Thursday, August 29, 2013

Reflections on “Gods” and Mortals

I’ve been watching a series on cable TV about Winston Churchill that dates back to 2003. I probably watched it then, but you forget a lot in 10 years. The earth has revolved around the sun a few more times and stuff has happened. Plus, as you get older you (hopefully) gain wisdom, which changes your perspective on a lot of things.

So far I’ve seen 2 episodes, up through 1943, with at least 1, maybe 2, more coming up. Churchill certainly had an interesting life, and he was without a doubt brilliant. He probably accomplished more in each year of his adult life than most of us do in our entire lifetimes.

In a lot of ways he reminds me of Benjamin Franklin. Both men were geniuses, and both were ambitious—sometimes unscrupulous, unbending in error, even ruthless. In many ways they were not only deeply flawed, but also seemingly oblivious to their faults. They had all the qualities of heroes: high moral virtues and deep personal failings. It’s strange how we humans always want to make gods of our heroes, ignoring the cracks that appear beneath the surface. We elevate them to a pedestal, then curse them when they turn out to have feet of clay.

I’d always admired George Washington as coming as close to the ideal of virtue as any man is able, and I wasn’t alone. Washington holds a high reputation among our Founders. Flaws, yes, but comparatively minor ones. But a few years ago I started reading Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. I’d always known Washington owned slaves, of course, but when I read the details of his mistreatment of them, I slammed the book shut and almost threw it against the wall. I deeply abhor even the notion of slavery, and I vowed to never esteem such a man again.

And yet, over the years my perspective has shifted somewhat on that as on many things. There’s no question that Washington’s treatment of his slaves was unconscionable and unjustifiable. I have to admit, however, that he was merely a man of his time. And over his lifetime he did change, gradually allowing even escaped slaves to serve in his army and learning to esteem their abilities, finally directing in his will that his slaves be set free at his death.

It’s tempting when writing a series like this one to view the genuine heroes of our history as gods. I admit that I tend to do that. Thankfully that’s where research provides a reality check. The naked truth is that we’re all flawed, and when we look into the most intimate depths of our heroes’ lives, we’re humbled to learn that even they are as human as we are. Reminds me of a cartoon from long ago in which a small character called Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Indeed.

That reminds me of something else, of Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Only God is perfect and holy and righteous and to be trusted in all things. Let’s remember that whenever we’re tempted to make gods of our social, political, and military heroes, either past or present.

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