I’m not sure what kind of media/social-media environment you swim in, but in my world, nothing is happening this week except the death of Nelson Mandela. And that’s as it should be, I think — he was, by any reckoning, one of the towering figures of the late 20th century, an inspiration to many. His death and people’s responses to his death should be news.
That said, I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before people start popping up (in some quarters they probably already have, though it’s all dignified respect and mourning in the circles I inhabit) to remind us of Mandela’s personal shortcomings and political failures. The details don’t even matter now: he was human; he was flawed. As soon as people try to elevate him to the level of sainthood, others will be quick to expose those flaws and point to them as evidence that he’s really not worth our admiration.
To be honest I was thinking about this blog post even before Mandela died. I was showing my World Religions class the movie Luther as part of our unit on Christianity, and thinking about how much I admired Martin Luther. Then I thought about how in the previous unit, on Judaism, I’d been teaching about the roots of antisemitism, and thought, “Wow, what a shame Luther was so nastily anti-Jewish, and his words have been used to justify such terrible antisemitism.”
Then I thought about honouring one of my personal heroes, C.S. Lewis, on the 50th anniversary of his death, and thought about how he was a good old-fashioned misogynist who thought the patriarchy was a grand thing and didn’t even question his attitudes towards women.
And within the last couple of months I’ve seen Facebook friends post articles about how Mother Teresa not only suffered from depression that made her doubt God, but as a bonus, she may also have mismanaged funds, and prioritized helping the poor die over helping them live, and how Gandhi had these troubling sexual proclivities including exploiting young girls by making them sleep naked with him to test his committment to celibacy.
And that’s just a fairly random sampling of people I personally admire, who have been dead long enough that it’s safe to talk about their shortcomings.
There never has been and never will be a public figure widely lauded as “good” about whom people won’t be able to dig up dirt, because we are all human, and flawed. All our idols have feet of clay. And while we sometimes write off the dark side of our heroes with phrases like, “Well, he was a man of his time,” or “a product of his culture” or whatever, that really doesn’t cut it. Often these are real, damaging dark sides, and the very reason we admire these people is because they transcended their time and their culture. It’s right to be disappointed and angry when our heroes let us down, because their flaws are very real.
Another layer of the disappointment, beyond the personal, is the sense that the beliefs they represented — whether that be Christianity, or some other religion, or a humanist philosophy — should have made them better. The flaws of our heroes cause us to question not only these men and women themselves but what they stood for, because how could their beliefs really have been real and effective while still leaving them so damaged?
Despite all these I’ve decided to embrace the fact that my heroes are flawed. I don’t mean that I embrace the flaws themselves — antisemitism is just as ugly when it comes from Martin Luther’s pen as from Hitler’s, and just as wrong. Rather, I embrace the fact that the same person can have a beautiful idea and also an ugly one. That a human being can do right and also do wrong. I embrace this reality and am even grateful for it for two reasons.
First, it disabuses me of the tendency to make idols, to substitute creature for Creator and hero-worship anyone. Only God is perfect, and worthy of my worship. With my fellow humans, I can admire things they did, or said, or wrote … but recognize that they themselves are as fallen and flawed and in need of redemption as I am. Which leads me to the second and probably more important point …
If I believe in saints and flawless heroes, then it seems pretty evident that I’m not one, and don’t have to be. God only calls and uses superheroes, perfect people with no dark sides or hangups. Therefore, God can’t possibly be calling me to do anything spectacular, because I’m not one of those special people.
But if God uses flawed, damaged people who make terrible mistakes and get things wrong … well then, God might just be planning to use me.