I spent part of the morning today looking at film clips of something I watched live a long time ago. It was May 1973. My son was about seven months old, and we lived on a small military base in the Philippines on the South China Sea. Armed Forces TV was broadcasting an extraordinary event that day from the Air Force base about an hour south of us. Even through the TV, I could feel an edgy excitement as I watched the crowd at the Air Force base gathered to greet three military flights. It was the day the first of the prisoners of war who had been held in Vietnam for varying lengths of time were going to finally touch down, completing the first leg of their journey home at last.
It seemed to take forever for the plane to taxi down the runway and finally pull up parallel to the crowd who burst into cheers. The door opened, and the first man walked down the steps to a microphone. He addressed the crowd and the dignitaries gathered there to honor him and his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. He gave a simple speech, mostly about how grateful they all were to be free and heading home. The one time his voice trembled was when he uttered the concluding words, “God bless America!” There probably wasn’t a dry eye anywhere on the runway, the gallery, or the audience watching the proceedings.
Twice more the ceremony was repeated, once for each of the other planes. All in all, there were probably 300+ men tasting their first real breaths of freedom that day. I can’t say I remember any of them after all these years, but among those being greeted was a thin man, walking with a slight limp and greying hair. He was John Sidney McCain III, a lieutenant commander and bomber pilot, who had been shot down over Hanoi in 1967. It was a high point in an otherwise frustrating and frequently unpopular military conflict.
In 1981 I moved to Arizona. Within a few years, a new but familiar name came on my screen as a newly-elected Congressman. After two terms, McCain ran for the Senate and won a seat, which he held for a further 30+ years. He became a household name, and one of the most frequent words used to describe him was “hero.” The appellation was not just because he survived 5-1/2 years of captivity. He continued to display discipline, and love of country over party throughout the rest of his life. Granted, he had his low moments, times when he made serious mistakes in judgment that affected many others, but he also wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it when he was wrong, wasn’t afraid to speak his truth as he saw it, and was not afraid to extend his hand across partisan borders in order to achieve a greater good. A man of great faith, he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that faith as something that helped him through his life, through the torment of captivity, and his life since his liberation.
We quite often elevate people and call them heroes, although not always for the same reason McCain was placed on a pedestal for his heroism in Vietnam and the US government. We love to build people up only to enjoy equally tearing them down when we discover a flaw in their dealings or their character. Noah, Abraham, David, Paul, and countless others were put on pedestals and then seemingly knocked down. We have to have our heroes, but we really don’t want them to be “better” than we are. We take these people, make saints and idols of them, and then when we discover their feet of clay, it’s all over but the shouting. We don’t seem to want to take into consideration that they are people too, just like us. We want to use their humanity to make us feel better when we also fall.
Jesus came to earth to be a human pointer to God. As long as he performed miracles, the crowds loved him. Those same miracles, as well as the messages Jesus brought, irked, irritated, and angered the hierarchy from both Rome and Jerusalem. The cross became his pedestal and also the final means of his death. From that day, Jesus ceased to be a human being and became visibly and actively the Son of God in his full glory. After that, people tended to forget his humanity and focus only on his divinity, from the day of his conception to the day of his resurrection.
It is time to recognize the humanity in all people, especially the ones we look up to and want to emulate. It’s so easy to fall, so easy to make a mistake that causes the whole tower we have built to crumble like dry sand.
To remember only Jesus’s divinity is to negate the humanity that was so necessary to his message. McCain was very human, clay feet, flaws and all, and with a message that transcended party lines and bickering.
Perhaps we should remember our own humanity and foibles as we try to judge others for theirs. That’s something Jesus wanted us to learn from him. We are all children of God, all of us, no matter what. And we are all human, subject to failure, but with a loving and supportive God beside us to help us get up and try again.
Rest in peace, Senator McCain. Thank you for your service both in the military and in civilian life. Rise in glory to the throne of God where surely you will be welcomed with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Image: Statue of Liberty atop the granite pedestal. Photograph from the National Park Service. Found on Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and -retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.