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Learning From History's Great Men and Women (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 05/17/2016

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New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas discusses some of history's heroic men and women whose faith helped them overcome tremendous adversity to make a positive and significant impact on the world. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript



Mr. Eric Metaxas: I am convinced that when you encounter greatness, you want to be great. It just happens. We're made by God for that when we're inspired, when you see somebody who's beautiful and noble and you just want that.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Well, reflecting on the importance of having heroes and learning from some of the great men and women throughout history. That's Eric Metaxas and he joins us today on "Focus on the Family." Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and welcome to our program.

Jim Daly: John, this program was one of our most popular programs of 2016 and I think it's because our culture needs to be taught about heroes--men and women that have answered the call of God upon their lives to overcome amazing obstacles with unwavering faith. And we need to highlight those folks. Today you'll be encouraged that one person can make a difference. I know at times it can feel overwhelming, but history is replete with examples of just that. Regardless of your upbringing, you could make choices today to follow God's call on your life and also to encourage your sons and daughters to become men and women of character.

John: And along those lines, near the end of our program today, we have a special conversation with a modern-day hero.

Jim: I'm excited to share an interview that I had with Jim Downing. He's a retired Navy officer and is one of the founding fathers of the Navigators' Ministry, which is headquartered here in Colorado Springs. He is believed to be the oldest living survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. He's currently 103-years-old and I know you're gonna be blessed by what he has to share with us.

John: And we'll hear that conversation with Jim Downing at the end of our program. Now Eric Metaxas has addressed this subject of heroes. He's a radio host. He's the author of numerous books, including 7 Men and the Secrets of Their Greatness.

Jim: And we'll come back next time and talk about 7 Women and Their Greatness so everybody's covered.

John: Indeed, all right, let's go ahead and hear that conversation with Eric Metaxas on today's "Focus on the Family."


Jim: Eric, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."

Eric: It's a thrill to be back. Thanks for having me.

Jim: Hey, when you look at it, why do we need heroes?

Eric: Because we ain't got none. (Laughter) We are living in—

Jim: John Wayne.

Eric: --we're living in a culture in the last 40 or so years where the heroic has been denigrated. Human beings have always needed heroes. There's nothing new. It's how God made usand Jesus dwelt among us, so it's not about, He came down. He handed out some mimeographed sheets; it's like, "Read this carefully; I gotta go." He lived among us, so we're supposed to see how other human beings live. God designed us to be principally affected by the lives of other people, not just, you know, by reading rules and things.

And so, when you see a human being live out a life or when you read about the life of a human being, it has an effect whether you like it or don't. It's just like the people who you hang around with. It has a powerful effect on you and when you read about someone who is genuinely great, whether you like it or not, it will inspire you. It's just one of these strange things.

It's the way the Lord made us and I know that. Since I've been a kid, we've lived in a culture that has denigrated the heroic and that has pretty much stopped holding up people as heroes, especially men. And I said this is causing tremendous difficulty in the culture. It's one of the fundamental problems, I believe, that causes a lot of the other problems we have.

Jim: Well, and the obvious question is, why has that occurred?

Eric: That's not difficult really. It's just, you know, if you look at the intellectual history of the 20th century, basically, after World War I, especially in Europe, people lost faith in the authorities of church and state, because they felt let down.

That didn't really happen so much in America. For us, it didn't really happen until the '60's. But the intellectual roots are there in the '20's and the '30's in Europe and you see it in some lead institutions like Yale. I talk about that in my next book.

But in America, it happened with the '60's, with Watergate, with Vietnam before that and it caused people, not just those things, but it was a general spirit in the air that caused people to say, we want to question authority, right? And you've all seen the bumper stickers and you heard that, "Question authority, question authority."

Well, now guess what? Questioning authority is good if it is to determine whether that authority is legitimate. But if you question the whole idea of authority, if you say that authority's stupid; I don't want any authority, that's what happened basically in the '60's.

So, kids for the first time acted like we know it all. Wisdom doesn't exist. Gray hair means you're out of touch. Something happened. In fact, I should say a number of things happened to wear down these ideas that we had that there are heroes. There are models. "Father Knows Best" is the '50's. You look up to dad.

Somehow the heroic was denigrated and you saw it in the movies, the anti-heroes of the '60's. Suddenly you get Bonnie and Clyde, with you know, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. You get all these anti-heroes and the celebration of anti-heroes which muddies the waters morally.

And you know, on some level, that's all very interesting, but when you're talkin' about average people and you're talkin' about young people especially, they need to understand who is a hero? Can I be a hero? And they used to, you know, point on the wall in schoolrooms. That's George Washington. If you study hard, you can be just like him.

Something ended basically in the '60's and ever since we've been living in a culture that's afraid to hold up the heroic and that really mocks it or ignores it.

Jim: And in your book, 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, we're gonna talk about a couple of the seven. Your book has seven key characters—

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: --and we'll illustrate a couple. But let's start with a common denominators that you find within the character of these seven that you identified.

Eric: Well, agape love, when somebody does something for you that you don't really deserve. They're doing it; it's clear they're doin' it just 'cause they love you. And I mean, this is not a Christian concept. This is a human concept. Since the beginning of time people have known to do something for a higher purpose. Somehow the ancient Greeks knew this. Plutarch wrote, Plutarch's Lives, you know. It wasn't Fox's Book of Martyrs. It wasn't a Christian thing, but what was it about character, about who do something for the greater good?

Now the greater good could be, I do it for God. [The] greater good could be, I do it for my family. The greater good could be, I do it for my country. Even if it's misguided, there's something beautiful in it, because you see that they believe in something and it inspires us to believe in something. It inspires us to say, it's not all about me.

And so, you see through history examples of this and you know, we used to call it "nobility." What a noble character. Look what he did. And so, as I was going through thinking, "Who are some great men from history, the stories we know." I didn't pick anybody out of Scripture, because we don't know enough about them historically speaking, except of course, for Jesus, who was perfect, so He doesn't count.

These are seven, you know, regular human beings who were flawed, who were sinners, but they lived their lives in such a way that, when you tell the story, you say, "They gave up something that they didn't need to give up." And in the most dramatic cases, George Washington and Church Colson, the last person in there, a man who was a friend of both of ours, you see a really dramatic example like he really, really didn't need to do that and he did it anyway. Why did he do it?

Jim: Let's talk about George Washington. You know, everybody points to the Founding Fathers and to him specifically, but what is it that caught you in terms of his character?

Eric: Well, the first thing I want to say is that, you say "everybody." Maybe in some Christian circles, maybe in—

Jim: (Laughing) Okay, right..

Eric: --some homeschooling circles, but in the world in which we live today, people either ignore Washington or denigrate Washington.

Jim: Right.

Eric: And they say, "Oh, he was a slave owner." Well, name me one huge landowner in Virginia from that century who wasn't a slave owner. It gets ridiculous. Look at the rest of his life. You see a man who was almost obsessed with being noble about his reputation in the future, about saying, "What will people think of me."

And you see it all through his life and then, when you really study, as I had not done, because I was not raised, you know, I grew up in the '70's, as you did when this stuff was not taught in public schools to say, "look at the greatness of this man." So, this had all passed me by.

So, when I started studying his life, I was embarrassed. I said, "How could I not know?" It's like this man sacrificed his life so that I could live in America and nobody ever told me this. Nobody ever told me what he did.

And what he did specifically, first of all, the Revolution. I never really understood how utterly amazing and irreplaceable Washington was. People call him "the Father of Our Country," because he genuinely was used by God to single-handedly do things that made America possible.

Jim: What brings you to that conclusion?

Eric: Well, I mean, again, if you just read how he handled things, you think if he hadn't been there, it wouldn't have happened that way. What I focus on actually more to the point is, after he had won the victory in 1783, we're about a month away from, you know, the cessation of hostilities. He's up with his officers in Newburgh, New York.

They hadn't been paid by Congress. Congress had no money. Now remember, this was a loose federation of 13 colonies, now 13 states. They had no money. The federal government was so weak that they really couldn't compel anybody. Congress didn't have money, didn't have the power really to compel people to pay taxes.

So, here you have all these men, these officers around Washington. They said, "You know, excuse me. We sacrificed our lives, some of us literally. They're not here in this room. And we have been away from our families and all these things and Congress has not paid us and Congress is not …" blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is an outrage and you know what? It was.

Jim: Right.

Eric: It was an outrage. It was a huge injustice.

Jim: Sure.

Eric: And so, they said amongst themselves, "Here's what we oughta do. We ought to do a military coup, basically, you know, step back like they did with Uriah the Hittite. We're gonna say, if you do not pay us, we're not gonna fight and you will be attacked by the British and whatever," so that's a threat.

And of course, they're not gonna do that. They're gonna pay us, but if they don't, we will have a military coup. We will take over the government from the do-nothing Congress, the goofballs in Congress, 'cause who won the war? We won the war. They didn't win the war. And we'll make General Washington the first king of the United States of America. He will be a noble monarch. He'll be a great monarch. He's not a tyrant. Everybody knows.

There had been so such thing as a democracy, as a republic before this time, so to say this was the most logical thing possible, because they were not gonna elect some monster. They're gonna elect a man … elect a man. They're gonna, you know—

Jim: Anoint a man literally.

Eric: --they're gonna anoint him, exactly and he would be, and we know this, a great leader and a great king. And when he heard about this rumor, he was enraged and he gave a speech. I talk about it in the book, where he says how offended and sickened he is that these men would be thinking like this.

Now think of this. They're offering him unlimited power. Who in the history of the world has ever turned down unlimited power? He would be the first king of America with no term limits and he would deserve it. Everybody would say he deserves it and he said no.

"I have been fighting for liberty." He actually believed in these crazy ideas. He didn't just, you know, it wasn't just a word. He said, "I've been fighting for liberty. I've been fighting for freedom from tyranny, for freedom from what we had" and on and on and on and on.

"We have been trying to make possible a new form of government for everyone here and for the whole world eventually. And I, not only do I reject this, but I rebuke all of you for even giving this a moment's thought." He shamed them.

And then he said, it's a famous moment where he reaches into his pocket to read something and suddenly pulls out these glasses. He was 48-years-old and suddenly, he needs glasses to read and he says the famous line about, "Not only have I gone gray in your service." Now imagine, this is eight years they've been with him. "Not only have I gone gray in your service, but I've …" something about, "gone blind, as well," or something like that.

And suddenly in the room, everybody realized this man has been with us all these years and they all got choked up. Half of them were, you know, some of them were crying, because they realized that this noble extraordinary, we would say, he was a godly man, an amazing human being, they realized he was leading them and his greatness inspired them to drop the thought of this.

Now imagine if he hadn't done that. Any logical person would've said, "He'd be within his rights, genuinely, genuinely within his rights to say, 'You know what? You're exactly right and we'll do this and we'll figure it out.'"

But he said, "No, I won't do it." Because he said no, it changed the history of the world. If he had said yes, which he really, really could have said, we don't know how many decades or ever would we have seen anything like the ordered liberties of the United States of America. I mean, it's basically unprecedented in the history of the world.

Even today, there's nothing quite like what we have and we've exported these ideas for 200 years. Because of his nobility in saying no and even the idea of when they had to ask him to be president, he said no. And then they finally get him to do it and they beg him to do it a second time and then he says, "That's it. I'm goin' home to the farm."

He set a precedent of limited leadership, of small government and true liberty that you're not gonna have some man who's gonna be in there so long that eventually he becomes like a king figure. The fact that I don't remember this, I mean, that I didn't learn this growing up, I was ashamed. I said, "This is true greatness and he's gotta be the first man in my book.

Jim: You know, one you had in there and I was glad you did was Jackie Robinson, because I went and saw the movie 42. We just talked about George Washington and that era. Of course, we lived in a different era and in fact, as a Dodgers' fan in the late '60's and '70's when I was a kid in L.A. and I remember some of that whole thing and certainly the impact of it. But talk about why you thought Jackie Robinson and his character was worth of 7.

Eric: Well, in the case of Jackie Robins, there [are] two things goin' on. It's the same concept all through the book. All of these seven men gave up something for a greater good and you realize that. And it makes us indebted to them. Where if you really think about it, it brings tears to your eyes what they did.

And Jackie Robinson, you know, did that, which I'll say about in a moment, but before that, why was he picked? This most people don't know. When I was working with Chuck Colson years ago, my old buddy Roberto Rivera revealed to me, he said, "There's a new biography of Jackie Robinson. Did you know," and he tells me this story. I said, "You've gotta be kidding." We put it on "BreakPoint." This is 20 years ago.

Jackie Robinson was chosen to be the first African-American in Major League baseball by Branch Rickey, who was a Bible-thumping Methodist, who believed in the Scriptures and was very serious about his faith and he picked Jackie Robinson, because Jackie Robinson was serious about his faith, because Branch Rickey knew, No. 1, that this segregation of baseball is immoral. It is wrong. I want to end it, No. 1.

No. 2, he knew that, "I need to pick a man who is not only a great athlete, but who will understand and agree with me that for two years, he will have to turn the other cheek when vicious racists attack him and they will and they did. He will have to understand that he needs to be strong enough to turn the other cheek, because if he does not, if he fights back and again, he would be justified in fighting back.

Imagine, everybody would say, "Of course, he'd be justified. Kill 'em." He said, "No, if he fights back, we will set our cause back 10 or 20 years, so I'm gonna need to find a man." So, I discovered, thanks again to Roberto Rivera that when Branch Rickey met Jackie Robinson, after he had vetted him and he knew kind of what a man he was—a church goer, a Christian—he meets him in Brooklyn, opens up a book called The Life of Christ by Giovanni Papini and he turns right to the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount about turning the cheek.

He reads it to Jackie Robinson, just met the man. He reads this to him about turning the other cheek and then he says, "I need a man who is strong enough to not fight back." And I thought, this is American history. This is Civil Rights history, focused on Jesus, on the Sermon on the Mount, the most radical teaching ever, to turn the other cheek. This is crazy stuff. We should be learning this in our schools. It doesn't matter if you're a Christian. This happened and this led to Civil Rights.

And so, I thought, I've gotta tell this story, because how many people know that Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey are both Christians? Branch with his granddaughter, lives in our apartment building in New York. I just said (Laughter) one day I want to interview her on my radio show. But I said, "This is history. This is not Christian history."

And so, this man, Jackie Robinson, now he has to give up his whatever it is, his right to fight back. And you know what they said to him, the N word and much worse, taunting, nasty stuff, you know, spikes in the air when they're sliding, you know. He took it and he took the abuse and he took the abuse and he took the abuse and it aged him. People know that it aged him. He suffered as a result.

That's nobility. He did this so that African-Americans in the decades of the future could have a fair shot, not just in baseball, but in all kinds of other ways. So, you think of that life and you think, I owe that man something. That man did something for me, for my generation.

And most people don't know that, you know, he was on his knees those first two years, asking God for strength to be able to do this. People need to know that's a simple fact. You might not like it. Tough; it happened.

Jim: Right.

Eric: It's history.

Jim: Well, and I so appreciate it. Again, I think it's right to look at historical figures like Jackie Robinson and recognize that great contribution that they made.

Eric, we're wrappin' up. Let me ask you. You have a handful of other characters in the book. But when you look at [it], you can read about a person and it might be fascinating, interesting and you might think this'd be a great book for a young person to get to teach them what character is about—

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: --that nobility that you mentioned. But how do you imbibe it? How do you make that part of—

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: --your desire to live a life like that?

Eric: Well, I mean, I'm not kidding. After I wrote Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, by the way, they are two of the seven men in this book and so, if you want the super short version, 'cause I know people aren't gonna read long books--especially young people aren't gonna read long books--those stories are in there.

But I am convinced that when you encounter greatness, you want to be great. It just happens. It's … we're made by God for that when we're inspired, when you see somebody who's beautiful and noble, you just want that. And I really think that this makes you understand that this is real. This is tangible. You can live a great life. You can do the right thing. This is not just extra credit for a few holy people. This is for everybody. You were made for this.

And I really think that people see that and they want to live meaningful lives, but they need to know it's possible. They need to know heroes exist. We, as I said in the beginning, have not been saying very much about that in the culture and I think that, that is just at the very heart of most of our problems. And so, that's one of the reasons I've written these books.

Jim: Let's come back next time and talk about seven women that you've identified with character attributes that young ladies should have.

Eric: I'm lookin' forward to it.


John: Well, what a great conversation with Eric Metaxas. He has such energy and insights about heroes. And his book, 7 Men is a must-read. In fact, it'd make a great Christmas present for a young man in your life and covers the men we talked about today, as well as Chuck Colson, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope John Paul II. You can get the book and a CD set of our entire best of 2016 collection at

And today make a generous gift of any amount to this ministry and we'll send you a complimentary copy of 7 Men or Eric's book, 7 Women. We'll be talking about that one tomorrow, as our way of saying thank you for your partnership. And if you need a little extra incentive to give today, know that due to some generosity of friends of this ministry, we have an exciting opportunity for your gift to be doubled. There's a matching grant opportunity right now and so, take advantage of that and get a copy of 7 Men or 7 Women.

And of course, after you've made that donation, take a few minutes and look around our online store. It's brand new and see what else you might find for Christmas presents.

Jim: John, I appreciate the mention of that, because [we] have brought that e-commerce store back in-house and whenever you make a purchase at Focus on the Family, 100 percent of those dollars go to help save children, to help save marriages. There's not profit that goes out to something else. So, when you buy at the Focus on the Family bookstores, those dollars are used for ministry, so we appreciate that additional support.

John, here at the end of the program on heroes, it would only be fitting that we recognize and honor the brace men and women who fought and died at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago this very day. The attack on Pearl Harbor from Japanese forces occurred on December 7th, 1941 and that attack killed more than 2,400 Americans and wounded nearly 1,200 more. The attack was a profound shock and led directly to America's entry into World War II.

And I had the chance to talk briefly with Jim Downing. He's believed to be the oldest living survivor at 103-years-old. And he's a retired Navy officer and is one of the founding fathers of the Navigators ministry, which is located right here in Colorado Springs. Jim was a gunner's mate first class on the U.S.S. West Virginia and he was its postmaster, as well, during the Pearl Harbor attack and afterwards, he tried to memorize as many names as he could from his ship of the dead and wounded and in that way, honor their families.

John: And in this short three- or four-minute clip with Jim, you'll hear where Jim Downing was when the attack occurred, what he saw and how his faith in God sustained him.


Jim Downing: We knew we would probably be in combat with them, but propaganda led us to believe they couldn't shoot straight. Their ships were cheap and it couldn't last more than 30 days.

Jim: Hm.

Jim Downing: So, we were very slack psychologically, as well as otherwise.So, there wasn't any radar in those days. There was no satellite. We didn't know Japanese were attacking until we saw the whites of their eyes almost.

Jim: Hm.

Jim Downing: When I came to the Navy, I figured it might be war sometime and this is it.I ran the whole gamut of emotions. First was surprise and then anger and fear, but I had another emotion that morning and that was pride at the way our people performed without adequate leadership.

Jim: Hm.

Jim Downing: They put on a magnificent show with what they had.

Jim: Hm and that is an amazing statement, given all the chaos that would've been happening that day, but to observe it.What did you do specifically? How did it impact you that day?

Jim Downing: I was off the ship when the attack broke out. The majority of the damage was done in the first 11 minutes. My ship was on fire and sinking.

Jim: Your ship was on fire in the harbor.

Jim Downing: Yes.

Jim: And what was the name of your ship?

Jim Downing: The Battleship West Virginia.

Jim: Hm.

Jim Downing: And the neediest thing was to put out fires, so we got a fire hose from the ship next to us and tried to put out the fire. But when there [are] bodies laying around everywhere, you can't avoid that.

We were equipped with name tags with a fire-proof cord. So, while I held a fire hose in one hand, I went around memorizing the name tags, figuring that the parents would never know what happened. So, I was gonna write 'em a note, say I saw what happened.

Jim: Oh, I saw what happened to your son.

Jim Downing: Yes.

Jim: How did your faith help you that day? Did you question God? Why would this happen to me and to us?

Jim Downing: It was the greatest spiritual experience of my life that is still applied.It was a gasoline tanker under fire that had a capacity of 6 million gallons.The Japanese sent in 75 fighters. They didn't have targets, so they began to strafe and machine gun this tanker right in the middle of the harbor.

Jim: Trying to hit it.

Jim Downing: Yeah, and I expected I'd be in heaven in the next minute. That went on for about 45 minutes. I had the deepest peace that I've ever had in my life. I think it was because, "Lord, I'll be with You in a minute," but it never happened.Now the application I made of that [is], I know that the Lord is always present, but verses like Psalm 46:1 indicate He's a very present help in trouble. So, I think that usually He gives that peace in there. You know He's there.But when we worry a lot, God doesn't respond to false alarms.

Jim: Yeah!

Jim Downing: So maybe that's the reason I'm over 100 years old, that I don't get worried. If I don't feel His presence, if there's danger, He'll be there.

End of Clip

John: What a powerful reminder that God can sustain us even under the most challenging of circumstances and we are so grateful to Jim Downing for his faithfulness to God and his service to our country.

Jim: And I'd like to just end today's program thanking all of the military who every day fight for our freedom and for justice around the world. We appreciate you and we want to make sure you're hearing our heartfelt thanks for being a modern-day hero.

John: Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and our entire team here, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back next time. We'll hear more from Eric Metaxas about women who have changed the world, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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Eric Metaxas

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Eric Metaxas is a New York Times best-selling author of numerous books including the award-winning biography Bonhoeffer which has sold more than 800,000 copies and has been translated into 19 languages. A prolific writer, Eric has authored essays, poetry, op-ed articles, book and movie reviews and more than 30 children's books. He is also a public speaker and host of the Eric Metaxas Show, a nationally syndicated radio program heard around the U.S. Eric can also be heard on Chuck Colson's Breakpoint radio commentary that's broadcast on 1,400 radio outlets with an audience of eight million listeners. He resides in Manhattan with his wife and daughter. Learn more about Eric by visiting his website,