What Does It Mean to Be a Hero? Who Are Our Heroes?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
March 30, 2020

According to the dictionary, heroism comes down to courage, achievement, and morality—noble qualities, at least in theory. Heroes are those who achieved great things, risked much, and exuded enormous virtue. From a Christian perspective, we have to lean into the most important qualities, especially the biblical virtue of self-sacrificial love.

Presently, however, there are many who are disappointed that the Olympics have been postponed till the summer of 2021. Jason Gay wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal that said, “I’ve written before that one of the things I admire about the Olympics is that every day you see the best moment of someone’s life.” He then concluded by asking, “And how often can you say that.”

Some have argued that the postponement of the Olympics means a pause in our ability to celebrate heroic achievement. But there is a major problem with that sentiment. Olympic achievement is fundamentally a remarkable athletic achievement, won at the cost of incredible ability and dedication.

In our time, it seems that American society is far more impressed with celebrity than with heroism.  True heroism comes down to taking a risk in order to do the right thing—to stand for virtue and truth at the very moment those virtues are on the line. Daniel Boorstin, the late Librarian of Congress, famously identified a celebrity as one who was famous for being famous. Heroes, however, may not be famous at all.

Indeed, heroism is not just about doing the right thing at great risk; it’s about doing the right thing even when the world isn’t watching or applauding. Many of the most heroic acts undertaken in human history are unknown to me or you—but they are not unknown to God.

Just a few months ago, The American Scholar, a journal published by the academic society Phi Beta Kappa, ran an issue with these words on its cover, “What Our Heroes Tell Us about Ourselves.”

Indeed, that’s the bottom line. What our society recognizes as heroic tells us a lot about what we value as a people and what ideas we view as truly virtuous. The American Scholar dealt with statues of historic figures, asking questions about what statues should remain and which should be removed from public places. That’s a very different kind of controversy, but there is something important about the phrase on the cover of The American Scholar: “What Our Heroes Tell Us about Ourselves.”

In March and April of 2020, I want to argue that, rightly understood, we need a new category of heroes. These heroes must be added to our lists of those in the armed services and among the first responders. Those newly recognized heroes are the doctors and nurses and medical staff on the frontlines of this global pandemic. They are putting their lives at risk in order to protect and extend the lives of others. Include also those workers who are stocking the grocery store shelves and all the millions of individuals making the world work and trying to keep all the pieces of society together.

We can find heroes where we never knew to find them before during this global COVID-19 crisis. We can find them stocking shelves or standing behind the register at the checkout line. We can find them filling prescriptions and working unending hours at hospitals. This is an era where our notions of heroism are being completely recalibrated.

As a society, we do not pass out gold medals to grocery store stocker or x-ray technicians—but when you think about it, we probably should.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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