I was driving today. There was too much traffic going at too slow a pace, leaving me ample opportunity for my mind to wander in attempts at keeping myself sane, when I saw a car in front of me with a giant Che Guevera sticker taking up its rear window. Aside from wondering how the hell they were able to see out of the rearview, it struck me that the image bore a striking resemblance to that of Jesus. Here, Che had been canonized, made into a stagnant symbol… as had a man named Jesus who had possibly lived two thousand years ago and a thousand others before and since. And as the hot sun beat down through my windshield and I watched the stop lights turning red then green then red while my car moved a total of one car length, a parade of deified figures moved through my mind. Men (and a few women) raised to gods and saints, to be followed and revered, by people in need of leaders to follow. By people who needed someone to save them.
And as their iconic faces flashed through my mind’s eye, airbrushed free of their wrinkles, human foibles and more complex ideals, something occurred to me. When you take a man who lived a life of great passion, ideas or intelligence and boil his likeness down to a simplified idol slapped on a car window or edit out choice quotes, taken out of context, to make posters for display on dorm rooms walls, then you have made them into something distant, something outside of yourself to worship and ask for assistance from… in essence, something to pray to. The entity and image become separate and more important than the tenets and lessons that these leaders worked for, sacrificed for and sometimes gave their lives for. Doing this takes responsibility off of our shoulders. Many people seem to think this presentation is enough, this material display of solidarity or memorized factoids about their idols, gods and heroes. But like Christians who wear crosses or attend sporadic church services on a Sunday and think that makes them practicing followers of Jesus, they seem to be missing a point.
Each of the prophets, teachers or leaders that came to my mind all seemed to have one similar vein of counsel no matter what their message or ideology. And that message was personal choice and responsibility, that the buck starts and ends with each of us, that as individuals we have the power to act within our lives to make this world a better place for ourselves and those around us. That it is our responsibility, if we believe as they did, to pick up and wear the mantle that they espoused as best we can, to carry the ideas forward through our actions and daily living, to further in our own quest toward the deepest beliefs we ourselves hold dear. There is disingenuousness to quoting Dr. King while violently protesting, or to tailgating and glaring at other drivers while sporting a Buddhist bumper sticker on your daily ride home from work.
It is my belief that these orators, brave heroes and thoughtful seekers would prefer a little less elevation and advertising hype for themselves and quite a bit more deliberate living on each of our parts. And not just on Sundays…..