Laurie and Jack Beaton were in Las Vegas celebrating their 23rd anniversary when shots rang out. They realized quickly that what they thought were fireworks were in fact a hail of bullets.
Laurie said in an interview: "He told me, 'Get down, get down, get down!'" Jack Beaton put his own body on top of hers for protection. "He told me, 'I love you, Laurie,' and his arms were around me and his body just went heavy on me."
Then there's the story of 58-year-old Cori Langdon, a Las Vegas cab driver who used her taxi to rescue folks from harm's way — and recorded it all on video. She says she's no hero: "There were so many other people who put themselves in harm's way, I just stumbled upon it."
Acts of heroism abound amid the atrocity. Shane Beus, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran "stole" a pickup to ferry people to the hospital. Off-duty police officer Jonathan Smith is said to have saved the lives of 30 concert-goers. When asked about his actions, he replied: "Everyone's been using that word 'hero.' I've been saying it since the whole time I got home — I'm not a hero, I'm far from a hero. I think I just did what anybody would do."
Would anybody do what these people did? That's really the question, and it has stumped humans for centuries. It stumped Andrew Carnegie, who created the Carnegie Hero Fund to study what makes a hero — and to reward them. The idea of heroism stumped Charles Darwin, too.
Darwin said of heroes: "He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature." In other words, self-sacrifice flies in the face of natural selection. Heroism may be noble, but it isn't human nature.
Or is it? If heroic action is unnatural, then why are there so many stories of heroism? And what makes a hero? Strength? Boldness? Bravery or courage? Not according to the Greeks who gave us the word. The word hero means "protector." Heroes care. The great heroes of Greek mythology weren't perfect or all-powerful. What brought out greatness in them was often their compassion.
"Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into." So says Christopher McDougal, author of the book Natural Born Heroes.
The Greeks didn't love the Titans. They loved Hercules and Odysseus and Atalanta and Perseus. These heroes had a human side.
One of the fundamental elements of the Christian faith — and what separates it from all the other world religions — is this "heroic" component. We call it the incarnation. The Apostle Paul writes: "Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8)."
It's all right there: empathy, compassion, protection.
As humans rebelled against their Creator, our mantra became, "Every man for himself." Adam and Eve turned on each other. Their sons turned on each other. Every son and daughter of Adam has done the same thing since. Serving ourselves put empathy and compassion for others in a box, packed away in the attic.
When Jesus moved in, He brought that box with him. With the incarnation, Jesus exemplified the heroic nature of the image of God. Jesus, filled with compassion, took action on our behalf. In empathy, the Creator became like His Creation.
So when Paul says Jesus "took on the likeness of man," He showed us what it truly means to be human: caring for others even to the point of self-sacrifice. Jesus reminded us himself: "No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13)."
Heroic, in the truest sense of the term: protector.
Events like the Las Vegas massacre remind us that the world we live in is dark and often ugly. Evil exists in the hearts of mankind. It lurks out there. But slowly other stories begin to emerge that remind us that all hope is not lost. Each one of us has been created in God's image. True, this image is often distorted, misshapen and hidden. But it is there. Occasionally, in people like Jack Beaton and Jonathan Smith, we get glimpses.
Laying down one's life for someone; putting ourselves in harm's way out of compassion; listening to each other; serving; sacrificial love; helping others; These shouldn't be the human anomaly. This is the way we've been created to live ... it is His image in us.
When we embrace Jesus, the True Human, we can truly live "heroic," altruistic lives. It is not only an ideal to be desired, it is a command to be followed: "Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus..."
James A. Mann, Ph.D., is a Denton native and the lead pastor of New Life Church of Denton. He is an assistant professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity located in Lynchburg, Virginia.