THE NEWS OF PAT TILLMAN'S DEATH CAME OVER the internet on a Friday morning and caused a flutter in my heart: Oh, no! News of Mike Kelly's fatal accident in Iraq last year jolted my system in the same way. I felt I had come to know these people, through reading what they wrote in Kelly's case, or what was written about them in Tillman's.
In the past weeks, through retrospectives, testimonials, and countless tributes, many thousands beyond the reach of ESPN came to know of a star athlete's ultimate sacrifice. Much has been made of what he gave up, particularly that $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Ultimately, of course, he gave up his life, as almost 700 other Americans have in the ongoing War on Terror. Weighed against a man's life, a $3.6 million contract is roughly equivalent to a $20,000 per year job with the county highway department.
By all reports, Tillman had a lot to offer his country: no "dumb jock" he, but a bright mind and generous heart in a powerful body. Mind and heart are vital to success as an Army Ranger, a job requiring as much mental flexibility as physical. But his body held all those nonmaterial strengths together and took them where they needed to go. And it was his body that took the fatal hit.
In ancient times Homer, Virgil, and even the inspired chronicles of Israel celebrated the deeds of mighty men of valor, who possessed the stamina to fight from sunup to sundown and slay their ten thousands. These days, we like to think we have outgrown our dependence on physical strength; our mighty men are geniuses of marketing or stars of the NBA or celebrities who play tough guys on TV. The leveling of the playing field that gives brain a better opportunity for success than brawn is one of the triumphs of modern technology.
But hardly a complete triumph. On Sept. 11, 2001, a pack of barbarians turned our technology against us in an act of destruction that rivals the sack of Rome for sheer viciousness. Intellectual fashion would like to deny it, or at least "nuance" the act into something understandable. But there's nothing to understand, except that the line between civilization and barbarism is as thin now as it ever was. The way to hold the line against brute force is by brute force. As long as men have beating hearts and inflammable passions, this will not change.
That's why there will always be a place for mighty men, such as the three and the thirty chronicled in David's reign, "who gave him strong support in his kingdom ... to make him king, according to the word of the Lord of Israel" (1 Chronicles 11:10). Far greater than the three and thirty is the Lord Himself, strong in battle, who leads His people with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm. In the Lord's hand, the strength of a man is only a tool, as anyone who delights in his own power is certain to learn: "Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?" (Isaiah 10:15). Stout warriors who exalt themselves against the Lord will be brought down, for "His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love" (Psalm 147:10).
Everyone realizes this, on some level. When a strong man dies, it's not his body we praise but his spirit. The weekend after Tillman's death, the internet hummed with paeans to his sacrifice and confident assertions that he's earned a place in heaven. That's going too far, of course-without an assessment of his relationship to Jesus when he died, we can't say where Pat Tillman is now. There is ordinate praise, and inordinate praise, and Christians must avoid the latter. It's not for us to sing heroes to heaven or enroll them in the ranks of the redeemed. Our faith is not of the Nordic kind, where equally matched forces of good and evil battle hand-to-hand and departed heroes are whisked away to some Valhalla in the sky. A hero's death can inspire, but it can't atone, even for himself.
And yet. Pat Tillman is worthy of fitting praise, and his death gives us an opportunity to thank the thousands of Marines, soldiers, and sailors who hold the line even now. We can, with grateful hearts, give earthly honor to those who lost their lives in defense of earthly peace. May God's peace follow them.