Who Will Be Our Heroes Now?
The Christian practice of accepting a person’s weaknesses in order to celebrate his strengths is far better than the all-or-nothing demands of the mobs.
I can understand in some cases how a monument may be deemed offensive. And then there are cases, such as the statue of St. Junípero Serra at Golden Gate Park, that do make me wonder: how far will this eventually go?
How many of those men and women, once considered heroes, are going to be considered “unpardonable” for not having held our contemporary notions? Would it turn out that there were no “good” men and women prior to the last 60 years or so? In which cases is taking down a monument warranted? In which cases is destroying a monument nitpicking, or giving in to ideologies which are centered upon blame (as Communism was)? Is all of this de-memorializing somehow supposed to make any person’s life better? Is it healthy to demand men and women of the past to think exactly as we do in the present?
Will memorials of Abraham Lincoln eventually be taken down over comments he made which would obviously be considered racist today? Will statues of Shakespeare be taken down because he wrote Taming of the Shrew? Could it be the case that, some decades down the line, memorials of Martin Luther King shall be taken down if it were to be revealed that he drove around in a gas-guzzler rather than an electric car? And if a person’s imperfections, as defined by modern notions, are such unpardonable sins, then who will we have left to admire?
“Now it is very right to rebuke our own race or religion for falling short of our own standards and ideals.” —G.K. Chesterton
“He could be pretty ruthless sometimes,” I was told, while sitting in the passenger seat of a car. I was 16 years old. Someone dear to me, a fellow Muslim, had said this about Muhammad, while he was referring to the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe in Medina. The men of the Banu Qurayza, after having attempted to enter negotiations with a hostile army during a siege upon Medina, an act considered treasonous, were massacred wholesale, beheaded at the order of Muhammad.
As a child I had taken it in good faith that Muhammad gave to the world a perfect example of how to live, an example appropriate for all peoples, all times; that he was an everlasting man. In Sunday school I had been told how Islam had displaced paganism, brought an end to the practice of female infanticide, and forbade many forms of depravity in the Arabian Peninsula. I’d learned how the perfect practice of Muhammad and the Sahaba (companions of the prophet) ushered in an era of rapid conquest, the founding of the most glorious empire which the world had ever known; proof that Muhammad had pleased Allah indeed. The story of an orphan, an illiterate merchant who went on to become a prophet and conqueror, was an inspiration. But for an American boy, at the end of the 20th century, a massacre was rather difficult to reconcile with perfection.
“Why did they all have to be killed?” I wondered.
Why did Muhammad have at least nine wives upon his death when a Muslim man is only allowed four? Why was it that the messages in the Quran concerning conflict evolved from patiently bearing persecution to self-defense to conquest? Why was jizya tax imposed on Christians and Jews in the Caliphate? Questions like these were occasionally addressed in Sunday school, for which there seemed to always be ready answers: a special or a new revelation, that one must understand the times in which he lived, because it was in the best interest, etc. It can be very easy for a person to readily accept the ready-made answers concerning that which that person has been taught his or her entire life, or when acceptance by family and neighbor largely depends upon it. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointment that the man whom I had been taught to emulate proved himself to be so… human.
A doubt had entered my mind. A sum of many doubts eventually eroded my faith in Islam. Luckily, my renouncement of Islam (in 2006) was a gradual enough process, that I didn’t have a throw-up-on-the-floor moment, as poor Neo did in the Matrix. My former faith had depended upon the perfection of an imperfect person. Renouncement had ushered what would be, for me, a spiritually rudderless year, a belief in some vague notion of a distant God, and not much more. I considered all religion to be poison, and had no spiritual heroes to imitate. It was the most miserable year of my life. This was the logical end of expecting perfection from the imperfect.
“Men are moved most by their religion; especially when it is irreligion.” —G.K. Chesterton
Life happens, and as it does we journey to unexpected places. I began reading the Bible, for the very first time, about a year after I had renounced Islam.
That the Bible included tales of incest or adultery and betrayal, committed by men so highly-esteemed as Lot and David, was something of a surprise. Muslims, by and large, are unaccustomed to disparaging tales of godly people.
Much in the Gospels struck me. I was delighted that Jesus reserved His harshest criticisms for Pharisees, because I saw such nitpicking men as surrogates for several of my Sunday school teachers. The flipping of tables in the Temple didn’t exactly sync with a “gentle Jesus” I’d always heard so much about. Just like Muhammad, his sayings and deeds often needed explanation. But, unlike Muhammad, none of his sayings or deeds needed explaining away. What was especially peculiar was just how out of place Christ could be in the world. He constantly needed to reexplain himself to the disciples. Even his own relatives attempted to drag him back home for his having gone “insane.”
If everyone is insane, at least to a degree, then wouldn’t the perfectly sane person appear “crazy” to the rest of us? Isn’t perfection bound to be perplexing, or even offensive, to the imperfect? The unwillingness to simply fit in, to be dragged down, is an earmark of true perfection. The Church, having been such a cultural force these last two millennia, is still at her very best when she reflects this, remaining such a counter-cultural force in our very day.
I had discovered that there may have been a truly perfect person, an Everlasting Man. But for myself, as I’m sure for plenty of others, I was running into a very different problem: perfection is incredibly perplexing to the imperfect.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Even after so many years, I still don’t know exactly what that means, and such is the case with several of his sayings.
Perfection is not only confusing, but also quite intimidating. So what’s a guy like me supposed to do?
“The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” – G.K. Chesterton
One of the great strengths of the Catholic Church, which helped to eventually draw me in, was the culture surrounding the saints. We know from the lives of the saints that each was highly aware of his or her own imperfections, that they knew themselves to be sinners (just like any of us). None of these people was the Light, yet each made genuine effort to reflect the Light, something any of us can aim for. To be a Jesus Christ is far too tall an order for any of us (plus, I would strongly prefer to live the whole of my life without ever getting crucified). But to be a St. Francis is far more manageable, plus I pretty much always know what that guy’s talking about. The admiring of saints (as well as fellow Christians) makes the Faith more accessible, precisely because of their imperfections, and they do so much to bridge that chasm between the perfection of Christ and ourselves.
If we were to refuse to accept the flaws of the saints, then we likewise lose out on celebrating the feats of the saints. We are fully aware of St. Peter’s act of cowardice and abandonment. Should we cease to honor our first Pope because of it? If it were to be discovered that St. Thomas Aquinas believed in a flat earth, should we throw away all copies of the Summa Theologica and say “this guy didn’t know anything!”? Because St. Junípero Serra was a Spanish missionary, must we dismiss him as a Spanish Conquistador (which, by the way, he wasn’t)?
The Christian lens, of accepting a person’s weaknesses in order to celebrate his or her strengths, is far more practical than the all-or-nothing demands of any mobs. This practical approach is preventative of our descent into nihilism. The Christian lens has even helped me considerably soften my own views of Muhammad over the years; his life, though not perfect, was still very impressive. Without it, we could lose out on so much that is truly worth believing in.
Doesn’t the Everlasting Man readily forgive our own imperfections? Shouldn’t we do likewise? If posterity will resort to saying “they really didn’t know any better” about so many of the beliefs we hold (or even cherish) today, and yet would still be kind enough to honor our accomplishments, shouldn’t we be more forgiving of those in the past who just didn’t know any better? Isn’t it ungrateful to demonize the very person whose accomplishments we benefit from? Would any one of us prefer to be around a person who recalls everybody’s flaws, or everybody’s feats? And if we were to go on nitpicking, without making any room for understanding, that practically everyone whom we once admired gets demonized, how much of a faith, or how much of a country, or how much of a culture, would there be left for any of us to take pride in?