Death of a Hero

By Mark A. Kellner

Many in the United States and even abroad this week will focus on the life and legacy of the late Senator John S. McCain, who succumbed to an aggressive brain tumor at the age of 81.


Prisoner of War

McCain, a third-generation U.S. Navy officer, was flying over Hanoi in what was then North Vietnam in 1967 when his aircraft was shot down. He ejected before the plane crashed, but suffered severe injuries in the process; his wounds were exacerbated by the beatings he received on the ground and at the hands of his captors. For the rest of his life, he could not raise his hands over his head; as The New York Times reported, “Someone had to comb his hair.”

Capturing any American military personnel was a propaganda coup for the insurgents, but McCain’s father, an admiral, was still on active duty as commander of American forces in the Pacific. That earned the younger McCain some medical attention from the North Vietnamese, but it also qualified him for additional torture and deprivation in prison. He refused to accept an early release—prisoners of war were supposed to be released in the order of their capture, and McCain didn’t want to jump the line—but he did “break” once under pressure and read a “confession” statement he knew was false.

He was released in 1973 after more than five years of captivity, broken in body but not in spirit. Knowing his military prospects were limited, he continued to serve in the Navy—but his injuries meant he could not rise to the rank of admiral, a position held by his father and grandfather. Thus, he retired in 1980 and moved to Arizona, where his father-in-law’s business employed him as a public relations representative.


McCain's Political Career

McCain won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and then to the Senate in 1985, where he would end up spending 36 years as one of the country’s top lawmakers. He ran for president in 2008 but lost to Barack Obama. Former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush are expected to speak at McCain’s funeral service in Washington. Before that funeral service, McCain’s life will be honored with a “cross-country procession,” as his remains are carried to the nation’s capital.

One word often used in relation to McCain is that he was a hero, not just for enduring captivity as a prisoner of war, but also for refusing to be worn down by the experience. His nearly four decades in the Congress of the United States often found him taking principled stands on issues. Whether or not one agreed with his positions, John McCain’s courage, especially in the face of his final challenge, cancer, was the mark of a hero.

It’s easy to understand why, for many people, the passing of such a figure is an incredibly notable occasion. One thing missing in many segments of society today are genuine heroes—people who put others ahead of themselves.


Heroic Figures in Scripture

Such heroes were also sought after in the days recorded in the Bible. Israel’s journey was one of captivity and redemption—from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land of Canaan, to Babylonian exile and eventual return. During this period, heroic figures such as Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Gideon, Deborah, Nehemiah, Elijah, and David emerged. Each had their flaws and foibles, but each served their people—and the God of Israel—faithfully.

One Bible-era heroine was a woman named Rahab. She, too, was flawed in many ways, but she recognized the God of Israel, protected the spies Joshua sent to scout out Jericho, and in so doing, earned a place in history—and in the lineage of Jesus Christ! (Read more about Rahab here.)

Click here
to listen to Pastor Doug discuss the subject of heroes and where to find them in this archived program from the Bible Answers Live radio series. You may be surprised that not all heroes are easily identified by the world—but God knows who they are!

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