of us enjoy without thinking, then the time to reassess the heroic is long overdue.
Bowie was right, we can be heroes. But we should strive not for a momentary state, but rather for something more oriented towards eternity. And that moment, that eternal moment, can then give the world something for which it is in sore need: an icon of a time, a sentiment, a bond, a pride, an identity, a strength.