Heroes with Clay Feet

The first time I saw the film, Ghandi, staring Ben Kingsley, I felt truly inspired. Ghandi struck me as a truly Christ-like figure, especially through his commitment to non-violence. I thought that he lived a life equivalent to the lives of the saints I had grown up with, and yet he wasn’t a Catholic nor a Christian! But in my opinion, as depicted in the film, he had lived a more ‘Christian’ life than most Christians I knew, including myself. I idealised him and wanted to be like him – fearless in his resolve to non-violently stand for what was right. So it came as a shock when I learned some details of his life that weren’t presented in the film. I found out that to test himself in terms of his self-control over his sexuality, he would sleep with other women to see if he could resist the temptation to have sex with them, and at times failed to remain chaste and faithful to his wife. My hero had turned out to have clay feet.

This was the first time this disillusionment with a hero of mine had happened to me, but certainly not the last. In the last year my faith in heroes of social justice took two more hits. The first was when Aung San Suu Kyi failed to take a stand to defend the Rohingya people in the current ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar, and the second was the new revelations concerning Martin Luther King Jr. with the public release of US Federal Government documents from the 1960s.

The reason for Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out in defence of the Rohingya people is not clear. It could be that she is tired after her long fight for justice and lacks the energy for a new fight that could put at risk all she has gained, particularly because the Rohingyas are unpopular amongst her own people. It could be she is playing politics, compromising ground so as to win the war. But what appears to be the motive to the world is that she shares her countrymen’s racism towards this minority group. Whatever the motive, her lack of prophetic response has certainly damaged her image.

As for Martin Luther King Jr., the release by the US National Archives of 767 formally classified documents dealing with the death of John F. Kennedy and the spill-over into the life of Martin Luther King Jr., has certainly called into question his image as a minister of religion and Christ-like figure. The revelations concerning King’s sexual activities and commitment to the Communist cause were not matters I ever expected to hear of this man.

It must be said, however, that although it’s uncertain if the information in the document was verified by its author, it is true that the apparent mission of the FBI at the time was to discredit King, who, as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, called for nonviolent resistance to combat racial inequality. He received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, an honour that the FBI questioned.

As we go through life and transition from child to adult, the journey involves the painful discovery that the reality of life falls far short of the fantasies of childhood. Just like the disillusionment that came about when our parents told us that there was no Santa Clause, we feel let down by life because we want to believe in the magic of the myth. As we grow up and discover that reality can be harsh and people terribly disappointing, we search for heroes to enable us to believe that human beings can achieve great and good things. We want heroes to inspire us to strive on amidst our own weaknesses. When instead, reality reveals to us that our heroes are all too human, we lose hope and energy for the fight for justice in the world. If these heroic figures we admired couldn’t live up to our high ideals, what chance have the rest of us got?

Yet, painful as this confrontation with reality is, it is necessary. If our faith is going to be robust enough to deal with the harsh and unjust realities of life, it must be grounded in reality. This disillusionment is a necessary step in the growth of our faith.

There are in fact 3 stages or processes of faith that we must move through in order to truly grow into a mature and robust faith:

Compliance – is where we all begin in the faith journey. Here the major component is power. We comply because of the power we perceive that our elders have over us. The compliant person is motivated by the desire to gain a reward or avoid punishment. This describes the faith of most Catholics prior to Vatican II. I, for example, went to Mass every Sunday because I wanted to avoid committing a Mortal sin. I was looking for the reward of Heaven and to avoid the punishment of Hell. In the same vein, I kept the commandments, not because I wanted to avoid hurting others, but because I wanted the reward of heaven and to avoid the punishment of hell.

The problem with the Compliance level of faith is that this behaviour is only as long lived as is the promise of the reward or the threat of punishment. Once you remove these, the motivation to comply is lost. When, following Vatican II, we started speaking about a God of love, and no longer preached hellfire and brimstone, a number of those Catholics still at the compliance level of faith, dropped away. After all, why practice the faith if there won’t be any special reward for doing so. Why practice the faith if there is no punishment for not doing so. At this stage of faith, the person’s focus is purely on themselves and their own benefits. Such people usually don’t have a very strong Social Justice or environmental concern as part of the expression of their faith life.

Identification – To move to a deeper level of faith we need to graduate to the stage of Identification. Here the major component is attractiveness. In other words, here a person is inspired and attracted to a person who appears to hold and stand for values that we aspire to, such as Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi or Martin Luther King Jr. This person wants to hold the same opinions and values that the role model holds. As such, they tend to adopt the position of the person they admire. Another word for it is ‘hero worship.’ Because of your admiration for the role model, their opinions and values become yours.

The problem, if your faith goes no deeper than this level, comes when your hero turns out to have clay feet. The disillusionment suffered can lead the person to fall away from the faith. This is what we have observed with people leaving the practice of the faith in light of the revelations of the child sex abuse scandals and the clergy.

Internalization – So if our faith is going to be robust enough to survive the disillusionments of reality, we need to arrive at the level of internalization. Here the major component is credibility. In other words, the person we idealised may have turned out to be all too human, but this does not discredit the values they were fighting for. If these values, that influenced us, are perceived to be trustworthy and having good judgement, then we may be disillusioned in the ‘hero’ but we do not let go of the values they stood for as we now have internalized these. They have become our own and what we want to live by and stand for. We can accept these beliefs and we can integrate them into our own system of beliefs and values.

If we are going to have the stamina for the long, sustained and often thankless fight for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, we need to be at the level of internalization.

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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One Response to Heroes with Clay Feet

  1. RV Tasmania says:

    Hi Ray, This is really well written. I can’t help relate it to the situation I am in with Phil.

    Maybe we can talk some time next week if that suits you.

    Anne

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