Good morning! Welcome to the Sunday, July 26, 2020 service of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church of Racine, Wisconsin. I am Andrea Bumpurs, a member of the Worship Committee, and I will be conducting today’s service.
Prelude: “Scriabin Op 16 No 1” by Anna Kojovic-Frodl
Call to Worship:
May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations,
and inspired to bring our gifts of love and service to the altar of humanity.
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings
but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe,
to this community and to each other.
Chalice Lighting: by Dawn Skjiel Cooley
We light our chalice this morning, grateful for the love we experience in this beloved community. May the flame light the way for all who seek such abundance.
Peace (Love) Be With You … And With All Living Things
Gesture of Friendship
Message for All Ages: “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes,” by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein
We are blessed,
We are blessed by being,
We are blessed by being here,
We are blessed by being here together.
Reading: TED talk by Andrew Boughner, entitled “Everyday Heroes.”
We will now hear a musical reflection, a piece by Domenico Scarlatti. I am not aware that the piece has anything to do with heroes. I’m playing it because it’s performed by my hero and role model, my mother, Emilia Maria D’Aliberti Mitrani. The quality of the recording isn’t all that great. You’re hearing a digital copy made from a CD made from a cassette made from the original reel-to-reel recording made in the fall of 1968, less than a year before my mother passed away just short of her 50th birthday.
Reflection: by Andrea Bumpurs
It’s not easy being a statue of a famous person.
For one thing, you’re out there in the open in all kinds of weather, year after year. Torrid heat or sub-arctic cold, rain, snow, sleet, hail, winds – you name it – the statue is out there all the time.
Then there’s the fact that the majority of people who pass by don’t know or care who you are, anyway. They say, “Meet you by the statue at the park entrance,” or something like that. You’re just a chunk of metal or marble on a pedestal.
There’s the indignity of the birds and dogs, too. One poops on your head and the other pees on your pedestal.
And that’s just during quiet times. The last months have brought added indignities – either getting torn down and left in the street or removed and placed in a warehouse.
But what is a tough time for bronze representations of famous dead people is a good time for all living people to consider the place that heroes play in our culture. Placing someone on a pedestal – figuratively or representationally – can be, in my opinion, unfair to the hero as well as to the rest of us.
So, what is a hero, anyway? In the great tradition of the Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen, I can tell you that “hero” comes from the Greek word meaning “protector.” The first heroes were warriors who protected their homelands through acts of courage and bravery.
An article I read identified three categories of heroes: martial heroes, civil heroes and social heroes.
Martial heroes fit the original idea of what a hero is. They are defined as “people trained to handle dangerous situations and [who] routinely put themselves at physical risk for their duty.” Military personnel and fire and police personnel are the kinds of people who first come to mind when we think of martial heroes. However, the current Coronavirus pandemic has made us aware of including medical personnel in this group, as well. Medical personnel are trained to handle the dangerous situations created by infectious diseases, and, as we have all seen, have “routinely put themselves at physical risk for their duty.” Hundreds have died in the past few months while performing their work.
Civil heroes, those in the second category, are defined in the article as “everyday citizens who risk their lives to intervene in emergency scenarios.” There was recently a video of a passer-by who safely caught a young child thrown from the third floor of a burning building. He was proclaimed a hero. Other civil heroes save people from drowning or pull them from car wrecks. They are motivated by altruism and are ordinary people performing extraordinary acts.
The third category of heroes the article describes are Social heroes. These are the people who “work to serve their community,” ”often sacrificing their time, finances and social status.” Social heroes encompass whistleblowers, political activists and religious figures. The article names as examples Nelson Mandela, Greta Thunberg, Mahatma Gandhi and Malala Yousafzai. The recently deceased Rep. John Lewis was a social hero, as were Martin Luther King, Jr., and the women who gave impetus to the #MeToo movement.
I would also include in this category people who, through their writings or political actions – not military activities – alter the course of nations. For the United States alone, this group would include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In creating these three categories, the article states that heroes are defined by “bravery, moral integrity, courage, conviction, honesty, willingness to protect others and self-sacrificing.”
I think these categories are fine as far as they go, but they leave out some people commonly considered to be heroes. Those excluded were left out, I think, because their actions were not necessarily done to protect or save anyone, but perhaps to enhance knowledge or even for personal glory.
Explorers who head off to learn about parts of the world unknown to their cultures are often considered heroes. Just think of Columbus, Magellan, Amundsen, Scott, Peary, Sir Richard Burton (not the actor!), Dr. Livingston, and Lewis and Clark. Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tensing Norgay, who were the first to summit Mt. Everest, are considered heroes for having done so.
We also call heroes those who have invented things that have changed the world, like the Wright Brothers or Thomas Edison, and scientists whose research has saved lives, like Lister or Jonas Salk, or those who developed life-saving treatments for AIDS. Whoever comes up with a successful vaccine to prevent Covid-19 will undoubtedly be called a hero.
Another category of heroes are people who have been high achievers in just about any endeavor that a culture respects. For us, that includes great artists, composers, musicians, dancers, actors, writers, and, of course, athletes.
It is also true that some people fit in more than one category – like George Washington, who was a military hero as well as a political one.
Despite the amazing diversity among types of heroes and individual heroes themselves, they all share one common characteristic. They are human beings. And therein lies the rub.
It’s almost like magic – as soon as someone is declared a hero, that person goes from three-dimensional human to one-dimensional icon.
I remember that when I was a kid, libraries had loads of short, illustrated biographies of heroes – Washington, Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett, Mickey Mantle, Clara Barton, the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark. Looking back on them now, with the exception of the eras in which the people were born, and the specifics of their heroic activities, the books were all the same. Earnest young child grows up to meet a challenge, and, through grit and determination, steadfastness and moral and physical courage, overcomes all obstacles to succeed and benefit all mankind. The End.
Hogwash. Every person who is a hero is, first and foremost, a human being, and no human being is one-dimensional. We are all way more interesting than that. The smartest of us do dumb things; the most graceful of us do clumsy things, the most morally inspiring of us do questionable things.
And yet, once we say someone is a hero, it’s like being elevated not just to sainthood, but to God-hood. A hero is expected to be perfect in every conceivable way. Never dishonest, never deceitful, never malicious or nasty, never self-centered or selfish, egotistical or cruel. A hero is the living embodiment of the Boy Scout oath. That’s the way they are celebrated in book and song and movie. Over time, the polish just gets brighter.
And then, something happens to crack the veneer. It may be that the culture changes. What was considered acceptable or even admirable behavior when the person was elevated to hero status is now considered undesirable instead. Or something that was previously unknown about the person comes to light, altering the way we look at them. Whatever it is, if the undesirable thing is considered serious enough, we become angry at the hero instead of worshipping. We want to tear down or remove the statue, shaking our fists in righteous anger.
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the words “all men are created equal,” did not free his slaves – not because he thought slavery was acceptable (he didn’t) but because without slave labor, he could not support the lifestyle he so enjoyed. His slaves were sold at his death to pay his debts.
Christopher Columbus enslaved the people who lived on the islands he “discovered.” Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic. Lincoln wouldn’t have issued the Emancipation Proclamation if he had thought he could win the war without it. Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the civil service in Washington because he was a bigot. JFK was fairly blatant about cheating on his wife; Dwight Eisenhower and FDR somewhat more discreet about cheating on theirs. George Patton was undeniably a great general, but he was also a miserable human being. How many sports or entertainment heroes have done or said things that make your skin crawl? Look deep enough – and that’s usually not very deeply at all – and you will find out undesirable things about any hero you choose. Or any human being, for that matter.
And that’s the point. We should not “one-dimensionalize” anyone, to coin a phrase. Incidentally, that goes the other way, too. I used to absolutely despise Richard Nixon, there was nothing about him I liked in the least. But I made a point of trying to remember that his daughters loved him, so there must have been something positive in him. (I admit I am having a harder time finding that “something positive” in the current inhabitant of the White House.)
Whenever we reduce someone to one dimension, we lose something valuable. In the case of the heroes we discard because of the faults we uncover, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, Jefferson owned slaves – fathered children who were born slaves – but he did write the Declaration of Independence, and a lot of good came from that. It may turn out that the team of scientists who perfect a Covid-19 vaccine are a bunch of egotistical blowhards who are known for cheating on their spouses. We can still celebrate the fact that their achievement will save countless lives.
I’ve heard religious people say you can hate the sin, but love the sinner. We have to learn to love the achievement and regard the achiever with a clear eye. We do that already on the smaller scale of our own lives. We know that Uncle Ralph is a religious fanatic, but we still think he’s an incredible violinist. We have given up trying to talk to our cousin about politics, but we appreciate that she’s the first person who would show up if we needed help with anything at all.
It is easier to make a statue of a person than of a concept or an achievement. What do you put on a pedestal that represents all that Vince Lombardi did for the Green Bay Packers? It’s much easier to put a statue of Lombardi himself.
So, where does that leave us? The culture has changed. Some statues have to come down – any person in a Confederate uniform or any statue with a Confederate flag, for instance. The same goes for place names. That is just common sense. People who fought for the Confederacy were traitors to the United States. We don’t – we shouldn’t – honor traitors. To me, that would be like naming an American army base in Germany after General Rommel or an American naval base in Japan after Admiral Tojo. We should not honor individuals who did their best to kill Americans.
We should honor achievements and name those who made them. James Madison was the “Father of the Constitution.” Abraham Lincoln held the Union together. JFK inspired the nation to go to the moon. Tiger Woods is an amazing golfer. Ty Cobb was a great baseball player. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought us closer to the ideals we profess to hold dear as a nation.
Name those who made the achievements – but keep them three-dimensional. Acknowledge the praiseworthy acts or works without flattening the people who produced them. Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai are young women. They have what are hopefully long lives ahead of them. They will make mistakes. They will falter. They will look back later at some of what they will do in the years ahead and ask themselves what they were thinking. We have to make room for them to do all that. We need to let them keep their three-dimensionality, their humanity. If we don’t, we will destroy not statues, but real human beings.
Benediction and Chalice Extinguishing
Let us extinguish our chalices. After I picked these words from Walt Whitman to use as our Benediction, I learned that he held some pretty offensive views of Blacks and Native Americans. Those opinions are disgraceful, but they are part of the three-dimensionality that included a fine poet who wrote great words, like these:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
Go in Peace, Gentle People,
Go in Peace – and Unrest.
Postlude: “Chopin- Op. 25 No. 12- Ocean” by Anna Kojovic-Frodl