The commemorative holidays that we celebrate this month and next invite us to remember the contributions of national heroes whose lives represent the values we aspire to as a people.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are icons in our collective memory, and but a few of the lives by which we identify ourselves as Americans.
Washington, and his colonial colleagues, embraced a vision of a new kind of republic. At considerable risk to themselves, they broke free from restrictions in order to formulate and implement that vision, of which we are grateful heirs.
Lincoln, illuminated recently in both book and film, struggled to keep a nation from being rent asunder by the issue of slavery and helped to move through bloody conflict to a resolution of the issue that could move the country beyond it.
King, in word and deed, called on his nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed” by offering a vision that would liberate both oppressed and oppressor from the bondage of racial discrimination.
In honoring these, we underscore the features of our better selves that can lead us toward wholesome community on all levels. “Show me what you praise,” Socrates said, “and I’ll tell you what kind of people you are.”
Beneath the honor we so naturally ascribe, however, the bright light of historical study reveals that these larger-than-life icons were actually people of their own time, who, in some cases, reflected thoughts and behaviors that later generations would see as inconsistent with the goals they sought.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, for example, were themselves slave owners, revealing that their noble thoughts about all men being created equal did not really mean “all.”
Recent attention to Lincoln has suggested that the “great liberator” shared a measure of the racism that was part of his world.
Flawed heroes? Perhaps all are because culture’s cloak is worn not only by those who seek to perpetuate its status quo but also by those who call us beyond it.
Speaking to a church group a number of years ago, Dean Rusk, who had served as U.S. Secretary of State from 1961-69, observed: “In all my years of working with national and world leaders, I never met a superman. All I knew were ordinary people responding to the extraordinary challenges of everyday life on the world stage.”
His words suggest that what we see and embrace as greatness is not so much the innate presence of extraordinary capability, but a willingness, in the time and place of one’s circumstances, to step up and to speak and act on behalf of a horizon beyond the present one.
Perfection is not a prerequisite, it would seem. Thus, honoring greatness in any of its forms is probably wise when tempered with a realistic awareness that our heroes are indeed real people.
For example, it is often observed that the Apostle Paul accepted the institution of slavery and the subordination of women as part of the world he lived in.
Still, in that context he sowed the seeds of a new level of relationship that led to a reshaping of that kind of thinking: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. was thought by some of his contemporaries to be too much of a “gradualist” in the quest for racial liberation.
But his concern for the liberation of both oppressor and oppressed and a reconciliation between them, held up for all the concept of the “beloved community” as more than an exchange of power.
Praise tempered by realism not only protects us from over-romanticizing our icons, it also enables us to see and affirm the heroic in our ordinary companions on life’s journey. Such as:
â— The school teacher who sees possibility in a marginal (or marginalized) student and helps build the confidence base to work toward it.
â— The business owner who commits to integrity and service more than profit.
â— The community leader or politician who puts a vision for the common good above self or the group who finances his campaign.
These are the ordinary people who are responding to the extraordinary challenges of everyday life.
Heroes, known and unknown, seem to be persons who believe in horizons beyond the ones they can see, and who devote their lives to building platforms from which others can see them.
The materials for building these platforms are closer than the nearest lumberyard and are within reach of each of us.
Perhaps our commemorative holidays, in addition to recognition of worthy honorees, are an invitation to the task.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.