My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.
Of those who are fearless, there two kinds: the reckless and the serene.
The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic. Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless. The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp. The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy. They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between. They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not. Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are. The reckless, by comparison, are lost.
I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)
The serene can be heroes. They know where they are and what they want. They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure. They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves. They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.
Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are. They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another. St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals. He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal. The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse. We used to sing it in church when I was a child.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.
O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.
Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children. Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong. Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people. It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life. Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989. The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.
Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories. She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém. From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police. In this position, she received international recognition. She and her family took me in as a friend. There is always much joy in her house.
In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years. I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds. They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left. Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling. Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally. Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s. It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all. That is real heroism.
Notes and Credits
The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images. The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm). Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings. The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission. She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.
David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes. The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today. Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.
The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters. These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web. They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.
St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry. St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.
A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice
Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes. I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene. In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not. Let me clarify.
Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes. There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures. They are sociopaths. Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine. They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers. Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority. These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.
Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason. They kill without ever coming close to the trigger. They command armies and industries. They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table. They are serene. They are fearless. They are all around us and hidden in our midst. “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”
As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple. That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just. The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words. Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged. This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments. It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have. All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two: Somalia and the United States of America. Serenity now.