Of Kings and Fallen Heroes

Of Kings and Fallen Heroes June 8, 2019

When I was in graduate school I began to read the works of Martin Luther King. Of course I knew who he was. What black man could not know the work of King? But it was not until I read his work, that I truly appreciated his genius. His discussion of nonviolence resonated with me. That he cared not just for the fate of blacks but the souls of whites is inspirational. I am not sure if reading King transformed my ideas about race or confirmed them. But I do know that I have built upon those ideas to develop my current arguments about the rule of interracial communication in helping us to deal with the racial alienation in our society.

And now I read this by David Garrow. I had already heard about the affairs of King. But like the historian, I only thought it was a few women and not 40-45. Beyond the numbers, there is now reason to believe that he encouraged rape, used prostitutes and talked about women in a sexually abusive manner. It is one thing to overlook affairs, and perhaps I should not have done that. It is quite another to overlook this type of raw sexism and encouragement to sexual abuse.

To be sure, there has been some skepticism of Garrow’s claims. Some African-Americans consider the source of this information and refuse to believe it. King was taped not because he was a criminal but because he was a threat to the established racist order of society. This does not make him innocent, but it is hard to ask African-Americans to forget the intentions of trapping King. African-Americans have been rightly suspicious of the people who have shoved his affairs in our faces because we knew they did not have our best interest at heart.

Nevertheless, in 2027 the tapes will become public, and these questions will be answered one way or the other. But given what we have learned of other powerful, respected men and their treatment of women, those of us who are supporters of King need to prepare for the possibility that most of these allegations are true. In fact, as we consider these charges, we can learn valuable lessons.

We cannot minimize what King has meant to the black community. The hesitation to hear criticism of him is because he was a beacon of light in a dark time. It is hard to communicate to whites just how much King means to us. There is a reason why streets are named after him. He gave us a presence in a society that said we were nothing. What he did with the Civil Rights movement and his stance on nonviolence has been one of the greatest achievements in recent history.

But we cannot allow our natural inclination to defend King to be the last word. The other day I heard a sexual assault survivor talk about how it feels for men to defend other men who engaged in sexual abuse by talking about the great accomplishments of those men. Is that not what we do when we sweep such allegations under the rug? Does this not encourage men to continue to treat women as sexual toys?

We can never turn a blind eye to sexual assault again. No matter who the person is and what he, and in the uncommon case she, has done, it must be recognized and confronted. But we cannot throw away their accomplishments either. It seems that whenever a famous person is found engaging in despicable behavior, that there are those wanting to focus on that person’s accomplishments and others wanting to focus on the despicable behavior. Can we as a nation deal with King’s accomplishments and failings with nuance and clarity? Nothing I have seen over the past several years suggests that we can.

The increasing secular nature of our society makes it harder to walk the fine line between seeing the accomplishments and condoning the behaviors. In a secular philosophy where we strive for human perfectibility, there is pressure to see individuals as either good or bad. Because if humans are perfectible, then we have the right to ask why they are not yet perfect. Thus you are either good, and heading towards creating a human paradise, or bad, and in the way of that paradise.

But our Christian faith informs us about human depravity. We are more complicated than simply being good or evil. Our greatest heroes are impacted by depravity. George Washington made the origin of our country possible. And he owned slaves. Henry Ford revolutionized industry and led American to being an economic superpower. And he was an anti-Semite. Bill Hybel revolutionized how we do church with his emphasis on attracting seekers. And he engaged in sexual misconduct. And Martin Luther King may have been the greatest civil rights leader we have ever seen. And he may have treated women like sexual objects.

King has been a hero of mine. I deeply admire his work and attempts to not only reform but heal a racist society As a Christian this comes back to human depravity. But it is not as simple as heroes and villains. This side of the grave, even those with great accomplishments will have massive feet of clay. I have to hold my admiration for King in a very tentative embrace and remember that he is a man. In a few years, I may get confirmation that he is a man with fantastic accomplishments that should be admired and dark secrets which show the nature of his depravity. I have to be honest about the complexity of this man.

But that honestly must not lead to arrogance. We need an increased willingness to be humble. We are tempted to think that there is no way we would engage in the egregious actions of those who have been exposed. But do we really know that? We have not had the power of our fallen heroes. The fact that we may do wonderful things does not mean that we do not also have the ability to do great evil. Being reminded of this possible tension does not make sense in a secular ideology of human perfectibility where everyone must fit into a slot of being good and bad. We are only good because Christ has recognized our depravity and saved us, not because we do some good, or even great things.

Let us deal with our tendency to deify our heroes. They will let us down. They are humans, and we need to remember that. We must appreciate the good but be careful not to impart into these individuals expectations of perfection. We have the tension of holding them accountable, while protecting those they may victimize, but also offering them mercy because one day we may need that mercy. We must confront our leaders when they go wrong, but not out of a sense of arrogance. But rather out of a sense of humility knowing that human depravity impacts us all.

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Of Kings and Fallen Heroes

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  • George Ertel

    How about we celebrate King and King’s contributions while simultaneously condemning his wrongs — but not condemning King? As you say, many insist on a person being all good (or with minor peccadillos) or all bad (or with a very few good-buts). Maybe the need is to be realistic: Only God is perfect; we fall short. We might celebrate King without seeing his accomplishments as excuses for other wrong-doing. And we can see his wrong-doing as non-negations of his accomplishments. You wrote: “I have to hold my admiration for King in a very tentative embrace and remember that he is a man.” Presumably your wife holds you in her admiration in a very non-tentative way while remembering that you are a man who is often right and occasionally wrong. Might that be a good model for our regard for King? [You should realize that many of us who support Trump have had few years to practice this! 🙂 ]

  • John Gills

    I appreciate and thank you for your nuanced thoughts.
    When I taught at Elmhurst College I would ask my students how we were to accept the whole heroic man or woman. Could we admire their strengths AND decry their weaknesses or only raise them up as flawless idols, ignoring – as you point out – their feet of clay? I used the examples of Martin Luther’s anti-semitism, Gandhi’s ostensibly innocent sleeping with young girls and John F Kennedy’s affairs as well as his use of amphetamines.
    I wish I could say we solved the conundrum, but, at best, I find we’re left in an enlightened, and perhaps irresolvable, quandary with which we can and must struggle, even if there is no comfortable resolution.