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On Heroes, Hero Worship and Veneration of Saints

In Kenya, where I live and work, the nation recently celebrated “Mashujaa Day” or Heroes Day. The festivities take place every year on the 20th of October, but are carried forward to the next day if the actual date falls on a Sunday. The purpose is to remember and honour individuals or groups who have contributed in some exceptional way to the life of the nation.

Theoretically (and ideally), the honour should involve people from a wide range of society: politics, sports, the arts, medicine, and even religion. But, in actual fact – and as the day’s designation strongly suggests – the memory is often limited to politics. Although this year achievements in sports in the person of Eliud Kipchoge as the fastest marathon runner in the world featured during the day’s festivities as well, the focus remains on politics. This has been the case since the day’s institution in 2010 (changed from what was known as Kenyatta Day).

The personalities involved in Kenya’s freedom struggle draw the most attention of the events. For a country that witnessed numerous citizens sacrificing their lives in the struggle for independence, this is totally understandable and, of course, commendable. Heroes Day is a way of remembering history and strengthening the unity of the nation. Without recalling such symbols of dedication, the history of the nation stands the risk of losing its specific significance. Yet, there are two hidden pitfalls that must be exposed and avoided if the day is to retain its human and ethical character and meaning. They consist in (a) the glorification of violence, and (b) the temptation toward extreme nationalism, or what may be called “centripetalism.”

There are situations in international political relations when recourse to violence is inescapable and, perhaps, ethical. (Note the long-running discussion on the “just war” in Catholic social thought). Kenya’s independence struggles – as well as those of several other African nations – can conceivably hold a claim to such line of argument. The risk in celebrating this history unreflectively, however, is the tendency in the popular mind to “worship” our heroes, in the sense of easily and uncritically legitimizing violence as an acceptable way of settling political differences. If our heroes did it and succeeded, why not us? Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning may gradually invade not only international, but also domestic and inter-ethnic affairs.

Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence of this immoral reality in many parts of the word today. Based on the ideology of indiscriminate sacralising whatever is “ours” against the different “other,” there is the growing phenomenon of extreme nationalism and intolerance of dissimilarity in places like Europe and the USA. Especially faced with the experience of migration, for example, influential individuals and political parties often speak openly in defence of “purity” of their nations that is “threatened” by migrants from different places and cultures. As can be easily noticed, this is a rhetoric no different from that which dominated Nazi Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, leading to tragic consequences, namely, the holocaust. The correct description of such centripetal attitudes would be “national idolatry,” a sin fundamentally contradicting the Christian faith and ethics. The Christian faith is mandated to fight against such stances at all costs.

In a secular manner, the national heroes as celebrated on Heroes Day may legitimately be compared to the Christian reverence or veneration of saints in the Catholic Church (dulia) because both are deserve honour and respect for what they were and did for the life of the respective communities. Heroes as well as saints are seen as exemplars of self-giving love for their people. But two fundamental differences between them must be kept in mind.

Secular heroes often point to the past, to a time in when justice and dignity were denied and had to be struggled for. When they are venerated as exemplars for future generations (as in the case of athletes like Kipchoge), the glory is theirs, because they “deserve” it. Furthermore, the credit is  one-dimensional and rarely involves the holistic character of the person or movement. In the popular imagination, once again, honour hardly transcends the specific individual or collective personalities in question. As a consequence, if monuments are erected in their name – as is oftentimes the case – it is to represent their own valour and greatness.

Not so with the belief guiding the cult of the saints. Here is where a subtle but significant difference between the two lies. The honour and glory accorded to a saint (in the act of dulia) is, in the final analysis, not for her or his own sake. The purpose and goal of the respect is the divine glory seen in building up the life of the individual and the Christian community thus giving honour. In other words and strictly speaking, the praise is ultimately God’s. We may explain the difference by noting that whereas respect given to secular heroes concentrates on achievements focussed on an accomplished past, veneration of the saints emphasizes the future. It requires as an obligatory aspect the transformation of the admirer. Hero worship is markedly event-oriented; authentic veneration of saints is life- and future-oriented.

Accordingly, Heroes Day may happen once a year, calling for remembrance of the determination of courageous people for a goal achieved. It is a celebration of an accomplishment requiring little further practical input. Veneration of saints, on the contrary, does not suggest a fait-accompli; rather it is a call, a vocation, to do better in the present and future, inspired by the life and actions of the saints. It involves a celebration of a different nature – one of promise, not of possession. The Reign of God which the veneration of saints always points to is always something to be achieved.