from time to time, i read an article about a drive to rename a building on a college campus or to remove a statue that some find objectionable. while it is honest and instructive to examine the lives of those who are revered as great men and women from the past, acknowledging both their faults and their virtues, in my view, it is a mistake to condemn them for their flaws if we do not honor their notable achievements.
recently a number of teachers and students at the university of virginia criticized the president of the university for quoting the university's founder, thomas jefferson, in a letter to the university community. thomas jefferson was a slave owner who was enriched by the forced labor of those he owned. he fathered several children by one of those slaves, never freeing her nor acknowledging their children. he held racist views that are rightfully condemned. at the same time, he was an intellect of the first rate, a champion of our fledgling republic, the author of our declaration of independence, and our third president. his views on slavery were conflicted, and, like many of his fellows, he did not see a way out the moral morass of an economic system dependent on this vile institution in the near future. that the president of the university jefferson founded should be chastised for quoting its founder seems to be an exercise in political correctness that goes too far.
i understand the need to expunge the name of a person like nathan bedford forrest, a man who needlessly killed hundreds of black union soldiers during the civil war and who founded the ku klux klan after the south's defeat in that war, from the many buildings, streets, and other constructions which are named in his honor. such a person is unworthy of honor, but to relegate people like woodrow wilson to the dustbin of history seems incongruous. we must acknowledge that wilson held racist views and suppressed dissent during our participation in the first world war, but he also did much good in promoting world peace and working to engage our country in a role of leadership in making the world a better place, ruining his health in the process. here is a man who is worthy of both honor and condemnation, a man who was flawed, as we all are, but one who sought to do good despite his imperfections.
the list of the great whose faults were long ignored and who were portrayed as paragons of super-human virtue is lengthy, and it is imperative that we re-examine their lives, in the process acknowledging their humanity. their greatness lies in the fact that, despite mistakes and views worthy of condemnation, they did great good; the fact that they were human beings with warts and blemishes ought to inspire each of us to do whatever good is possible within our own limitations.
may we not be so ready to condemn others while we ignore our own failings. may we see that we are all human, capable of both good and bad actions. may we strive to live skillfully and forgive our own failings to do so. may we be generous to both ourselves and to others. shalom.