“Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled. John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order.”
This is how President George W. Bush remembered John McCain on Saturday after the senator died at the age of eighty-one. True to form, the senator asked Mr. Bush and President Obama—each of whom ran against him in presidential campaigns—to deliver eulogies at his funeral.
Today America is remembering one of our nation’s greatest heroes. This morning’s Wall Street Journal calls him a “principled leader.” CNN describes him as a “War Hero. Statesman. Maverick,” calling him “one of the leading voices in American politics.”
Others have fought for our nation and even been prisoners of war. Others have served in the United States Senate and even been nominated for president of the United States.
John McCain is being remembered today especially because of this singular trait: his sacrificial courage.
Why McCain couldn’t raise his arms
In 1973, McCain wrote about his experience as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Reading his account over the weekend was a moving experience for me.
On October 26, 1967, McCain’s Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over Hanoi. His right leg was broken, his left arm was fractured, and his right arm was broken in three places.
Vietnamese doctors eventually tried to put a cast on his right arm (without Novocain) but could not set the bones and put him in a chest cast. He spent two years in solitary confinement, communicating with fellow prisoners by tapping codes through the prison walls. He suffered from dysentery for a year and a half.
Since his father was commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific, camp officials offered at one point to release him. McCain refused, insisting that those who had been imprisoned before him be set free first.
He was then subjected to extreme torture. His left arm was broken again, and his ribs were cracked. He was made to stand on a stool for days. He was released in 1973 but was left with permanent injuries as a result of his mistreatment. For instance, when he gestured during political speeches, he never raised his arms above his shoulders because he couldn’t.
Two reasons sacrificial courage is so rare
Sacrificial courage is especially remarkable because it is so rare. And it is so rare because it is contrary to human nature and to our secular culture.
The first temptation is the essence of all temptation: “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Friedrich Nietzsche called it “the will to power,” the basic human drive to be more, have more, and do more.
We see it in the first sin, when the first man and woman took the forbidden fruit in their quest for pleasure and power (v. 6). We see it in the second recorded sin, when Cain murdered Abel because his brother’s offering was more esteemed than his own (Genesis 4:1–8).
We see it in the horrific shooting in Florida yesterday, when a video gamer lost in the tournament and opened fire on other competitors. He killed two people and injured eleven others before turning the gun on himself.
For John McCain to put other prisoners ahead of himself in Vietnam was counter to the egotism that drives our fallen nature today.
Such courage is also counter to our secular culture. We recognize self-sacrifice, but we reward self-promotion. Sen. McCain was in the news occasionally, but the Kardashians make headlines daily.
Two reasons sacrificial courage is so essential
While sacrificial courage is contrary to human nature and secular culture, it is essential to true Christian discipleship. Jesus was clear: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We are called to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12:2), to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
Why? Consider two facts, one negative and one positive.
One: Our culture opposes our Lord. God’s word warns us: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). John instructed us, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
If we will stand for Jesus, we must by definition stand against all who stand against him. Sacrificial courage is then essential to the life of faith.
Two: Our Father can do more with our lives than we can. When we surrender our ambitions and plans to Jesus, he is able to lead us into his “perfect” will (Romans 12:2). And we will testify with Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
“I don’t mind a good fight”
In accepting the Republican nomination for president on September 4, 2008, John McCain stated: “I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.”
What will you fight for today?