When the school bus crunched to a stop against the guardrail tilted precariously, filled with smoke but miraculously safe on a fractured island of concrete the panicked children began screaming. Some were hurt, all were terrified. They wanted what any of us would want in such a situation rescue.
Jeremy Hernandez kept his wits about him and got to work. He kicked open the emergency exit, quieted the children and began handing them out the door to a motorist who had run to the bus to help.
The newspapers have called Hernandez a hero.
The Greeks invented the word, though the idea is undoubtedly as old as history itself. In Greek thought, a hero was extraordinarily skilled, fearless, almost god-like. Heroes vanquished evil, righted injustice and gave ordinary men and women relief from the capricious terrors of life.
Fast-forward several thousand years and heroes still figure prominently in our cultural vernacular. 24 hasn't gained cult status for its artful prose, but because of the emotional appeal of its heroic central character, Jack Bauer, the invincible counter-terrorism agent who guards America while it sleeps.
24 appeals to our hope that there are real-life Jack Bauers out there, somewhere, ready to rescue us when we are in peril.
Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet wonders why so many modern films revolve around a heroic central character. Think of Luke Skywalker, the farm boy who bravely steps forward to defend the Rebel Alliance, or Frodo Baggins, the little Hobbit whose courage and never-say-die toughness saves Middle Earth, or Maximus, the betrayed Roman general who refuses to surrender his honor, even when he is forced to become a gladiator.
We're drawn to heroes because they embody the values we hold dear. They protect our families. They defend freedom. They seek to expose lies. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch dares to take a stand against racism, making the courtroom cringe in fear. His plea is unforgettable: "For God's sake, do your duty!" We cheer.
And heroes do more they make bold statements about convictions we did not even realize we held until we heard them spoken with such eloquence and conviction. In Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, the heroine dismantles her Nazi interrogator's agenda with her piercing intellect and eloquence. Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, Jeffrey Overstreet
Something in the Greek heroic ideal still resonates with us today, perhaps because the essential terrors of human existence have changed so little. We may not battle monsters, but we are certainly in a battle, against self-serving governments, amoral corporations, and all the ordinary perils of modern life: crime, disease, economic ruin, random violence and the unseen risks posed by technologies we depend on but barely understand.
These perils have always been part of our human experience.
One of the Bible's most tragic figures is Job. A god-fearing man of unshakable faith, Job's life was wrecked when God withdrew his protection, allowing Satan to rain calamity after calamity upon his homestead, his family, and finally on Job himself.
Job's friends were convinced that Job had brought all those horrors on himself by failing to live rightly, by somehow offending God.
I think we still believe the same things today. We like to say "what goes around comes around" because we believe in a moral calculus where the good prosper and the bad suffer. We believe we can create "good Karma" in our lives by performing random acts of kindness. We rearrange our furniture and meditate and eat natural foods and recycle and tread lightly on the earth as if these things combined to form some sort of talisman against the intrusion of evil into our lives.
But Job's friends were wrong about him. Job cared for the poor. He sheltered the weak. He stood up for those who were treated unjustly. There were no secret flaws in his character, and still, God let him take a beating. Job, himself, was perplexed by it all.
If only there were a mediator between us, someone who could bring us together. Job 9:33, NLT
I need someone to mediate between God and me, as a person mediates between friends. Job 16:21, NLT
Even today, we are perplexed when bad things happen to good people.
Job's hoped-for mediator is very much like the Greek hero. What Job desperately wants is someone who will put himself at risk for Job's sake and put a stop to the pain.
The claim of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is our spiritual hero/mediator. He allowed himself to be executed as a substitute for you and me. Like Job, he suffered even though he was good.
Departing from the Greek ideal, Jesus' heroism wasn't rooted in great courage or skill or determination or cunning. The foundation of Jesus' heroism was selflessness, which is a fruit of love.
This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. John 15:12, 13, The Message, Jesus challenging his disciples
After kicking out the bus door and clearing a path to safety, Jeremy Hernandez turned his back on the exit and began reaching for those panicked children. Instead of being the first one out the door and off that bridge, he was one of the last.
We need more heroes like that.
Photo credit: Getty Images courtesy of the BBC.