There are some who say that history is made by great men -- individuals with talent, character, charisma, who shape our destiny. This is called, not surprisingly “the Great Man Theory. ” The theory was put forward in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. This must have been the theory behind history books we read in High school- the names and dates of kings and generals and presidents. But a couple of decades later Herbert Spencer put forward a counter-argument that kind of blew my mind; Spencer said that “great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes”.[i]
Let’s take the Super Man story itself . It was originally created in the 1930s by 2 high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and over the years the comic book has had 5 different writers, 10 different pencillers, 4 different inkers, and that doesn’t count “the Adventures of superman” series. If it hadn’t touched something important in our collective imaginations, if we hadn’t been buying the comics all those years, Superman would not be who he is today. His story has been told by TV shoes, video games, Broadway musicals and movies, and none of that would have been possible with out “the social conditions built before [his] lifetime.”
Consider the movies -- the 1978 one with Christopher Reeve that I watched when I was a kid, or that “Man of Steel” one that came out just a couple of years ago. If you look these films up online, the title usually appears with the name of the director, or the name of the star. But have you ever sat through movie credits all the way to the end. Like, ALL the way to the end? That’s a LOT of people who work on those movies. No one could create something that big alone.
That’s why I like the Avengers movies that have been coming out lately. Has anyone seen any of these movies? This is a group of Super Heroes from the Marvel Universe -- Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor, black widow, Hawkeye are all recruited by SHEILD to guard us against threats to our safety and liberty. Director Fury quips “there was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so that when we needed them they could fight the battles that we never could” Naturally these strong-egoed super heroes are unwilling to work together at first, but eventually must put their own egos aside to save humankind. I like the fact that they work as a team -- that collaboration is held up as a value for the modern superhero.
The dark side of the superhero archetype, whether our superheroes are working alone or as a team, is the implication that “they could fight the battles that we never could.” It encourages us to look outside ourselves, outside our community for someone who will come out of nowhere in the nick of time to save us. Because these Avengers films still show us, the ordinary earthlings, mostly running and screaming, and slow to do anything to save ourselves. When the Avengers drop in from above, they immediately yell for all the ordinary people to get out of the way so the super heroes can do their work.
As my family and I walked out of the theater after seeing Avengers; The age of Ultron this summer, I wondered how all these super hero movies that are so popular right now are effecting our sense of who we are, and what we are called to do in this world. It worries me that it divides the world into Super Heroes, Super Villains, and everyone else who needs to run and hide or else be crushed.
Consider the footage we see after a natural disaster- outside agencies rushing in from around the world, relief teams pulling a child from the wreckage days after the disaster, when all hope was lost. A recent interview [by I forget who] with a reporter who was deconstructing our media coverage of disasters, noted that part of the reason we see the images that we see is because it takes a while for both the media and the outside agencies to arrive on the scene. By the time the Red Cross or MSNBC arrive, they have missed much of the story.
The people who live near the earthquake or fire are the de facto first responders. The people to your right and to your left are your best hope of help, and you are theirs. They know where the greatest need is, and they know where people disappeared and who is still missing. But, according to this journalist, when the NGO or the national guard comes in, the first thing they do is just what the Avengers do- create a perimeter and require those first responders, now categorized as “victims” to leave “ for their own safety.”
Then, the reporter continued, when the dust has settled, and the last heroic rescue has been made, and photographed the reporters and emergency responders leave. This reminds me of a scene out of superhero movie too. You know the one, where Superman or Ironman hover in the sky looking down on the wreckage of the great battle in which they saved humanity. The ordinary people, dusty and bloody, stare up at them with teary eyed gratitude “thank you superman” they say, as superman flies off to his fortress of solitude, or his date with Lois Lane. But there in the background we see the rubble of people’s destroyed lives, we know the suffering has not ended, and that the rebuilding has just begun.
Consider the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Now 10 years later, many neighborhoods, schools, jobs have never been restored. The grief residents feel lives with them every day. The story does not end when Superman or even the Avengers stop the super villain, or avert the natural disaster; the work of healing and rebuilding continues for a long time. The work is not particularly glamorous or photo ready for the news media as ordinary people, day by day rebuild the world. As the great Adrienne Rich says:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,
perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
As the Hero in our reading, Michinori Watanabe found, it was ordinary people, you and me, who were there for one another when they needed it most.
Around the 10th anniversary of Katrina there was a surge of reporting about the hurricane and the recovery effort. It was during that surge that I heard about that fellow Kirk Washington who has done so much over the past 10 years to help his community recover. There were countless other stories of how people really got through those dark days, and how they continue to get through them together. We know now that not all the neighborhoods survived, that not every community came together. As Aldrich found, it is the closeness of our connections, our willingness to reach out to one another that is most important to making it though such catastrophic times. This is part of what we aspire to be as a UU congregation. And I have seen you do it- I have seen you reach out to one another in crisis and tragedy, I have seen you be there for one another. It is that very ordinary kind of heroism by which we are saved.
I propose that this critique of the super hero may emerges naturally from Unitarian Universalist ideals. One of the fundamental ideas of Unitarianism, a movement founded at a time when Calvinist theologians thought of humans as fully depraved , in bondage to sin and subject to God, was the radical idea that humans also have good capacities, including conscience and freedom to act. This has made us a “role up your sleeves” type religion, believing that each human has some part to play in the building and rebuilding of our world. As the great Unitarian Preacher William Ellery Channing wrote:
whenever we think, speak, or act, with moral energy and resolute devotion to duty, be the occasion ever so humble, obscure, familiar; — then the divinity is growing within us, and we are ascending towards our Author. True religion thus blends itself with common life.
Channing was a theist, but the same principle holds for those Unitarians who are Humanists- the use of our powers in freedom is at the heart of what it means to be human and to live a life of meaning.
On the other side of our lineage, it was our Universalist founders who rebelled against the idea that only some special elect were chosen by God, and affirmed that all of us had the potential for salvation. If we extrapolate this into our day to day living, I believe that there are not simply superheroes and supervillains who make history, while the rest of us try to get out from under foot. I know that each of us has the choice, in any given moment, to help, to heal, to save, to protect. We don’t always get it right, of course --we’re human. Sometimes we hurt when we are trying to help, sometimes we miss opportunities, and of course sometimes running and hiding is exactly the right thing to do.
Imagine us all as one big team of Avengers- every living being on this planet. We are all called to be heroes in ways large and small. And – this is just as important- we need to remember when we swoop into a scene to help, that everyone we are there to help is a hero too. Too often we make the mistake of thinking we know best, we come in from outside the situation with fresh eyes and all our resources, and we actually might undermine the capacities, the needs of the very people we are trying to help. We need to remember that when we come to help, our call is not “everybody back- I’ve got this” but “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you are already doing. Where can I be of use?”
The next time you are listening to the news, to the stories about NGOs flying in to help distressed populations, remember the thousands of untold stories of neighbors and friends who cared for one another before the relief workers could find them. The next time you are watching a movie about Super Heroes, or a documentary about Great Men from history, remember to fill in all the ordinary people who are part of the scene too, all the neighbors and strangers who helped one another flee and shelter while the Avengers had their great battle, and who together rebuilt their community when the battle was done and the Avengers were off eating shawarma. The most important work of disaster response is done by those who live through that disaster together. The next time some disaster, large or small, strikes your community, think of yourself as a first responder, and use your super or ordinary powers to help save the day.