We live at a time in which true heroes are rare. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that true heroes are all around us but we don’t know who they are: their humility keeps them in the background, out of sight, and we fail to notice their courage, decency, and moral strength.
Today courage is often confused with testosterone, decency is dismissed as political correctness, and strength is defined in terms of bluster, name-calling, and raging. We are living in a culture of cruelty, an era of unprecedented ugliness in America, during which true heroes are criticized and dismissed, if we notice them at all. And in the midst of this world, as if to redirect our gaze from the bombast and the clamor, three movies emerge, each presenting a portrait of a man of true greatness, rare courage, and authentic civility and decency–a welcome reminder that virtue does exist. We just have to look for it.
A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jaggerstatter, an Austrian farmer who, as Nazi troops invaded his country in 1939, refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and fight for the Reich. He was the only man in his village to say no to the horror of Nazism, and it would cost him his life. Against the background of village life in the bucolic Austrian countryside, one man and one man alone stood up for truth and decency against the Nazi occupation of his village and the conscription of its men.
A flood of images from past and present emerged while watching this movie, among which was the 1966 Academy Award winner A Man for All Seasons, which relates the story of Sir Thomas More’s refusal to bend to the will of King Henry VIII. Like Jaggerstatter, More was alone in his protest, the only political figure who opposed the king, who increasingly turned into a raging, blustery monarch, marching through life dispatching wives with the axe. And like Jaggerstatter, More paid the ultimate price. Watch A Hidden Life for a reminder that true courage has nothing to do with testosterone; true courage is about moral fortitude, the strength to speak truth to power and to call out the tyrant.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Following the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the memory of Fred Rogers receives another testimonial in 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, this time a feature film starring–who else?–Tom Hanks. Hanks, as always, does a phenomenal job, this time channeling Fred Rogers the man, both in his joys and in his sorrows.
Fred Rogers was unique. It is not his personality or way of being that we are called to imitate–each of us has his or her own personality to live out–but the values that he honored. His compassion, authenticity, attentiveness to the other, fundamental human decency–that is what we are called to emulate. “How would Fred respond?” might well serve as a guiding principle of interpersonal relations for us all. See this movie and be reminded of what basic humanity looks like.
I had the opportunity to see and hear Bryan Stevenson at SMU a few years back and recently visited his Center for Justice and Mercy in Montgomery, Alabama. Author of the award-winning book Just Mercy and now the subject of a major motion picture with the same name, Stevenson is becoming as well-known as any Civil Rights figure of an earlier age.
Focusing on the criminal justice system, Just Mercy well demonstrates that as much as we honor equality under the law as a fundamental American principle, an honest reading of American history proves that we have dishonored that value throughout the years. As a result, we are not the nation that we proclaim ourselves to be, and American history would have turned out much differently had we honored the equality we profess to believe.
Read the book, see the movie. And help make America principled again.
American greatness is not achieved through P. T. Barnum-like bluster, hate-filled rhetoric, and demagogic posturing. It is achieved through the honoring and living out of basic human principles. Fred Rogers, Franz Jaggerstatter, and Bryan Stevenson have shown us the way to those principles.