Are You Ready for Action?
In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let all who worship evil's might
Beware my power, Green Lantern's light!
It’s summer time. Time for Boston Trips and superhero Hollywood blockbusters, watched in air-conditioned comfort. In addition to the Green Lantern, this summer’s superhero fare includes Captain America: The First Avenger; Thor, God of Thunder; and X-Men First Class. America is in love with heroes.
What exactly defines a superhero, and why do we need them?
Some have suggested that superheroes, starting with the Greek gods and goddesses, are simply exaggerated versions of ourselves. Like us, most superheroes have some type of vulnerability that makes them inescapably human. Others, such as Anne Iredale in our reading, say that superheroes and their powers are filling a void left by God. We crave their moral certainty, in a fantasy world where good guys and bad guys are clearly labeled. We want and need superheroes to come and rescue us from our powerlessness.
Heroes, both “super” and mortal, cåome in a wide variety of forms. But here’s what it seems to me they all have in common.
1. They have clearly defined powers. The true hero knows his power and uses it consistently. Super strength, the ability to fly, X-ray vision, superhuman hearing, control over the elements... What kind of super hero doesn’t have any discernible powers? This dilemma was well dramatized in the 2005 movie Sky High. Teenager Will Stronghold, the son of superhero parents Commander and Jetstream, struggled with his very identity. Despite lifting weights, he did not have his father’s superhuman strength. And try as he might, he couldn’t launch himself into flight as could his super mom. Among his fellow students at an exclusive high school for young superheroes, Will was surrounded by a bizarre array of youthful powers at every turn: the girl who could turn herself into a small rodent or the boy who could summon fire from thin air. Just when he thought he was about to be relegated to “sidekick” status, Will’s powers finally came to him—including BOTH superhuman strength and the ability to fly—and the young superheroes learned how to combine their powers creatively to defeat the evil villain.
2. They are flawed and vulnerable. In the best superhero stories, the drama comes from the fact that our heroes, despite their unique powers, have inherent weaknesses that are often exploited by their enemies. Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is legendary. Aquaman is powerless when he’s out of the water. The Green Lantern freaks when he sees the color yellow—and even Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets are rendered powerless if bound together.
3. They sacrifice their personal needs to serve the greater good. Young Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, struggles with his identity as a superhero and the conflict it creates between himself and the people he loves. He wants to give himself entirely to his girlfriend, Mary Jane, but ultimately has to sacrifice his need for intimacy in favor of his crime-fighting duties. Superman must endure similar sacrifices to maintain his double life, and sublimate his love for Lois Lane.
But what does the concept of superheroes mean to us mere mortals? Does insisting on the modifier “super” in front of the word “hero” discourage us from reaching our full human potential? Psychologist and social scientist Phil Zimbardo, introduced to you by Betsy a few minutes ago, laments our fascination with superheroes. He has concluded that there is potential good and evil in all of us—that all have the capacity to act heroically. Matt Langdon, founder of The Hero Construction Company, inspired by Zimbardo’s work, sums it up beautifully: “The opposite of a hero is not a villain, it’s a bystander.”
Yes, we find superheroes exciting. We need them to inspire us. And the same is true with our Unitarian-Universalist heroes, as Betsy has described. Our UU heroes from the past and present evoke both the inspirational power of heroes who save us from evil as well as the quieter idea that potential for heroism lies within each of us. Consider this UU superhero line-up: Ryan Reynolds, move over!
Judith Sargeant Murray – Superpower: shape shifter. This late 18th-century writer and thinker, and wife of Universalist John Murray, overcame the sexist social conventions of the day that discounted the opinions of women. Not willing to accept this double-standard, she published her essays using a male pseudonym.
Hosea Ballou – Superpower: super-elasticity and control over fire. With his belief in goodness and universal salvation, he was able to reach out and wrap his arms around all of human kind. No one was beyond the reach of the universal love of God. In one fell swoop, he extinguished the fires of hell, choosing to give people hope instead.
William Ellery Channing – Superpower: super strength. He was able to pry open the minds of Congregationalists, insisting on freedom of conscience. He stood his ground against the imposition of religious creeds. Our preference for deeds, not creeds, is his legacy.
Dorothea Dix – Superpower: superhuman hearing. While visiting a women’s prison in 19th Century New England, she alone could hear the cries of the mentally ill prisoners who had been locked in cold, dark and damp cells, treated worse than livestock. She heard their voices, crying out for humane treatment, and made care for the mentally ill her life’s work.
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Superpower: ability to fly. His ability to see the divine in all of creation brought a much broader perspective to our faith. His new vision of a personal relationship with the divine shook up the old guard at Harvard Divinity School.
Theodore Parker – Superpower: X-ray vision. His focus on social justice allowed him to see right through the hypocrisy of the liberals in Massachusetts, including Unitarians, who were complicit in perpetuating the institution of human slavery.
Fanny Kimball – Superpower: ability to leap unjust social norms in a single bound. She was the wife of a Unitarian slave owner, who defied the established convention—and Georgia law—that condemned enslaved blacks to a life of illiteracy. She broke the law and taught a slave boy to read.
Julie Ward Howe – Superpower: Immortality. Her words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic will live forever in American culture. With a stroke of her poetic pen, she also honored the sacrifice of the nation’s soldiers at war, giving meaning to their sacrifice and honoring their memories. Her concept of mother’s day, while it has changed in its meaning, also endures as part of her legacy.
And the list goes on and on, including acts of heroism right here in our own community.
The Women of First Unitarian Church – Superpower: precognition. They could see the bright future that lay ahead for young working women who had a safe and wholesome environment for their children so that they could work outside the home. This vision of a better future led them to create the Southside Day Nursery.
And even people we know and love right here among us today. Like the Ohlemiller family. Their superpower – reality warping. This is the ability to completely change reality. In their case, it was the ability to change the reality of one baby boy, who had been born to a crack-addicted mother. Dillon, now 18, grew up an Ohlemiller, enjoying a life transformed by love and commitment.
One could not find a better connection between superheroes and the Unitarian-Universalist faith than in the story of Christopher Reeve, the movie superman of the late 1970s and 80s, and a convert to UUism late in his life. As most of you know, Reeve was tragically injured in an equestrian accident in May 1995. He became paralyzed from the neck down and nearly lost his life. What is inspiring to me about Reeve is that he used his X-Ray vision to see through the darkness of his personal pain and loss to see the opportunity to focus attention on the cause of spinal cord research and embryonic stem cell research. This became his life’s work for the last years of his life. If anyone could be forgiven for allowing himself to be a bystander, it would be Christopher Reeve. Instead, he found his voice and realized he had a true superpower to advocate for changes. He wrote two books, lobbied for federal funding for stem cell research, appeared in multiple episodes of the Smallville TV series and directed a movie.
Reeve opens his second book, “Nothing Is Impossible,” with this hopeful reflection about the power each of us has to make a difference:
Facing his own mortality also brought a spiritual awakening. When asked why he had become a Unitarian Universalist, Reeve replied:
It gives me a moral compass. I often refer to Abe Lincoln, who said, "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion." I think we all have a little voice inside us that will guide us. It may be God, I don't know. But I think that if we shut out all the noise and clutter from our lives and listen to that voice, it will tell us the right thing to do….
We may want Superman to come and save us, but each of us, like Christopher Reeve, possesses extraordinary powers that we may not even realize we have.
Look into your own life. Ask yourself some questions. Do you have what it takes to be a superhero?
1. Do you have a clearly defined power? Or are you like the teenage Will Stronghold, still yearning to discover what your power is? Can you see solutions where other people see problems? Can you understand the pain of others? Can you shift your perspective to see the potential good in people? Can you mentor a young person…be a friend to someone suffering from depression…make someone laugh…put your arm around someone who is grieving? Can you cook…pick up litter…or nail a shingle on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house? Do you have a cute sidekick who can help you?
2. Are you able to sacrifice your personal needs to serve the greater good? Judith Sargeant Murray had to sacrifice her own sexual identity to have her work published. Theodore Parker had to be willing to become one of the most hated men in America for his stand against slavery and traditional religion. Christopher Reeve sacrificed everything he had for the advancement of science for the public good. Far from being an easy religion, Unitarian-Universalism calls us to a very high standard.
3. Are you flawed and vulnerable? If you’ve ever doubted yourself or your purpose on this earth, so did Superman. You’re in good company. You have the right to bleed—to be human. Your X-Ray vision will sometimes be blocked by lead, and you will occasionally fall victim to kryptonite—or fall in love, which often has a similar effect.
Unlocking the life-changing potential of these abilities starts with a resolution in each of us that we will not allow ourselves to be bystanders when it is within our power to act. You have the ability to command your own superpowers—and join them with the talents of others—to right the wrongs of the universe. Yes, you do have superpowers. Let them shine.
July 10, 2011
Delivered at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis