Why a Page on Peace Heroes?
A hero, according to Webster, is a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities; one that shows great courage; the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work; the central figure of an event, period or movement; an object of extreme admiration and devotion.
The concept of hero seems antiquated, as from a bygone era. The traditional hero has been a man (seldom a woman) writ large, larger than life. The hero is seen as a central figure in the drama of history, a leader whose strength and spirit shape destiny. The hero is defined and described by the culture so as to glorify and give meaning to the culture. The hero turns the tide of events, leads his people to victory, and overcomes obstacles that would defeat less determined mortals. The hero, in short, is ascribed qualities that stretch our human boundaries and imaginations. The hero emerges as a cultural icon, often with god-like qualities, and is the focus of myth.
Cultures need heroes. Myths of heroism provide a mirror to a culture and a concept of the ideal for educating new generations. The heroes a culture selects reflect the values of that culture. Cultures often warp the mirror of history, in part by the selection and creation of heroes that reflect the culture as triumphant and indomitable. The culture, in the manner of the evil queen in Snow White, asks the question, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most powerful of all?" It shapes its heroes to provide the answer: "You are."
From within the culture, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see that the mirror is warped. From the outside, however, it is virtually impossible to miss the distortion.
Taking a penetrating look at heroes forces us to take an equally hard look at ourselves. To ask the question, "Who are our heroes?" is to also ask, "Who are we?" and "What do we represent as a culture?"
From an individual's perspective, a choice of heroes is a choice of affiliations, a selection of the "we" that a person chooses to help shape his or her identity. In most cultures today it is the nation-state that exerts the greatest claim on one's identity and affiliation.
In modern nation-states, heroes are almost invariably the products of indoctrination and public relations efforts. Building upon partial historical truths, heroes are created and enlarged from the fabric of history. In repeating the stories of heroes, cultures help define themselves, create a consensus reality, and transmit values to new generations.
Cultural heroes may take many forms, depending on the culture and the values it reflects. Heroes may be gods or warriors or ordinary mortals. Heroes may be leaders of valor and wisdom or simply celebrities. They may be brutal dictators or wise and decent individuals. Many dictators have built "cults of personality" to glorify themselves as heroes and their achievements as heroic. Democratic governments are not immune to glorifying political leaders of meager stature, but they are also more capable of toppling such idols.
Just as cultures define themselves in part by those they identify as heroes, so do individuals. Heroes, after all, are in the eyes of the beholder. There are no rigid criteria that define a hero. Cultures may honor heroes to help in fostering a cultural identity conducive to patriotism, but heroes cannot be forced on individuals. Ultimately, each person is free to decide in the deepest recesses of intellect and spirit who he or she chooses, if anyone, as a hero.
This volume rejects the concept of hero as war maker. It offers instead a selection of alternative heroes whose successes are measured not by leadership in the organized and culturally sanctioned murder or warfare, but by their courage, commitment and compassion in seeking peace.
The heroes in this volume, selected by college interns at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, include such great leaders as Gandhi, Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also included are heroes that may be unfamiliar to many readers.
Fame and celebrity are not and should not be criteria for heroism. Fame in and of itself has no claim on heroism and is a poor reason for idolatry. Basing heroism on celebrity alone trivializes the concept and sacrifices our standards of human achievement. The heroes in this volume have been chosen for their actions, not their renown.
The men and women selected for inclusion in this volume have set high standards of achievement for the common good. They have often made uncommon effort and sacrifice to uphold human rights and human dignity against abuse, oppression, and violence. Their lives have made a difference. They have stood for peace, justice, and decency, often against the crowd and the broader culture. They have spoken truth in the face of power, and have not flinched when power has responded in vicious and violent ways.
All of the heroes in this volume have struggled. Some prevailed in achieving their goals. Many did not. They share a commitment to human decency and to the prevention of violence. All persevered in their pursuit of peace. All have sacrificed. All have made a difference in leaving the world a better place. All have influenced others around them by their acts. We hope that their lives will inspire you to greater efforts toward a peaceful future.
Rarely does an individual set out to be a hero, but each of us chooses his or her course in life. If that course is for the common good, and is pursued with perseverance, one may in time become a hero in the eyes of those who witness the commitment. What is important is not to strive to be a hero, but to do what is right and decent in all the small acts and decisions of one's life. It is the way one lives that ultimately matters more than any rewards or acclamations one receives. It is the effort, day by day, that becomes the opus of one's life. It is the effort, more than any achievement or recognition, that makes a hero.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.