Hero or Saint?


Hero or Saint?
Brian Zahnd

In the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand — especially to the American mind — seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action. We want to be heroes, we don’t really want to be saints. The difference between the heroic vision and the saintly vision is a fundamentally different way of viewing the purpose of life.

“For the hero the meaning of life is honor. For the saint the meaning of life is love. For the hero the goal of living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life does not so much have a goal, as a purpose, for which each human being is responsible, and that purpose is love, and the bonds of concern and care that responsibility for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. These two paradigms, the hero and the saint, and the way of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally distinct and genuinely different visions of human society as a whole, and even of what it means to be a human being. They are two distinct and different ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.”
-Francis J. Ambrosio, Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life

Accepting Francis Ambrosio’s paradigms for the hero and saint, we should recognize that the way of Jesus is the way of the saint. But the way of the hero is what we tend to glorify. To speak of the goal of life in terms of self-fulfillment, achievement and excellence is very American (originally Greek and Roman) and very popular. There are plenty of versions of American Christianity that easily accommodate this basic paradigm. Christianity understood as a program for self-improvement and success in life is how Americanized Christianity most often accommodates itself to contemporary culture. It also makes Christianity popular and “successful.”

But an honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that Jesus is teaching something radically different. In the gospels we see Jesus through his teaching setting forth the alternative paradigm of the saint, where the purpose of life is love and the expression of that love is in the form of care and compassion for our neighbor. The life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels begins as a life of teaching and ends in a life of suffering. But these are not to be separated. At the cross Jesus lived all that he taught. The life of love that Jesus proclaimed in his teaching he lived in his suffering. The life of co-suffering love is the paradigm of the saint and it is how Jesus lived and died. It is the beauty of the cruciform.

Of course I can hear someone protesting, “But Jesus is my hero!” I understand what is meant by that, but if we are intent upon forcing Jesus into the archetype of typical hero, we distort him. In trying to make Jesus a hero we miss the simple fact that Jesus did nothing that was conventionally heroic — at least not according to the Western ideal of heroism. Elijah was a conventional hero when he humiliated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and then executed them at the brook Kishon. But how did Jesus contend with his enemies at Calvary? Not in the heroic manner of Elijah on Carmel, but in a new and saintly way — the way of love and forgiveness.

The Jesus of the gospels is not a heroic general who slaughters his enemies, but a suffering saint who forgives his enemies. And even if one appeals to the book of Revelation, it should be remembered that the holy irony perceived in the prophetic metaphors is that the monstrous beasts are conquered by a little slaughtered lamb. It should be clear that the way of Christ is not the way of the conventional hero. Jesus saves the world, not by shedding the blood of his enemies, but by allowing his own blood to be shed in an act of redemptive love. This is the way of the saint, not the hero.

But we struggle with choosing the way of the saint over the way of the hero. Our Christian rhetoric is replete with calls to the heroic as we are urged to “be mighty men and women of God” and “fight the battles of the Lord” and “do great things for God.” We love the idea of being a hero and winning a great battle for God. There’s a lot of what we call “glory” in it. But we’re not so keen on laying down our lives in the manner of Christ at Calvary. We fail to comprehend the glory of the cross. So we struggle with which model to adopt. The hero or the saint? Achilles or Emmanuel? Caesar or Christ? Charlemagne or St. Francis? More often than not we end up choosing the hero. And this feeds one of the ugliest aspects of a misshapen Christianity: triumphalism.

One more thought on heroes and saints. Heroes tend to be heroes to only one side — their side. Heroes attain their glory in an “us vs. them” context. For example, the French and the Russians have decidedly different views of Napoleon, just as Americans and Mexicans will view Santa Anna differently. But saints, over time, tend to be universally recognized for their saintliness. It has to do with the universality of love. It’s why nearly everyone admires St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta whether or not they are Christian. St. Francis and Mother Teresa are preeminent examples of lives shaped by the cruciform to a degree that their lives of co-suffering love have come to be universally recognized as lives of beauty.


(This is an excerpt from Beauty Will Save the World.)