All your faves are problematic

February 27th, 2018

As others might bemoan having to always be “politically correct” in our current culture of sensitivity to issues of oppression, I generally think it is a good thing. I am glad that we are able in this period to view historic figures, not as infallible saints, but as complicated and contradictory individuals who were products of their own time and culture. However, I worry that in this era of performative “wokeness” and a call-out culture that uses the slightest misstep to write people off forever that we risk losing our humanity in pursuit of an unattainable ideal.

The death of the Reverend Billy Graham is only the most recent incident of this balancing act between celebrating the good in the life of a public figure and also naming the ways in which they fell short. One of the most significant preachers of the twentieth century, Billy Graham was known as “America’s pastor” and is credited with shaping modern evangelicalism, for better or for worse. He preached the Good News of Jesus Christ around the world and brought many people to know Jesus. He also held sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic positions. No matter one’s personal theological leanings, there is no denying that Billy Graham was hugely influential in the American religious landscape.

While being well-aware of many people’s complicated relationship with evangelicalism, I was still shocked to see such virulent and hateful language immediately following his death. Via Twitter, Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca called Billy Graham “evil” and said, “have fun in hell,” primarily based on comments Graham had made about LGBTQ individuals and AIDS. Others pointed out his anti-Semitic remarks in conversations with Nixon or the sexist legacy of the so-called “Billy Graham rule” with Vice President Mike Pence, who will not meet one-on-one with members of the opposite sex.

More broadly, how do we handle things that we previously enjoyed that have been tainted by scandal? What do we do with movies produced by The Weinstein Company? Can we enjoy and cherish art or music if it is made by people with views we find abhorrent today? Is there a point where the good that a person puts into the world outweighs the bad or, in today’s world, is any failing grounds for immediate dismissal and condemnation?  

Particularly during this season of Lent, when the church’s focus is on penitence, repentance, and a need for forgiveness, we are put in mind of all of the ways in which we fail, the things done and left undone, that put us in need of the grace of God and the saving power of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. That we all sin and fall short of the glory of God is not a “get out of jail free” card, an excuse to escape the consequences of our actions. Those of us who are still breathing are asked to confess and repent, to turn away from our previous behavior.

All of us are capable of great things — of being vectors of love, beauty, and grace. And we are also capable of horrific things — cruelty, abuse, and hate. We are all works in progress, trying each day to live into our calling in Christ. I imagine that, when I die, I will die with significant failings in my life, and I hope that God will forgive me even if the world will not.

The saints of the church and the characters that we read about in Scripture were also complicated, complex individuals. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are far from being stories about perfect people. Rahab was a sex worker. The whole of the Bible and the history of the church is proof that God can use just about anyone to further God’s mission in the world, even people who don’t conform to our standards of decency and political correctness today.

There are ways in which we can encourage one another to do better, to learn and grow in how we respect the dignity of every human being that build up rather than tear down. I also believe we can acknowledge the complicated legacies of influential people without categorical condemnation. Eventually, all of our heroes will disappoint us, but that is no reason to not have heroes at all. Currently, it seems that the pendulum has swung in the direction of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but at least with our theological resources within the church, we can admire the good in people while recognizing where they fall short as we all do.

comments powered by Disqus