Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Childhood Heroes?

Since today is my 46th birthday, I am returning to blogging by reposting this earlier post on childhood heroes (and heroines), originally published on 22 Sept. ’07.  I will add some additional childhood heroes at the end–and invite others, again, to list and explain their own role models.

Who Were Your Childhood Heroes?

I’ve been thinking about this question much lately.  Early role models (heroes) shape us more than I think we realize–no matter how we change later.  Parents (or their absence) are, of course, major shaping influences for good or ill (or both). But, other than parents, what other heroes have shaped us?  Some kids in strong faith-filled families are primarily shaped by biblical figures (Jewish and Christian)–or Qu’ranic ones in the case of Muslims.  But not only was my family-relationship to church life intermittant, I never saw the biblical figures as heroic.  The way I read Scripture, GOD is the only “hero” and the human protagonists (Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, the prophets, the apostles, etc.) are usually portrayed as deeply flawed, very human figures. The emphasis is that God can use anyone in divine service, because God has already used people with incredible shortcomings in major ways–a message I find reassuring. 

Many kids have sports figures or celebrities as childhood heroes.  I never did, although I played sports a little.  I had 3 major childhood heroes:

Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man to step foot on the moon.  I was 7 when Apollo 11 landed and since we lived only a few miles from Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, as it was then called in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination), we used to watch the Saturn V rockets take off from our backyard.  My imagination was captured by the exploration of space–the final frontier as we learned to say from Star Trek episodes. I also liked stories of exploration: Leif Erikson, Captain Cook, Admiral Perry’s artic race, Thor Heyerdahl’s Ton Kiki expedition. I became convinced that, even though horrible wars and exploitation had often followed human exploration, that humans were explorers and that humanity needed to keep seeking the next horizon, in science, etc. in order rise above itself.  Exploration had been the alternative to wars, too: When the Vikings became explorers they gave up raiding the coasts of Europe.  Despite the expense (much less than wars), I believe something in our society died when we stopped human space explloration.  Early on, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Jacques Cousteau, was my hero for much longer than Neil Armstrong.  Again, he was an explorer and, living in Florida, I well knew the lure of the oceans.  But Cousteau also made me an environmentalist.  As a teen, I became a licensed scuba diver and dreamed of becoming an oceanographer or marine biologist.  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t cut the chemistry.) I joined the Cousteau Society at 09 and am still a member, doing my part to save the planet, especially the oceans.

My final childhood hero was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This one stuck. In fact, as an adult I came to know far more about King (a very human person with faults–from chain smoking off camera to marital infidelities): his theological and philosophical influences, his theory of nonviolent direct action.  Dr. King’s life and work became part of my doctoral dissertation.  I have not uncritically adopted his views as my own, but they have formed one major influence.  But as a kid, I only knew the image–the eloquent speech moving folks to struggle for justice and peace; the personal courage and willingness to suffer.  In my semi-secular childhood home, I didn’t immediately appreciate King’s faith–that took introduction to people of faith, especially by African-American friends.  And I didn’t become a pacifist until after joining the U.S. Army at 17–but it is quite possible that Dr. King had sown an early seed even here.


Fannie Lou Hamer was the only female leader of the Civil Rights Movement whom I knew of as a child. I remember watching her testimony before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Committee in ’64 (not first hand since I was only 2, but replayed in a documentary when she died in ’77) about all that she went through to register to vote. This sharecropper without an education had such faith in God, democracy, nonviolence, and love (even for the whites who beat her) that it moved me to tears–and still does.  My belief that ordinary people can change the world is rooted in the work of people like Mrs. Hamer.

Martin Luther  was a hero in my teens (after my new birth and serious attention to faith), not so much because of his theology (which I would explore more deeply in college and seminary and come to both appreciate/agree with much and criticize/disagree in other places), but because of his willingness to suffer and die for his beliefs. I don’t know whether Luther actually said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” at the Diet of Worms, but that unwillingness to recant (unless persuaded by Scripture and sound reason) captivated my teen-aged self as a new Christian.  It was shaken when I found out how Luther encouraged persecution of Jews and the violent repression of peasants. (I have never been a Lutheran and moved to an Anabaptist faith.)

In my late teens, becoming serious about my faith, but not yet realizing a “call to ministry,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of my heroes. He still is. Bonhoeffer’s theology has greatly influenced mine–though I criticize his contextual ethics for its Barthian rejection of principles.  My pacifism differs from his (he called himself a pacifist) in that I could not participate in a plan to assassinate Hitler–even in his limited role. And, although he started the Church re-thinking its relation to Judaism, I find his theology still too supercessionist.  But I constantly reread Bonhoeffer and constantly learn more from him.  Again, as a teen, my view was less developed. I was blown away by The Cost of Discipleship (which I now realize suffered from a terrible translation from German to English) and my Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom by the Nazis, but didn’t have the tools to evaluate his overall views.

 So, who were your childhood heroes? Did they make any lasting impression or influence even if they later took a different place in your worldview or values?  Did you have heroes whom you later had to reject or reevaluate? Were your major heroes fictional or historical or contemporary? 

I’m curious–and this discussion will keep me from direct political commentary long enough to refocus again–I can get too caught up as a political junkie! 🙂

April 18, 2008 - Posted by | heroes


  1. Michael,

    You know this is a good question and I don’t know that I have a good answer.

    I grew up in the 1960s and early 70s. I was 10 when King was assasinated, but I don’t remember much about either he or Bobby Kennedy. I do remember the astronauts and was amazed by their endeavors — but I’m not sure I’d say he was a hero.

    Funny thing — on the day after Barry Bonds is given his walking papers, the person who comes to mind is his father — Bobby Bonds.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 22, 2007

  2. Bob, I’m just a few of years younger–I was 6 when MLK, Jr. was assassinated. But my parents had been bit players in the Civil Rights movement, so I had a “mediated memory” of King.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 22, 2007

  3. Interesting question. When I was a child, I wasn’t much interested in the weighty issues of the day. I was a child in the 50s. Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. All I cared about was playing outside with my friends, making mud pies, and riding my bicycle everywhere. I loved Casper the Friendly Ghost. But if I had to pick a hero, it would be Lassie, hands down.

    Comment by Marty | September 22, 2007

  4. Lassie, Marty? I would have figured you for an Amelia Earhart fan or some other strong, real woman? A fictional dog? New insights, abound. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 23, 2007

  5. Michael,

    I think the first heroes who changed my life and gave me direction were men who changed our view of the Universe in the early 20th century, that is the Physicists uncovering Quantum Mechanics. Notably, Bohr, Pauli, Dirac, Schroedinger, Fermi and so on.

    Comment by Mark Olson | September 24, 2007

  6. […] Childhood heroes and who did you look to at Levellers. […]

    Pingback by Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights | September 24, 2007

  7. […] mumiam wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptBut not only was my family-relationship to church life intermittant, I never saw the biblical figures as heroic. The way I read Scripture, GOD is the only “hero” and the human protagonists (Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, the prophets, … […]

    Pingback by Relationship » Childhood Heroes? | September 25, 2007

  8. Amelia who?

    Just kidding.

    I can guarantee you that at 8 years old I didn’t know who she was, nor did I care. I did know who Elvis was, however.

    Comment by Marty | September 25, 2007

  9. Michael,

    Happy Birthday… you need to read the new translation of Discipleship in the DBW series. Good translation and well footnoted and indexed. In addition, it is available in a paperback edition for under $20.


    P.S. I was sort of a Bobby Kennedy, Bob Gibson, and, a little later, Bob Dylan admirer. So I sorta just “bobbed” along through those years.

    Comment by T Leuze | April 18, 2008

  10. I heard Neil Armstrong lives here in Cincinnati. I was on jury duty recently, and the leader of that told us about when Neil Armstrong was a juror.

    Comment by James Pate | April 18, 2008

  11. Happy Birthday Michael!

    Comment by Marty | April 18, 2008

  12. My heroes? The usual characters: Speed Racer, Ultraman.

    Moving away from TV characters into something more meaningful, perhaps Robin Hood (still fictional, but he represented something), Mark Twain, later in my teens, CS Lewis, John Bunyan, Christian authors mostly. Then Christian singers (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Steve Camp, Captain Randy Stonehill)…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 24, 2008

  13. Speed Racer, Dan?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 24, 2008

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