One of the greatest legends of Roman civilization concerns a general named Marcus Regulus. This man, having gone to war against a barbaric enemy, Carthage, and having been captured with little to no hope of escape, was given the prospect of liberty. His captors offered him a bargain few men could refuse -- a chance to return to the safety and comfort of a thankful Rome -- in exchange for a simple favor: the negotiation of an exchange of prisoners. If successful, Carthage offered him return to Rome; if met with failure, under oath before his gods, Regulus swore to return to his captors.
Regulus was released and made his way back to a city destined for triumph, receiving a (largely) successful general's welcome. But perhaps unexpectedly to his countrymen, his fortune changed. Standing before the senate, and describing the terms of the prisoner exchange, he urged his fellow citizens to refuse the trade, as the bargain would have favored the enemy. Then, against the pleas of an adoring Roman populace, he stayed their calls with his hand, walked solemnly from the gates, and into the hands of an infuriated Carthage. Regulus, as St. Augustine notes, suffered an inhumane death for his trustworthiness and patriotism.
This story, though the passing of countless generations has obscured it from the common knowledge, paints an incredibly vivid portrait of heroism. For the concept of heroism, though the triumphs vary wildly, and though men oftentimes mistakenly believe that heroism results from battles between men (or between man and creation), always results from the same battle between virtue and body, the triumph of conscience over urge. The body pulls one direction, seeking its maximum dominance and comfort, and the soul, bearing the Creator's mark in the form of an oftentimes inexpressible, yet ever-present Law, pulls another. The difference between heroes and villains, in every case, is marked not by laurels and adoration, but by the bodily and psychological anguish braved by virtue's champions, and the subsequent praises of heaven. The insignia of cowardice, contrastingly, is recognizable by the body's triumph over the conscience, the fear of material suffering surpassing the adoration of virtue, or goodness exchanged for the temporary dispensations of pleasure and repose.
Men, having been given the gift of eyesight, but oftentimes blind to the realities of the soul, are quick to pronounce heroism not for that victory of charitable will over selfish urge, but frequently for the results. One man dies to self to save his platoon, another dies to self to save one fellow marine; the first receives highest honors from his president, the second; a family's limited thanks. But though much heroism goes unnoticed, oftentimes enshrouded in the mundane – the man who keeps his pledge to his own hurt – heroism forms the basis of civilization, the victory of righteousness over evil. For if righteousness were easy, all men would be righteous. But the existence of every regulation bears testament to the high road's difficulty, a path beset with danger and discomfort, while the lower path beckons every man, woman, and child with well-paved roads and vistas entirely charming. To make ignoble men behave honorably, we require law to make the easy road painful.
This is why throughout the ages, men have looked to the willfully virtuous, those known as heroes, in adoration. Whenever one arrives, he lands not on an earth orderly and well-kept, but upon one brimming with strife, his character forged not by the cool breeze of serenity, but by tempests of fire. War oftentimes supplies the most dramatic examples of such triumph, and oftentimes the most easily recognizable (as the stakes most often concern life itself), but it always supplies the vast minority. For this reason, heroism must be sought not simply in armed conflict, but in peacetime; it must be reinforced not by rallies and speeches, but by something which penetrates to every portion of life, a calling which never dies. It must reward men not with material satisfaction or even the praise of countrymen – for shouts of adoration fade, or voices might not be raised at all – but with spiritual joy from an eternal source, a glory immutable, unaffected by movements, factions, or the changing tides of a fickle public opinion. If the noble Matthew Henry spoke truth, then, that "Interest is the great governess of the world; which, when men are once convinced of, they will be swayed by more than anything else," then civilization requires men to be persuaded that their interest lies beyond the physical, and if they are to escape the physical, then even beyond the emotional. The greatest bulwark of heroism, then, is not patriotism, but religion.
Herein lays great danger. For though religion may inspire a thousand Reguluses to do honorably for a thousand gods, what has religion left, but a series of conquerors? False prophets come not for their followers, but for their own self-adoration; with poor and humble beginnings, they lead the poor and gullible to war, while false prophets sit in luxury. But there exists one religion in the world, contrary the others, in which the very concept of heroism is enshrined. The Christian religion's founder being content with His innate majesty and eternal supremacy, did not call the weak and poor to serve Him, but came to serve the poor and weak. He came not to siphon, but to distribute; His arrival marked the world's first entire unification between virtuous will and body, the victory of Law over urge, a practical reversal of human history within but a single lifespan. And if one looks even to His apostles, they braved the world itself to be beaten, scorned, and imprisoned, all except one suffering martyrdom for a glory laid up in heaven, the empty threats of a dying earth being unheeded, and the body cast aside when immortality lay within reach.
Was there ever a time darker than before His arrival? Were there ever more saved from so miserable and perilous a state? Was there ever more total a victory over man's selfish nature? Though many an example can be made of those so-called Christians who followed Him, who sat on the backs of others to fuel their own pomp and luxury, what are we to make of Jesus? If Jesus Christ, the model of Christianity and true religion, died to Himself so He could live to eternal glory – the quintessential manifestation of heroism – then Christianity is truly the religion of heroes.
Regulus died a martyr, and received no glory from his false gods. How can we do less, for so great a reward? We live not for his gods, but for ours; we die not for false gods, but for one who is true; not for Jupiter, invented by Romans or Greeks, but Yahweh, who spoke the human race into existence. Let us cling to the God of virtuous triumph, the I AM, and receive a reward which surpasses every earthly delight, transcends every shout of national praise, and outshines every medallion: let us look to the religion of our forefathers, and like those who gave their lives before us, live and die for the God-man Jesus Christ. For if the concept of heroism calls every man, woman, and child to sentiments of adoration, then let us adore not simply an idea, a dream fulfilled only partially amongst men, but let us adore its very expression. And then, under leadership of heroism enshrined, let us fulfill the Pauline call, to walk in the path prepared for us by God Himself, and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth – a holy nation of Christian heroes.