On Heroes and Saviors
It’s Palm Sunday as I start writing this, or in more secular terms, the Sunday before Easter. The name comes from the fact that at the beginning of the week that would end with Jesus dead and secreted into a borrowed tomb, the people of Jerusalem welcomed him, waving palm fronds as he passed. Within the week, many of those people would be watching the Crucifixion.
While I am lapsed in some ways, I still count myself a Catholic. This week marks the yearly apex of my faith. My favorite Mass is the one on Holy Thursday when the pastor reenacts the Last Supper, right down to washing twelve people’s feet. On Good Friday, my parish reenacts the Passion (I was the Portuguese narrator a few times as a teen and I still have snippets of the script burned into my brain) and has a funeral possession afterward that seems a bit much to my American friends but is straight out of the old country Azorean playbook.
These ceremonies are important to me and my ability to hang on to the faith I still have, so going without them this year is hard.
But you don’t need to be Catholic, or even religious, to understand how we treat — or mistreat — the ones we call saviors, heroes, etc. That’s what’s been on my mind this week and this is my attempt to build a coherent argument out of it.
I’m actually going to be coming at this idea from three ways. Yes, Jesus Tap Dancing Christ is the biggest savior figure in the Western canon, but he’s just one of many sacrificial heroes in pop culture. The Chosen One narrative is everywhere.
So let’s talk about the three types of heroes on my mind this week: that guy who wandered around with his twelve friends, some characters from a long time ago and a galaxy far away, and finally, the people doing the essential work that keeps the world (barely) running.
What the hell does Star Wars have to do with this?
I know that The Beatles said that they were bigger than Jesus, but in the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think Star Wars holds that title. Everyone has heard of it, most people have opinion about it, most of those people have strong opinions about it
Heck, George Lucas was directly inspired by Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth and the Hero’s Journey. You can tell me that our nice Jewish boy didn’t walk a very similar path heroes like Luke and Rey, but you’d be wrong:
Nothing I’ve said so far is anything new. I learned about Joseph Campbell as a senior in high school (complete with Star Wars references) and kept running into him all through my time as an English major.
But let’s look at what happens to heroes that step off of that path. When we see Luke again in The Last Jedi, he should be the wise mentor to Rey. But what does he do? Yeet his lightsaber off a cliff.
The Last Jedi has its problems (read: all the storylines featuring the non-Force characters), but I think the moment I fell in love with it was this one. Luke wasn’t the hero anymore and he didn’t want to be the mentor figure. He was an old man with old man problems and very human regrets.
He was a regular person and we hate when our larger than life figures turn out to be just like us. So many of my friends hate TLJ’s version of Luke because “Luke Skywalker wouldn’t act like that.” And while the kid in the original trilogy wouldn’t, but he was an archetype. Cranky Luke in TLJ has stepped off the pedestal and is just as shitty a person as the rest of us.
Rey does end the sequel trilogy as a hero. JJ Abrams is a coward who saw how fanboys lost their shit over their heroes becoming human and backpedaled through one movie while trying to write another in The Rise of Skywalker. (Yep, still mad about it.)
Rey in TROS is selfless. She dies to stop Palpatine and save her friends. Yes, she comes back, but only because the character she had the strongest bond with throughout the whole sequel trilogy (her friendship with Finn is great in The Force Awakens, is literally non-existent in TLJ, and falls flat in TROS because they threw Poe into the triad too late for it to work) dies in her place.
And how does she handle this? Like a hero. She leaves Exogol. rejoins the Resistance when they celebrate, and then, in the ultimate act of selflessness, obliterates her identity to take a name synonymous with the word hero.
I liked Rey Nobody so much better. I hoped she was no one special way back when TFA came out and I cheered when TLJ confirmed that. Rey was a person. A person like me. She had human desires and human flaws. She was capable of acts of heroism and selflessness, but like a normal person, she wasn’t selfless and heroic all the time.
And now, a word for our modern heroes
So what did I take away from spending a good part of this week thinking about these three kids who grew up in the desert and were tasked with saving the universe? We demand that our heroes save us and then disappear. Heroes can’t walk among us, not for long.
Jesus hangs out for forty days after his resurrection but eventually heads back to Heaven and we have yet to see his return. What’s he gonna do, settle down with Mary Magdalene and have kids like the rest of us boring assholes? Can’t have that.
Rey fucks off to Tatooine and ascends to Skywalkerhood, and even Luke gets off his curmudeonly old ass to make a heroic sacrifice — and to add insult to injury, he comes back as a textbook mentor figure in the movie that was supposed to “fix” everything!
Heroes have to be heroes. All the time. Their only job is to save us, not to be us. One step off the pedestal and we turn on them.
We’re calling nurses and doctors heroes. Big box store workers and delivery people? Heroes! Essential worker is the new hero.
But if they ask for more personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe? If they cry out that they’re being forced into dangerous conditions? If they’re being mistreated in their jobs that they need to keep their families fed and housed? If they are literally dying of the disease they’re fighting? Off the pedestal they fall.
The tl;dr of this ramble isn’t “Don’t be a hero.” (Though in my experience, being selfless is no way to live for any extended period of time.)
Jesus is both human and divine, if you believe. He can take the superhuman demands put on him, but even so, he asked for this cup to be taken from his lips. For all that I wrote about Rey and Luke being real, they’re both fictional characters.
But people? Real people? It’s wrong to demand heroism from people just trying to do their jobs, trying to feed their families, trying to keep a roof over their heads, trying to stay alive.
Don’t treat your fellow humans like heroes. Treat them like people. Treat them how you’d want to be treated. Demand it. Defend them from the crowds that are ready to turn on them. (One coward hiding behind a podium and not taking responsibility comes to mind.) Fight to give them the tools they need to survive these times.