Heroes and Sheroes

Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day. Historically, Veteran’s Day was called Armistice Day for in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month one hundred one years ago, the guns of the Great War fell silent as an Armistice went into effect. Some have said it was as if you could hear the voice of God talking in the silence when the roar of war had been heard for four years.

But with the advent of Memorial Day in late May, Armistice Day has become Veterans Day, whose theme is to thank all members of the military forces for their service to the country. The theme of Memorial Day is to remember those who died in that service.

You may remember that last week we celebrated All Soul’s Day by holding a simple ceremony to remember the loved ones who had died. All Soul’s Day evolved out of All Saint’s Day, also called All Hallow’s Day which had been set up by the early Christian Church to remember the Christian martyrs who had died in their faith during the Roman persecutions of the church in the first and second centuries. After a thousand years of celebrating the early Christian Martyrs, people in the pews wanted to remember their parents and grandparents, so All Souls Day was crafted for them.

Now I did not serve in the armed forces, but I am proud of my father who fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy in World War II and grateful for all who serve in any age. But this morning I want to do something like the Christian church did and open up Veterans Day to a salute to all heroes worthy of honor, whether in uniform or not. Yes there is something special about veterans and they will be honored tomorrow. Here I want to say a few words about what constitutes a hero and to hold up a few examples. And in case the word “hero” has a connotation that it has to be masculine, I have added the word shero to emphasize that I include women.

I touched on this subject several years ago and here is part of what I said.

The year was 1955, I was eight years old camping with my family for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. Ever after, my mother told the story about how I would be out of the tent at six in the morning, dressed in my coonskin cap and buckskin shirt and pants, marching through the campground with my toy musket and singing at the top of my lungs, “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”

For that was the time when Walt Disney had produced several TV shows about this nineteenth century frontier folk hero character, and to their surprise, the public had gotten wildly excited about him. It was the first mass consumer fad – something like 1/4 of all the children’s clothes sold during those months was Davy Crockett-themed.

What is a hero? Why do we have heroes? Why do some people in history or mythology or religion or pure fiction capture our imaginations?

Joseph Campbell, after studying myths from around the world, concluded that all hero stories in the mythology shared so many characteristics they could be viewed as variations on one story, which he called the monomyth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]” So Campbell lists three main aspects of the hero in mythology: he goes forth from ordinary life, he encounters and defeats extraordinary forces, and the brings a boon to his people on return.

As I reflect on heroes I have had in my life, I think heroes are not made out there, but in here. A friend recently told me “Willie Mays was my hero while I played baseball.” That is, as he left baseball behind, he left his baseball hero behind. When we move on, we get different heroes. I loved to think when I was seven that I could live in the woods, but camping in a campground was about as close as I came, and Davy Crockett is no longer my hero. I moved on. Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was an early hero of mine in the 1960s – a lawyer, like my father, but one who stood up for truth and justice against all the forces of racism in a small southern town. Atticus Finch was an avatar or guide in my career as a lawyer. I moved on. I also saw myself as a rebel, and my first wife and I named our first child Luke after Cool Hand Luke, an antihero played by Paul Newman. I used to have a picture of Vaclav Havel on my wall; I thought it was very cool that he went from dissident playwright to president of his country after leading a bloodless revolution. As different phases bring up different values, different heroes come to the fore or fade into the background.

The need for heroes is universal: heroes have been around as long as people have told stories. The epics of classical antiquity give us heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus and Aeneas. The Bible has a different set of heroes. Moses was not a mighty warrior, but allied with God to work deeds of great power to liberate his people from the Pharaoh. The boon he brought the Jews was not only liberation from slavery, but the Torah, the law and the commandments.

David is also celebrated as a Jewish hero in the Bible, for he brought the Jewish people together as a nation. His first great act, of course, was killing Goliath.

Jesus was a hero modeled to some extent on Moses the hero and was said to be a descendant of David the hero. Orthodox Christian doctrine holds that after his death on the cross, Jesus went down to hell; while there he converted everyone who had died before his life to Christianity so that all could be saved at the last judgment. He was given supernatural powers. As I’ve said before, Jesus was such a failure as a political revolutionary that he had to be portrayed as a spiritual warrior, and we inherit from Christianity a template of the eternal battle of good against evil. To be a hero after Jesus was to be on the side of the good.

Among other religious heroes, we should include the Buddha, who encouraged us all to be heroes ourselves. Of his teachings he repeatedly said, “don’t take my word for any of this, go find out for yourselves.” “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.”

Down through the ages we honor those who fought the good fight for what they considered truth. Martin Luther, Michael Servetus, Francis David, Galileo, Joseph Priestley. In each case the hero may not swing opinion in his own time, but later ages may come to recognize that he was really right.

What I take from this quick overview is that our historic and our mythic imagination show we need heroes for several reasons: (1) to inspire us; (2) to give us courage to witness for the truth and stand up for what is right; (3) to provide someone to whom we are spiritually accountable –when we get to a crossroad decision, we can ask, “what would Davy Crockett do?” and (4) to help us to see what is the good life; what is it that makes life worth living?

Take the figure on the cover of the Order of Service. I had always been fascinated by Harriet Tubman, in part because she appears to still be the only woman in the history of the United States to have planned and led a major combat operation, and she did this without being a member of the military. I had always suspected that I might have a family connection to Tubman’s operation in the Civil War. So I put her photo on the cover and intended to discuss her, but what I didn’t know a few days ago was that a major movie about Tubman was about to hit the theaters. Talk about serendipity! When I heard about it, I had to see it, and so I went yesterday.

It is one of the most affecting films I have ever seen. I was on the edge of my seat for most of it, and my stomach was turning flip-flops and my goosebumps had goosebumps. The massive wrong of slavery is depicted upclose and personal. There is some on-screen violence, but most of the effect is built up through suspense.

She escaped her own enslavement in Maryland, and then returned to that plantation in secrecy time after time to bring her relatives and friends to freedom. Harriet Tubman was one of the most effective conductors on the Underground Railroad, and was personally responsible for helping more than 170 slaves escape. As she became effective at liberating enslaved people, the authorities in the slaveholding states put out a reward for the apprehension of the liberator, but the reward posters referred to her as Moses because they would not believe that a woman was capable of such daring.

Then the Civil War broke out. After seceding, the Confederate coastal states fortified their ports, but there were miles and miles of sea islands which were hard to defend, and the Union Navy was soon able to establish beachheads. The Sea Islands consisted of isolated plantations, and the white planters soon found that their enslaved populations were more of a threat than a help. By November, 1861, in the first year of the war, the Union Army had succeeded in occupying Port Royal and Beaufort, areas south of Charleston.

As the Union Army took control of territory, it freed the slaves and then trained and inducted them into black military units. One such unit was the Second South Carolina Infantry under the command of James Montgomery. Montgomery, a white, was a radical abolitionist and guerilla fighter who had been involved in clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas. His knowledge of guerilla tactics proved valuable as the Union army turned its attention to the inland areas.

There are three main rivers draining the area between Charleston and Savannah, the Ashepoo, the Combahee and the Edisto. Today these make up a large conservation area called the ACE Basin after the names of the three rivers. In 1863, they were home to rice and cotton plantations.[2]

Harriet Tubman, famous slave liberator, had been detailed to the area by the Union Army in 1862 to help teach and care for the slaves as they were freed. She actively worked with the officers to plan a daring raid up the Combahee river in June of 1863. Their objective was to remove mines from the rivers, get supplies from the plantations and destroy them, free slaves and recruit those slaves who were capable of fighting into the Union Army.

On the evening of June 1, 1863, three small ships left Beaufort headed for the Combahee River with about 300 men on board. One ran aground shortly after leaving. Early the next morning, the two remaining ships entered the Combahee. Small detachments of Union troops were deposited at way stations, and then the first gunboat anchored. The second boat was named the John Adams, and with Tubman aboard, it proceeded on to a pontoon bridge the Confederates had built across the river.

The Confederates were weakened by disease and were out-manned and outgunned. Their artillery was no match for the firepower of the Union gunboats reinforced by the infantry.

There were many slaves working in the fields, who were reluctant at first, but soon realized the opportunity presented, and fled to the waters edge in an attempt to get on the Union gunboats. Some of the small vessels used to ferry them out to the larger gunboats were almost swamped by the weight of their numbers.

All in all, more then 700 slaves were freed in the operation, and several plantations, after supplies were confiscated, were put to the torch. As I read a news account of the time, most of the slaves came from the last two plantations destroyed, one of which was said to belong to William C. Heyward. Heyward is my middle name, and I am descended from a Heyward with a different first name; family history is that most of the family plantations were between the Ashepoo and Combahee rivers. So I entertain the probability that one of the targets of this raid was a direct or collateral ancestor of mine. A pro-Union newspaper at the time gave this account of the raid:

“Colonel Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy's country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation. ... The colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation.”

Harriet Tubman continued fighting for freedom after the Civil War, joining forces with the women’s suffrage movement. She lived a long life and died in 1913.

Who are your heroes? Today we celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which ushered in the demise of the Soviet Union and its style of communism. Before it was abolished, the wall claimed many lives of heroes who tried to escape to the West. Perhaps the Ronald Reagan would count as a hero of that because it was he who demanded that the wall be torn down, but certainly Mikhail Gorbachev, who responded to that demand, should be deemed a hero.

David Bowie wrote a song called Heroes to commemorate the fall of the wall. Its lyrics are in English and German and it reads in part:

I will be king

And you

You will be queen

Though nothing

Will drive them away

We can beat them

Just for one day

We can be heroes

Just for one day

So who are your heroes? What makes a person a hero? Do we still have heroes? [Congregational discussion].

On Veterans Day, we very rightly honor the men and women who served in the Armed Forces, and who put their lives on the line to fight in military conflicts. Many of them are heroes, and many of the heroes are unsung.

I think we need heroes today as much as ever. We should sing them, we should celebrate them. We should never confuse a hero with a celebrity. Anyone can be famous in this digital age, and anyone can be a hero, but not all famous people are heroes. In the political/legal drama now playing out in Washington, we will each find our own heroes.

When I preached on heroes a few years ago, I concluded by reminding us of Sisyphus, a very ancient hero, who is looked at today as the embodiment of the antihero. This is due to a famous essay in the 1940s by the French writer Albert Camus. In that essay, Sisyphus is perpetually doomed to roll a stone up and hill only to watch it roll down again. When I asked this congregation several years ago to bring me your favorite quotes, Gene Pickett brought one by our colleague Richard Kellaway about Sisyphus:

"Like Sisyphus, each of us who would live authentically is fated to roll our burden up the mountain in full knowledge that our experience of the freedom of the heights will be momentary before we must trudge back down into the dark places. In life the moments when we break through to the heights and know the joy of being one with all gives meaning to our struggles and justifies our adventures. To live creatively is not to experience incessant ecstasy but to carry the joy of the heights into the commitments of daily existence."

Sisyphus gives us a hero who doesn’t really change the world but gets up every morning and gives it the good fight. We will not all find our calling doing great deeds of death-defying daring like Harriet Tubman. But the spiritual hero Sisyphus is the day in, day out kind of hero we all can be. Let’s be it. Amen.

Reading: from “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

[1]Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Bollingen Foundation 1968, p. 30

[2]The account that follows is derived largely from the Wikipedia entry on the Combahee Ferry Raid.

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
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Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

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