We look at historical figures so invested in their belief systems, they would would be willing to make any sacrifice. We also look at those who do not.
True Believers in History
In an account, written by the L.A. Times in 1999, the story revolved around one Herbert Gregg, "Russian security forces rescued an American missionary Tuesday more than seven months after he was kidnapped near Russia's lawless and separatist republic of Chechnya.
Herbert Gregg, 51, a native of Mesa, Ariz., appeared gaunt but cheerful as he deplaned here in the late evening after leaving the region. "I feel wonderful," he said, managing a smile behind a full beard he grew in captivity. His right hand was wrapped in a bandage. His kidnappers had cut off part of his index finger to extort ransom. Gregg was one of the last Westerners--and the only American--believed held captive in Chechnya, which fought a 21-month war to secede from Russia earlier this decade. Gregg was abducted on Nov. 11 after playing basketball at an orphanage in Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan. The republic borders Chechnya in Russia's southern Caucasus region. Gregg and his wife, Linda, had lived and worked in Dagestan for four years. Gregg was a missionary with the Evangelical Alliance Mission, known as TEAM--a Christian organization based in Wheaton, Ill., that places charity workers and religious instructors worldwide.
Asked what message he would like to send his captors, Gregg said only, "That God really loves them." Fueled by a genuine belief in his faith, this attitude is what we call a once celebrated character. Gregg preached forgiveness and, as a true believer, lived his convictions. I wish I were made of such emotional sinew, but alas, my initial instinct would have been to let the MiGs have their way with these people. Forget eye for an eye; I would have probably gone for a body, well several, for my finger.
Hopefully not, but I have never been in such a position and given my life choices, decades of marketing, and now history blogging from a comfortable office, likely never will. Gregg is just different. But also different from other Christian leaders of greater notoriety. By putting his life in mortal peril, Gregg follows a well-worn path established by Christian leaders, returning to the religion's inception. The first three leaders of the church, Jesus, Peter, and Paul of Tarsus, died by murder. And that was just the beginning.
According to Loyola Press, "For almost the entire period from A.D. 100 to 313, it was illegal to be a Christian in most of the Roman Empire. As a result, there are many stories of the deaths of Christians that have come down to us over the centuries. These Christians who died for their faith were—and still are—called "martyrs," a word that means "witnesses. St. Lucy, St. Agnes, St. Agatha, and St. Cecilia were all young women who all suffered terribly for their faith at different times. The stories that have come down to us say that St. Lucy lost her eyes during her torture, St. Agnes was beheaded, St. Agatha was placed on hot coals, and St. Cecilia was suffocated and then beheaded.
St. Timothy and St. Maura were married only twenty days when Timothy, who was in charge of the sacred books of his Christian community, was ordered to turn them over. He refused, and his wife, Maura, was brought to the prison to try to convince him to give in. She wouldn't cooperate, so both husband and wife were nailed to a prison wall, and, so tradition tells us, it took them nine days to die. St. Marcellinus was a priest imprisoned during the last major Roman persecution, around A.D. 304. While in prison before his execution, he convinced many of the love of Jesus, including his own jailer."
Because of the distance of time and their celebration of the Catholic Church, including canonization, it is hard to grasp that these were real people who willingly died for their beliefs. And the precedent was set. In all of the great religions ranging from Hinduism to Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam, there was only one where the religion's founder was murdered for his belief.
A highly effective Arab military proselytized Islam. Confucianism quickly became the state religion. Judaism's origins are more difficult to discern and dispersed among many leaders from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and ultimately Moses.
All of whom died in their beds. Jesus gave what Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion. I want to clarify that this is not a piece proselytizing Christianity, nor any other religion. This is a historical podcast, and this content should be seen thru that prism. But that does not change that the early Christians were true believers. That is not necessarily the case throughout Christian history. Cyril of Alexandria appears to have been a rigid bigot who also died in his bed.
During my lifetime, I have witnessed the machinations of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, Jimmy, and Tammy Fae Baker, and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek fame, a megachurch 20 minutes from my door. These figures all had three things in common:
Upon hearing about a practical child and marriage counselor, who had an affair, a wise person told me, yes, "but did he provide good council." So, if a person cannot live to their teachings, is the teaching effective. Does the fact that Dr. Phil, the king of marriage counseling, went through a nasty divorce mean his guidance is irrelevant? Is it either good advice from a flawed figure of rank hypocrisy?
A sound argument could be made that Augustine of Hippo was the third most important figure in Christian history, right behind Paul of Tarsus and Jesus. One Augustinian university, Villanova, known better for their basketball program than for their linkage to a Catholic saint, provides this view of Augustine; Augustine spent the last forty years of his life trying to be faithful to his baptism. He returned to North Africa in 388 and set up a small community of dedicated Christian laymen in Tagaste. Its purpose was the study of Scripture and mutual service while living a life somewhat withdrawn from the hurly-burly of the world. Unfortunately, this peace and quiet were not to last very long. In 391, he made the "mistake" (as he calls it) of going to Hippo to interview a candidate for his little community. One day, seeing him in the church, the people demanded that he be ordained their priest. He accepted on the condition that he could continue his community there in Hippo. This he did, and from that community, he began his service of the people of Hippo. In 395, he was consecrated their bishop and, in that position, he spent the last 35 years of his life." Augustine was the first historical figure to write what we would call an autobiography, and one of the telling and overused lines from Augustine was, "Lord, make me a Christian -- but not yet." It is not that Augustine was not a true believer in the manner of Gregg, but rather that he knew the path he should be taking, but that he was just not up to it.
In the 1970s smash T.V. show M.A.S.H., two of the characters, Hawkeye and Honeycutt, are trying to enact revenge on a third, their roommate, the bombastic Charles Winchester, by not bathing. Their odorous efforts earn them banishment from the mess tent. While eating outside the company, Chaplain Father Mulcahy stops by, but he will not eat with the reeking doctors like the rest of the company. Upon being told that Jesus ate with lepers, Mulcahy states, "He was an exceptionally good sport."
Augustine was not made of the same quality as Jesus, but then he was open with his struggles in a way different from the aforementioned American megachurch founders. For them, religion is not something to live up to or fail, but rather a product, like a car or bar soap, that leads them to riches. Like Augustine, the issue comes when they fall short; it is akin to learning that Mike Lindell secretly sleeps using Good Pillow instead of his own product. One of Augustine's appeals was his struggles would resonate with the average person. Jesus is who Christians wish to be, but Augustin is who they are.
When a historian runs a survey from the earliest civilizations to the beginnings of empire in the Western Hemisphere, there is one common theme; the ruler is almost always claiming the divine. Egyptian Pharaohs to Japanese Emperors believed they were descended from the gods, as did Julius Caesar.
The bourbon kings of France believed they ruled with the blessings of God. Ferdinand and Isabell were not just Catholic majesties but the most Catholic Majesties. From a political point of view, this makes absolute sense. Every government needs to derive some form of legitimacy. Prior to the advent of civilization, legitimacy more than likely came from size, strength, and cunning. This is easy when the community numbers in a few dozen and all the members have a personal relationship with the ruler. But how does it work along the Yellow River when a Chinese farmer may only glimpse the ruler from afar, or never at all?
The answer lies in making the ruler more than just a human. The Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), also known as Heaven's Mandate, was the divine source of authority and the right to rule China's early kings and emperors. The ancient God or divine force known as Heaven or Sky had selected this particular individual to rule on its behalf on earth.
Because so much of Japanese culture was influenced by the Chinese, their emperors too claimed the mandate of heaven as late as 1945. However, once the Americans had conquered Japan using the atomic bomb, the concept of the emperor had to change. Many wanted him deposed, but a compromise was enacted. Here is a 1945 description of what happened. "A New Role for the 'Son of Heaven'; Emperor Hirohito of Japan is no longer 'divine.' As a 'human' constitutional monarch, he has become a symbol of stability for a nation groping for new standards. A New Role for the 'Son of Heaven'"
Did these rulers genuinely believe they were descended from Gods or believe that God had anointed their rule. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar claimed that he was descended from the gods though not one himself.
Upon his death, Romans, for many reasons, claimed that he was, in fact, a god. Not the least was his great-nephew and adopted son Octavian, later Augustus. Not a bad form of legitimacy to claim to be the son of a god. Yet one of Augustus' successors, Caligula, genuinely believed he was a god. Presumably, gods cannot be killed, so we can hold the belief that he was not given the fact his Praetorians murdered him after a tumultuous four-year rule. Despite this, Emperor worship continued after Caligula because the P.R. aspect was too powerful. However, one of the tricks is to deify the person after they are gone and their more heinous acts forgotten.
Unfortunately, as I move into middle age, I begin to attend more funerals, and with perhaps the odd joke, the virtues are extolled and the vices omitted. This is fitting given that funerals are for the living, and little is accomplished by post-life trashing. But the vast majority of humanity are not powerful, historical figures.
Martha Washington famously burned her letters from George. Anathema to the historian but probably effective in maintaining our leading founder's iconography. And do we need to read Washington making snide accounts about Adam's insufferableness or alluding to his fellow Virginian's escapades in France? The goal was to show the best light to the world. Was this akin to the stage management or false claims to the divinity of earlier heads of state? The facts show genuine aspects of Washington's character.
Lincoln today is rightly celebrated as the Great Emancipator. The reality was that he both advocated a return to Africa of the slave population, something both morally and logistically, a terrible prospect. He also would have allowed the Southern states, in the short term, to have kept their slaves in 1861. Whatever long-term plans for eliminating slavery, and he must have had them, it was the preservation of the union that was foremost in his early days. But the Confederacy was going to both keep their slaves and do so and as an independent entity forcing Lincoln's hand. Again, we remember these things, study them. But this does not change the facts that Lincoln oversaw and directly the emancipation proclamation, the destruction of the rebellion, and the enactment of the 13th Amendment.
Donald Trump has pulled off the incredible feat of hiding his goodness and putting his often-odious nature on display during his presidency. Yet, for such a tempestuous attitude, his family, all of them, still claim allegiance. His second wife, Martha Maples, went on tv pop show Dancing with the Stars and extolled his virtues. And before one states that just demonstrates the grasping and unscrupulous nature of his family, consider how many wealthy and powerful figures command the devotion of their entire families. Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century but oversaw dysfunction and acrimony in his family. Yet this demonstration of filial piety was not enough to blunt Trump's sometimes misguided attacks nor his actions following the November 2020 loss of the presidency.
It is odd to see George W Bush at various state functions (often funerals) sitting there sharing candies with Michelle Obama. In 2007 Obama stated ""This president may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free the world has remained open," And In 2010, Obama said. "And it's time to fill that role once more." In 2010 Obama stated, "Obama cranked up his indictment of the G.O.P. in Ohio this week, criticizing "the 'just say no' crowd" and the Republicans' "selective memory" of the economy in January 2009." Yet, that has not deterred his wife and Bush from becoming friends. Did she believe that Bush was ineffectual both abroad and at home? Or was that just her husband's rhetoric?
And does Bernie Sanders believe in his socialist belief system? He owns three properties and provides 2% of his earnings to charity annually. Perhaps this square with socialism because that system is redistributive and the coercion of the state, not a personal choice. But Sander's socialism is founded on helping the poor, the oppressed, the victims, yet he does not personally adhere to that principle in his private life. Is the difference between a true believer the difference between sacrifice and hypocrisy?
Awful things can be done in the name of truly believing. Did Hitler honestly believe that the jews represented a threat to the success of the German people? Did Mao honestly believe that his agricultural reforms would benefit the Chinese people instead of resulting in the deaths of 40 million? I think we can say with a degree of certainty that Stalin's murder of millions of Cossacks had nothing to do with beliefs and everything to do with his desire to hold power over the Soviet state. None of these figures were murdered, and the last two died in their beds.
Is that the difference, putting oneself in mortal danger as did Gregg? I would not think it has to go that far, but there is a direct correlation between giving something up of the high value and the beliefs upon which those sacrifices are made. Vince Lombardi, the hall of fame coach for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” In his beliefs, Gregg is about a close to perfection as one can be. For the rest, we should consider this chase, rejecting hypocrisy, and in so doing, maybe become excellent