Brilliant Men in Dark Boxes

(cross-posted at Inside Catholic’s blog)

My heart sank when I saw this picture on Creative Minority Report:

The NAACP hid a prominent statue of George Washington inside a wooden box during a MLK Day rally, offering the terminally lame excuse that the box would make a more suitable backdrop for the rally’s speakers.   The NAACP denies any intention of disrespect, but their narrow view of history is no secret:  anyone who owned slaves is a racist, and anyone who is a racist cannot be called a great man.  This is what is taught in history class, and several generations have been nourished on these junk food ideas.

Students are taught that they must not squander their exquisite admiration on someone who owned slaves.  They are taught, by implication, that it’s not enough for a man to give up his family and his safety for the noble cause of independence.  It’s not enough to inspire and command.  It’s not even enough to triumph in a way that directly benefits millions of people today.

He must also be . . . EVERYTHING MAN.

He must leap out of his time, and see with the eyes of every possible future type of enlightenment.  Did he accomplish the massive victories that his generation desperately needed?  Not good enough.  We also require him to be the role model for solving any type of conflict that might ever turn up, or else he’s no good to us.  Into the box you go, little George.  You don’t impress us anymore.

Where else do we see this same lazy, self-absorbed analysis of history?  In the sour voices that grumble over John Paul II’s beatification.   He may have been good, they say, but oh, he was not great.  Oh, sure, he was very charistmatic and all.  He clearly prayed a lot, and that’s commendable.  But what a hash he made of the Church!  It’s all his fault!  He’s the one who wrote all those lame hymns, he’s the one who offered free butch haircuts to nuns, if you’ll recall.  And who can forget those Woodstock-style World Youth Day rallies, where he encouraged the youth to hold hands during the Our Father?  Never mind that the number of Catholics worldwide grew from 700 million to 1.2 billion while he was Pope — the guy was a squish, a pushover, a washout.

Listen to me.  God sends certain men to achieve certain great deeds while they live.  They are not responsible for what future generations may require:  that is up to the heroes born of those generations.  Great men are great because they do what needs to be done at the time.  They put their own desires and frailties aside, and they make the world new with their particular strengths, their particular form of brilliance.  Heck, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did.  A holy man?  No.  He was a serial adulterer.  And Washington owned slaves, and John Paul II allowed the monster Maciel to flourish.

But they were great men.  They took their personal, God-given talents and turned them into something immense — something that made the world better.

It’s not just that we should forgive the wrong they did because they did so much good (although that is also true).  No.  I’m saying that these men were good in the way that they were designed to be good, great according to their own natures.  George Washington’s great strength wasn’t as an abolitionist, you know?  John Paul II’s great strength wasn’t as a disciplinarian.  It wasn’t his calling.

Do we criticize Fra Angelico for not figuring out how to split the atom?  Or do we sneer at Herman Melville because he couldn’t outrun Carl Lewis?  I mean, what do we want from these guys?  And can’t we even imagine that whatever  heroes we admire today may someday be judged harshly by our great great grandchildren — and wouldn’t that seem unfair?  Men are men, and they live when they live.   Who is good enough for us?  Who can escape our endlessly dissatisfied dissection?

There was only one perfect Man.   The other great men of the world — Washington, King, John Paul II, and any hero you can name — are only mirrors, who catch and show to us a little bit of His radiant light.  The world is dark enough already.  Let’s not become so enlightened that we spend our time setting up boxes around the brilliance of great men.


  1. You’ve ruined your point slightly by writing a meaningful social commentary post after having demonstrated you can write Profound Spiritual posts and Hilarious Observational Comedy posts, thus proving you, at least, ARE Everything Woman.


  2. I need to think more about this topic. George Washington did own slaves – that makes him a racist. I point out that shortcoming to my children, but I also point out the brilliance of the founding fathers’. MLK was not only an adulterer, he was a plagiarist and arguably a communist sympathizer. But he was also the right man for the job. I like to give my children a sense of balance. We’re pretty removed from any hero worship of George Washington, but the Black community still idolizes Dr. King and that kind of hero worship makes me uncomfortable.

    I’m old enough to remember how my Irish born parents worshipped at the altar of the Kennedys for years until ultimately admitting that the DNC had sold its soul over abortion. Even so, I vividly recall my mother openly weeping in the Bobby Kennedy room at the Kennedy Library in Boston. She cried more watching the video of Bobby on the beach with the Vietmanese kids than she cried at my father’s funeral. Really.

    Putting that much hope and trust in a human is not right. Yet that level of hero worship is present everywhere today in the Black community for President Obama. As wonderful as it is for little Black children to grow up knowing that one day they too could be president, that hero worship is not good. It’s not Christian.

    I need to reflect further on JPII. I teach my children that he is a great man. I teach them that he was one of the men who helped tear back the iron curtain. I haven’t taught them his failings yet, but I will.

    Sorry I’m a little rambly. I’m still sorting out my own feelings on this topic.

    • I wrote about teaching children about great men in “A little Blaze”

      I think it’s terribly important to teach children that there are heroes – and later, when their minds are more subtle, to round out the picture.

      I agree with you that hero worship is not good, or Christian. But there is a way to teach people to admire and imitate great men, without straying into fantasy land.

      • Just in case you are unaware, the “Black” and “Black” and and “little Black children” comes across in a rather blanket-disapproval way.

        A cross-section of illustrations, involving not solely the “Black community” and “Vietnamese children”, maybe.

        • It’s my firm belief that pretending we’re one giant melting pot doesn’t do anything to further race relations or instill self esteem in our children, some of whom are Black, or Latino, or some other non-white race. The Vietmanese comment was more a reference to the place, which come to think of it may well have been Cambodia, so I probably should have said Cambodian children.

          “Little Black children”…hmm…if I’d have said in the 60’s JFK’s election was wonderful for all the little Catholic children would you have found that objectionable too?

          I’m sorry you found my manner of writing somewhat offensive. I certainly didn’t intend it to be. I am used to speaking very bluntly about race, and I forget sometimes to tone it down when speaking outside my own family.

      • How does the fact that George Washington bought and sold human beings based on the color of their skin not make him a racist?

        • I think the argument about racism is more subtle. After all, a good deal of those men and women sold into slavery were originally sold by other Africans.
          Free blacks in America also bought and sold slaves.

          Does this mean that a black, slave owning and selling man is racist?

            • Sure, as an objective act. But as far as personal moral culpability, you really have to take the context into consideration.

              Imagine some future generation in which abortion has been utterly eradicated — in which it is known far and white, taught in the schools, and fully accepted that a fetus is a baby, and shouldn’t be killed.

              Imagine these future people looking back in horror and disgust at me, who does little more than offer the occasional prayer for the end of abortion. How impressed are these future people going to be?

              • Oops, I see that Mary, below, has articulated this better. She says:

                “I had the Jefferson & slavery argument with a classmate in college (I was raised in Charlottesville, VA – TJ’s hometown – I was in college in NH). I honestly could not believe…the arrogance of her argument. That SHE wouldn’t have settled for anything but immediate full emancipation, so therefore Jefferson should have known it too.

                She didn’t like it when I pointed out that it would be like, say, criminalizing abortion at all levels, and not putting any system into place to alleviate the potential problems with such an abrupt change to something so acceptable.”

        • I think we can say that he was +objectively+a racist, in that he was treating people with great injustice based on the color of their skin. But that is not the same as saying that he was a racist in the way that we imagine a modern racist: someone who, despite every available opportunity to see that black people are, clearly, as human and valuable as white people, still treats them with injustice.

          Picture a Muslim who has been taught since childhood that Christians are depraved infidels. Yes, it would be possible for him to accept Christ and see the error of his ways — but it would be a lot harder for him to do it than it would be for, say, a secular humanist brought up in suburban Ohio. It would just be a much, much bigger leap for the Muslim to make — it would be expecting so much more of him.

          That’s why I, for one, think it’s misleading to say that Washington was a racist. It wouldn’t have been impossible for him to renounce his racist lifestyle, but it would have been incredibly difficult for him even to see that he ought to — because of the times he lived in.

          • Washington actually freed his slaves upon his death, and bought several of his wife’s slaves so he could free them as well. Perfect – no, but definitely moving beyond current thought at the time.

          • I understand your point of view and I mostly agree. And to you and me, as White people, it’s an intellectual argument. Were Black slave owners racists? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Who cares. I’m not saying George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t great men, but it’s easy for us to minimize their heinous lifestyles. But for us it’s merely an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one.

            Would we be so quick to discount the Founding Fathers flaws if they had Jack Chick printing presses in their basements?

            I think there’s a rush to judgment among White Americans, with an “Aw Geez, here they go again” attitude toward Blacks when we see a stunt like the covered statue. And there’s some validity to that thought – being a perpetual victim is no way to go through life.

            I like the response of the Black Tea Party guy who basically said the NAACP has more important things to worry about than the actions of dead White guys.

            • Slavery itself does not make one a racist. It is the fact that only Africans were deemed suitable for slavery. Sure, the free blacks and native Americans who owned slaves were racist. Unless someone can cite to an example of them owning a white slave, I would have to conclude they were discriminating.

            • Eileen:

              How is slavery an intellectual argument for “white people”? You mean, because our race has never been enslaved? If that’s what you mean, you are very wrong/don’t know history/narrow-minded. Take your pick.

              What black American has suffered slavery today?

              Other peoples, other ethnic groups, in every age have suffered just as horrific times. Do you forget that 6 million Catholics were killed in concentration camps under the Nazi’s – in only five years!! Have you read any Irish history, where the native people were made to work their own land for wheat, so that they could pay rent to the British landlords – even at a time when their only other food staple was rotten? What about the genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Turks? Not to mention the plight of the Jews at various times in Western Civilization.

              If you want to split the world up between blacks and whites, I would say that given the list above, whites have suffered a lot more than blacks.

        • As the author of the article stated, most history books [in most schools] are anything but history, true history that is. It is all about indoctrination and deceitfully advancing other agendas.

          1. Blacks ALSO owned slaves – have you ever read this anywhere in “history” books? So that would mean that blacks are racists as well. By the way, the system of human slavery originated in Africa…

          2. Abraham Lincoln, who has a “shrine” at the National Mall and who is so admired by Obama, and others for “freeing the slaves”, could have cared less about their liberation. As a matter of fact, he wanted them all shipped out of North America. Read any of this in “history” books?

          Once you take it upon yourself to research topics yourself, you will discover “true history” and realize just how much indoctrination we have all been a victim of.

          • I can’t let this comment pass.

            The statement that human slavery originated in Africa is false and demonstrates a limited view of history.

            Pretty much, if there’s an evil out there, it’s been practiced on every continent at some point. The system of taking enemies and/or debtors as slaves (which is what was practiced in Africa at the time to which you refer) was common at different points in Europe, Asia, among Pacific island people, native americans, etc etc etc.

            One notable example is St. Patrick, who was captured and enslaved as a boy by Irish raiders, and used as forced labor for I believe 7 years or more before he escaped. This is part of what makes his later return and evangelism of Ireland saintly. 🙂

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while criticizing the tunnel vision of others, it’s important not to develop tunnel vision of our own.

            Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were all humbly aware of our own capacity for sin, and thus willing to be compassionate, sympathetic, and forgiving of others who fall short of perfection?

          • As I did with Washington earlier in this blog, I am compelled to defend Lincoln from the half truths so popular in this debunking age. At first Lincoln’s priority was as you state, to preseve the Union. He was an Illinois frontiersman and his ideas of the Negro race were heavily influenced by his Southern countryman(remember that he was born in Kentucky). As the war progressed his attitude changed. Like Grant, who once owned a slave, and like Washington before him, he was deeply impressed by the contribution that Black soldiers made in the defense of their country. When the Confederates refused to include Black soldiers in their prisoner exchange programs, and preferred to treat them as escaped or rebelious slaves, he and Grant suspended the exchange program. Possibly influence by Frederick Douglas he came to view emancipation as a moral imperative, not merely a good tactic. He, like some Black leaders. considered “repatriation” of Black former slaves to Africa as an interesting idea, but I am convinced that by the end of his presidency he had come to regard Blacks as simply fellow Americans.

            • Sorry, but you’re a little off about your dates for Grant’s freeing his slaves. He freed one slave in 1859 because he could no longer afford to feed him. His fortunes rose with the war so he held on to four other slaves owned by his wife, but legally controlled by him, until slavery was made illegal.
              I also challenge your idea that Lincoln ever saw emancipation as a “moral imperative.” He did nothing during his presidency to outlaw slavery within the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was deliberately written in such a way as to not free any slaves over which Lincoln at that time had control. It “freed” only the slaves in the south in areas that Lincoln could not control.
              Since I only have a Master’s degree in history, I did take the time to check my facts with my husband, who holds a PhD., so I’m pretty sure I’ve got this right.

    • Eileen:

      Your comment “he owned slaves so that makes him a racist” is very short-sighted. Simcha’s point is that you have to look at the age in which these men lived. Do you know where slavery is still an accepted and common practice today? Africa. Funny, huh? The idea that slavery is bad is sort of a new idea, definitely a western idea, and is primarily a Christian idea. Slavery was once considered the fate of those who were conquered. No racism there, simply a fact – we conquered you, not you have to do what we say. This went on far longer than we’ve had this idea that no matter what a loser you are, we should still be nice to you.

      Your point that there should be no heroes is a terrible idea- especially for your children. We need to have ideals to live up to. No one gets inspired by average-ness. If you teach your kids “everyone has faults, you might help start a new nation with wonderful ideals, but at the end of the day, you’ll just be a sinner like everyone else, so it really doesn’t matter.” Then they will strive for absolutely nothing.

      Your illustration of your mother’s emotions regarding the Kennedy’s compared to your own father seems unfair. One can be emotional about someone they admired from afar, you can sob uncontrollably for a few minutes when touched by larger-than-life figures… but the grief of losing a spouse and the father of one’s children would be a much deeper, aching pain than the emotions of a few minutes. The first time I saw JPII in person I cried, and screamed and jumped up and down. Sometimes I forget to kiss my husband before he leaves for work. Does that mean that I love JPII more? no – its completely different.

    • Saying things like “we are pretty removed from any hero worship of George Washington” and “the Black community still idolizes Dr. King” are (a) painting with a ridiculously broad brush; (b) needlessly polarizing; and (c) patently untrue on both counts. There are plenty of people, black and white, who see the good and bad in both men. Shame on you.

      P.S. Lest you assume otherwise, I will hasten to point out that I am white.

    • A little history Eileen. Washington did not buy or sell slaves. Not after the Revolution when he became convinced that slavery was wrong. He could not immediately free his slaves because they would have starved. What he did was he refused to engage in the slave trade. At considerable expense he did kept the slave families on his plantation intact. In his will he made provision to free all his slaves with further provision of land or other resources to make sure that they had a future. His heirs faithfully executed his wishes. He was a great man, a hero, and you should so inform your children. Suggested reading Flexner, “George Washington: The Indispensable Man.

      • Thank you! It appears the real issue here is not slavery. I think we can all agree that slavery is wrong. All humans are made in the image and likeness of God and because we are ALL children of God have a certain dignity. We probably all agree in the sanctity of life.

        The real issue was the judgement of Washington (and JPII) when not one of us had the opportunity to actually know the man (not that that is a cause for judging another). Despite his great accomplishments as the father of our country, some choose to look beyond the good and judge alleged mistakes or wrongs he may have done.

        I, for one, am so thrilled that his name has been cleared, at least here on this site. We can never judge another soul. Only God really knows what is in our hearts. Let’s try to give others the benefit of the doubt. Look for the good in them and encourage that.

  3. Great point and great writing. I think we could all use a few more heroes. And I think that before children are taught the bare ugly truth about great men they should be taught the great things. Can we mitigate our praise when they are older? Yes. But do we really need to be pointing out their great flaws in elementary school? Let kids have heroes – it allows them to dream and hope to be something great (esp. morally – not Hannah Montana great). It sets their sights high and allows them to emulate the good in a childlike, single hearted way. There’s plenty of time for a balanced approach when they reach highschool and college. Thanks for the great post.

  4. You make a good point about the errors of historic figures and how it is only a sign of their humanity. But wouldn’t you agree (and maybe you did but I didn’t see it) that their is an unpalatable irony about a man who is seen as a fighter for our freedom yet enslaved others? It is like the theologian and unrepentant adulterer Karl Barth, who lived with his mistress in the basement while his wife and children dwelt above– I am not going to disregard the entirety of the man’s theology but I will certainly never trust what he says about love, or faithfulness.

    • It’s a slightly more palatable irony if you remember that the times were so, so different. It’s easy in 2011 to decide not to own slaves. In 1776, it would have taken a huge amount of independent thinking and courage to decide to do something that was widely considered acceptable and necessary. My point is not that he wasn’t morally culpable, but that we shouldn’t underestimate what a huge, life-altering choice it would have been for him to break with convention.

      I don’t know anything bout Karl Barth, but he sounds like a jerk.

      • Wikipedia (take it or leave it) has a history of the abolition of slavery by nation.

        It’s interesting to me that the first European nations to abolish it were the Scandinavian ones, which I presume didn’t have large parts of their economy based on farming. It’s easier, in other words, to get rid of something if you don’t “need” it.

        So while it would be disingenuous to pretend that in Washington’s time everyone was hunky-dory with slavery, it should be noted that Portugal was the only country making moves to abolish it outright.
        And who pays attention to Portugal? 😉

      • The issue may be the degree of Washington’s greatness as an exemplar of the American way of life. So then, while it would have been very courageous to not hold slaves for people like Washington (who I like), it was not unheard of. And courage is both heroic and a virtue and virtues are rare in this life. Thus, it may not be surprising that a person like Washington was lacking in such a natural excellence. This may take down a notch on the scale of great men, but it does not nullify the good he did for his country. Another thing, even though his culpability may not differ from that of his peers (he was not an intellectual or a Catholic), Washington would still have been somewhat aware of natural law reasoning (to some degree) and as a man of conscience I think might have been aware of his failures, such as owning slaves.

    • I think the answer is to always be seeking closer union with Jesus and our own personal holiness. Then Jesus, who dwells in us, will recognize Jesus in others, not the flawed humanity and woundedness of other. On the contrary, Jesus in us will recognize the woundedness and respond with compassion and love as He did throughout the gospels.

      Humanity is flawed and if we put our faith in just humanity alone, we will see the flaws. So many people have left Jesus in the Eucharist, our source of life and strength, because of the sins of the humans in the church.

      There is NOT one person walking this earth or has every walked this earth that is not wrought with sins and flaws. Not even the SAints. Their greatest accomplishments were their ability to allow Jesus to fully posses them and work through them, beyond and despite their sinfullness.

      God Bless!!!!

  5. Love it! Brilliant! Of course, who among us is NOT flawed. It, unfortunately, is our human nature. If we are “enlightened” (or humble) enough to allow God to work through us, He can accomplish HUGE and AMAZING things in us.

    I absolutely LOVE this:

    “There was only one perfect Man. The other great men of the world — Washington, King, John Paul II, and any hero you can name — are only mirrors, who catch and show to us a little bit of His radiant light. “

  6. This is what makes me so mad about history! If any man ever did anything wrong once, ever, ever, ever: nope! he was a loser. He doesn’t deserve my snot. He doesn’t deserve more than a paragraph in the pages of my book. And that paragraph had BETTER be about his failings.

    I kind of laugh when I read how people don’t think PJP2 should be considered “great”. Holy cow, those people would take one look at me and burst into flames from my unholy awfulness.

    Sidenote: I had the Jefferson & slavery argument with a classmate in college (I was raised in Charlottesville, VA – TJ’s hometown – I was in college in NH). I honestly could not believe…the arrogance of her argument. That SHE wouldn’t have settled for anything but immediate full emancipation, so therefore Jefferson should have known it too.

    She didn’t like it when I pointed out that it would be like, say, criminalizing abortion at all levels, and not putting any system into place to alleviate the potential problems with such an abrupt change to something so acceptable.

    • @ Mary-

      Exactly! oh the I-ron-y of people! Oy! Sticking on the abortion theme–look at some of the pro-choice (gag at the term) “heroes.” Margaret Sanger (racist much?), Tiller (murderer much?), Kavorkian (other end if the spectrum murder much?) , and the political leaders, Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sibelius, the pretend Catholics…puhleeze. My eyes are rolling so forcefully I am giving myself vertigo.
      To be offended by George Washington is like a beggar sending back the free meal because the meat isn’t done to his liking.

    • I think the slavery/abortion parallel is perfect. I don’t think I have ever come across a time when I didn’t think the analogy fit.

      While I personally don’t agree with the NAACP’s decision to cover the statue of our nation’s first president, I think the proper statue covering corollary is not Obama at Georgetown, but Obama at Notre Dame. How outraged were we Catholics that pro-abortion Obama would receive an honorary degree from a Catholic institution? Like George Washington, Obama is also a product of his time. It’s widely accepted among the elites that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. How can any Dem be elected president if he doesn’t support abortion? And certainly he’s not out there committing abortions like that guy in Philly, who killed the babies with scissors after they were born if he couldn’t do it right the first time.

      Slavery is a big, emotional deal to many Black people and while I personally think it’s a little silly to cover the statue of a guy who’s been dead for a couple of centuries and is remembered not for being a slaveholder, but for being the Father of Our Country, I will not call the act wrong.

    • I kind of laugh when I read how people don’t think PJP2 should be considered “great”. Holy cow, those people would take one look at me and burst into flames from my unholy awfulness.

      Best combox comment ever!

  7. Of course, we who are so quick to condemn our heroes for not being immaculately conceived, are frequently just as quick to make excuses for any and all of our own faults.

  8. This reminds me of when…

    Georgetown University Hid Religious Symbols at White House Request

    April 16, 2009

    Georgetown University hid a religious inscription representing the name of Jesus during President Obama’s address there Tuesday, has confirmed, because White House staff asked the school to cover up all religious symbols and signs while the president was on stage.

    The monogram IHS, whose letters spell out the name of Jesus, and which normally perches above the stage in Gaston Hall where the president spoke, was covered over with what appeared to be black wood during the address…

    • Yeah, I thought of the same thing! And I think I remember that they made the same flimsy excuse — that the blank panel made a better backdrop. Of course being JESUITS they shouldn’t have accepted any excuse for covering up Jesus’ name! Sheesh.

  9. This has given me food for thought this morning. I do feel “apologetic” sometimes depending on who I’m with for giving my 8th child the middle name, John-Paul. Isn’t that sad? I shouldn’t. He was a just a man, perhaps no more deserving than a member of the family—but, the vicar of Christ at a period in history pertaining to my life, and died just days before my Catholic son was born. Of course, there is so much more to say about his worth and dignity, but even for these simple identifying marks,……why does he have to have been perfect in our eyes to be named after, and now: to be a qualifying Saint? Thanks.

    • Nina, this is just my opinion. However, I encourage you to not give one more thought to naming your child after John Paul II, the great. The reason we name our children after saints or great people is so that they can learn from them and have a model. John Paul II, although a man and humanly flawed like all of humanity, was and is, in fact a Saint.

      Some argue, and I think justifiably so, that he was the catalyst responsible for the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. His teaching on Theology of the Body alone is worthy, in my opinion, of sainthood. He faced the ramifications of the sexual revolution head on with truth and in love. I haven’t found a single person yet who has not been profoundly changed by the truth in Theology of the Body.

      I could go on and on about his accomplishments in guiding the church through a terribly difficult time. Have you read his encylicals and books? He was a man who truly brought Jesus to us, the church.

      The fact that he wasn’t perfect just proves that he was, indeed, a human being in need of a savior. Again, it was his humility and profound relationship with Jesus that allowed Jesus to do such remarkable works through him.

      For that reason, I believe, you have given your son a great gift in providing for him such a wonderful example of a life lived for Jesus and what a life like that can accomplish through HIM, of course.

        • The Maciel thing (and years of appointments of many bad or just weak bishops) and the bad-disciplinarian-let-the-Church-go-to-pot thing on ONE side of the family and friends, and the hypocritical, far too conservative Celibate-man-telling-women-what to do- thing on the OTHER side….. are what I was referring to in terms of people’s reactions to disappointment in that name choice. Phew…..I’m out of breath.

          Erin, I have read many of his writings. The ones that have had the most impact on me are his encyclicals on the Dignity of Women, Christian Suffering, and on the Christian Family. I AM very happy that we made the choice that we did. My 8th child is Andrew John-Paul and my 9th, Peter Benedict. We purposely chose papal names with an instinct that we needed to defend it with Catholic pride! more than ever. We figured Andrew and Peter were brothers, and our modern “Peters”: John-Paul and Benedict like brothers! Very Petrine names. 🙂 Thank you for writing and for your comments, dear Erin.

  10. Some rambling responses to your fine, provocative piece:
    1)You cannot do evil that good might result. The justifications for slavery fall apart in light of this fundamental moral truth.
    2)Your comparison of Washington and JPII seems incommensurate. Washington’s owning of slaves is a very different kind of prudential decision than JPII’s blindness regarding one individual.
    3)Removing a statue of a slave owner from an NAACP function is understandable and appropriate. The question is not, Could Washington have *not* owned slaves? It’s simply, Was he a slave owner? Calling him “racist” is equivocation and not to the point.
    4)Take a more recent example of an objectively immoral policy that many have justified because the fine men who acted were immersed in a different time and circumstance: dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As “Edward Feser” puts it, “For it is never, never permissible to do what is intrinsically evil that good may come – not even if you’d feel much happier if you did it, not even if you’ve got some deeply ingrained tendency to want to do it, not even if it will shorten a war and save thousands of lives. Never.”

    • Mark, I am struck by your item number three- that “removing a statue of a slave owner from an NAACP function is understandable and appropriate.”
      Washington is known for rather more than just owning slaves. Sticking him in a box to not offend the delicate sensibilities of those in attendance is ridiculous. Should the NAACP also strive to avoid spending dollar bills? Or quarters?

      I feel that a teachable moment was passed up (“hey, America! A person can do great, admirable things even if they’re not perfect! Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly!”) in favor of political correctness, circa 1991.

      • I agree – it’s difficult to sympathize with folks who are so offended by the mere facts, that they apparently need to pretend the man did not exist, much less contribute anything of value to our nation. It’s whitewashing, revisionist, dishonest. They may be able to “remove” a statue from a scene, but they can’t “remove” him from history as easily. I’ll take mine straight up, “warts and all.”

  11. @ Simcha: Marvelous post! Also a great discussion afterward.

    @ Mark: I think your first and fourth points are a little off. Washington didn’t own slaves “that good might result”; rather, he owned slaves because it was perceived by his society to be a social and economic necessity, and because it was not considered evil at that time and in that place. Your point would be more appropriate to the context had Washington known from the start that it was evil, rather than coming to that realization late in his life. We know it to be evil, but only because we’re products of the 20th and 21st centuries; there were plenty of Catholics in Maryland that owned slaves, despite a couple of papal bulls condemning slavery.

  12. I love your last paragraph. There only WAS one perfect man. Anyone else, including all saints and heros (justified and otherwise) had their drawbacks. It makes me feel a little better to think about how St. Therese was seen as a brat, or that St. Nicholas once punched a heretic in the nose in a council. I’m not perfect, but I am trying, and maybe with God’s help, I too, can become a saint. This is our goal as Catholics.

  13. You make many good points Simcha. However, to be honest, I’m a little bit torn on the subject of JPII’s beatification. I was raised in the SSPX, which of course was less than enthusiastic about his papacy; and while I’m no longer SSPX, I’m also – please don’t hate me! – not convinced that calling him “the great” is right either.
    I disagree with your drawing a parallel between JPII’s shortcomings in his papacy and expecting Fra Angelico to split the atom. Fra Angelico, as a monk and artist, did what he was supposed to do, and did it well: paint, and be a holy monk. Science was not his domain. JPII did many great things both for the Church and the world, but surely reverence for the Eucharist falls under the expected duties of any priest, let alone the Pope and possible saint; therefore, I do consider him culpable as regards the blatant abuses that took place in 1986 at Assisi, etc. A parish priest should have known better. And as the appointing of bishops was also one of his most important duties, he’s at least partly responsible for the good or ill acctions of the men he appointed; and there were an awful lot of bad appointments. I know nobody but Christ is or can be perfect, but these things were Pope John Paul II’s job, and I think he should have done better.
    If sainthood is determined by personal holiness, then perhaps JPII is a saint; many saints did very imprudent things on this earth even with the best of intentions; but if the title “the great” refers to his actions as pope, then I am not ready to call him that.

    • I’m contemplating the job description of the Pope. It is first and foremost to lead the church? Everything he did points to that being an overwhelming yes. There no doubt that some of his appointments were questionable. Given the man he was as revealed through the way he lived his life, I would give him the benefit of the doubt and content that his main fault was to place trust in those who were not trustworthy.

      Even if that were not to be the case, I defer to God and His Mercy. It gives me peace to know that I don’t have to judge Pope John Paul, but that it is God’s job. Praise God for that because I would most definitely NOT want to be held to the measure with which I measure others when it comes to my job description of wife and mother, where I know I fail at the very least 10 times a day.

      • Erin – you cannot both decide to defend the sanctity of JPII and then “leave it up to the mercy of God” in the same breath. By taking up a cause for beautification, the Church is judging his life. While you may sigh in relief that you don’t have to do this – the Church is doing precisely this.

        I think the most troubling support of an untrustworthy individual during JPII’s papacy has to Marciel Maciel. That one is hard to understand.

        • Why can’t I? Everything that I personally know of JPII reveals to me, personally, that he is a man worthy of sainthood. However, no one can judge his soul, but God himself. I have no idea whether he knew full well about what Maciel was up to, but God does, so that gives ME peace that I don’t have to worry or sort that out. God will do that.

          In regards to the church “judging” his life. They investigate the life of a soul who is presented for canonization. I believe that is how Maciel’s double life was revealed, when he was presented for sainthood. Although you are correct, that is troubling, I trust in the HOly Spirit guiding the church and the process of canonization. Since JPII is going to be beatified on May 1, I can only trust that the same scrutiny that found the double life of Maciel DID NOT find anything unworthy of beautification in JPII.

          You know, it’s take me a long time, but I am learning that I don’t nor do I have to control everything, because God can take care of everything and He does and is every second of every day.

          • OH! One last thing I would like to add. I didn’t want to leave the impression that I question the beatification or the greatness of JPII in any way because of mistakes he may or may not have made.

            I see the fruits of his example and teachings everyday not only in my life, but in the lives of most of the people around me. He is most definitely worthy of sainthood. At least in my book, and apparently also, the Church’s.

    • “If sainthood is determined by personal holiness, then perhaps JPII is a saint; many saints did very imprudent things on this earth even with the best of intentions; but if the title “the great” refers to his actions as pope, then I am not ready to call him that.”

      1. Determination for sainthood is based on heroic virtue, not perfection. If that were the case, there would be no saints.
      2. “The great” is simply a populist expression.
      3. Unlike the great George Washington & other political heroes, saints are declared by God through the Church’s Magisterium, the miracles worked through their intercession etc. Opinions are like noses, everybody has one but God’s is the one that matters.

    • “If sainthood is determined by personal holiness, then perhaps JPII is a saint; many saints did very imprudent things on this earth even with the best of intentions; but if the title ‘the great’ refers to his actions as pope, then I am not ready to call him that.”

      I understand where you’re coming from, having seen similar reservations spoken elsewhere. I put it to you, however, that with other “greats” of the past we don’t know enough details of their papacies to judge them uninterrupted, unspoiled triumphs. JP2 reigned for a very long time, in an era when almost every papal move and gesture took place in front of reporters and cameras ready to document his mistakes for history; Ss. Leo, Gregory and Nicholas didn’t labor under that burden.

      Ultimately, the term “the Great” isn’t a ratification of every papal act but a judgment of the pope’s impact on the Church and on history taken as a whole. I don’t think any recitation of JP2’s fumbles—Assisi I, Fr. Maciel, Banco Ambrosiano—is going to nitpick the “Great” label to death.

        • There are quite a few people who think Assisi I was; I’m not vested in either point of view. MY point, however, doesn’t depend on it being a goof or not; my point is that the whole of JP2’s papacy is greater than the sum of its parts.

          We’re still too temporally close to his papacy. As with many other chunks of time, a hundred years’ distance may eventually reveal that that which we hold to be life-or-death critical will turn out to be relatively unimportant, while smaller gestures we overlook now will turn out to be historical hinges. Nevertheless, taking all things together, I still think he merits the “Great” tag.

  14. Considering the thousands of Polish priests who were slaughtered in WWII by both firing squad and concentration camps, considering the many dear friends of his who lost their lives to the evil machinations of a lost generation, I think Pope John Paul II was understandably more concerned with the lack of love, than the lack of discipline in the world. Still a great man by any measure.

  15. Great Post! As a historian, it always makes me uncomfortable when we attempt to study historical figures outside the context of the time in which they lived.
    For instance, Washington took the acceptable approach of his time for someone who believed slavery was wrong but still owned slaves. He made arrangements that they should be freed upon his wife’s death. Many did not do that much, and continued to maintain that slavery was acceptable, no matter what. Today, we group Washington with the others and called them all racists. The ones to took up arms and fought a Civil War to end slavery we call heroes, no matter what their personal beliefs. (Lincoln’s racial writings would curl your hair.)
    Now, you and I and many others believe abortion is murder, but we are taking the acceptable approach of praying against it, speaking against it and trying to get laws changed. If someday our descendants end up fighting another Civil War to end abortion, should we be classified with the pro-choice camp just because we didn’t do more?
    Just a thought.

    • I don’t see the moral parallel between someone who believes abortion is the taking of an innocent life but doesn’t do much beyond praying about it and someone who actively held slaves. Even in Washington’s time there were people who believed slavery was wrong but didn’t participate in slave liberation or repatriation programs. John Adams is a perfect example of a non boat rocking abolitionist.

      I see Washington’s moral equivalent in pro-choice politicians or people who sit on boards of Planned Parenthood.

      However, I’m sick of talking about race and slavery so I’ll shut up now. I’ve taken the thread off its intent which was to talk about giving our children heroes. I’m lucky Simcha hasn’t blocked my IP address.

  16. But Eileen, Adams was a New Englander and not a farmer, and, as was pointed out earlier (re: the Scandinavian countries not having the farming economy that depended on slaves’ labour), freeing his slaves was not the same thing. For a plantation owner to free slaves before the Industrial Rev meant shutting down the farm.

    WE know that the slaves were people and deserving of respect, but if the prevailing belief was different (and it was), it is unjust to judge anyone from that period by our standards. It is akin to mocking the medical beliefs of blood-letting or using leeches to alleviate fevers or condeming surgeon/barbers who didn’t wash their hands before operating and then killed their patients via hand-borne infections.

    Should Blacks today be insulted by the proximity of a statue of George Washington? Maybe. And maybe it’s not for anyone else to decide, but it strikes me somewhat like a women being insulted by that same statue because he didn’t insist that we should have the franchise.

  17. Perhaps the thing that concerns me most about the leader’s choice to in any way demean Washington’s memory is that it is a slap in the face to all that MLK is said to have stood for. If indeed we were to be celebrating the “content of their character rather than the color of their skin” then are they saying the Washington had poor character? On the other hand, given MLK’s well known and frequent adultery and plagiarism, perhaps he was not the one to be talking about character anyway.

  18. I’m sure you’re a lovely person but your blog photo is so creepy it detracts from your posting. Find a professional photographer who can help.

  19. Regarding the idea of children needing heroes. I think of it as a parallel to how children see their parents.
    I think Mark Twain had it figured out.
    When I was young, my Dad was the strongest, bravest, most intelligent guy on the planet. Then I got a little older and started to see his many faults. At one point I even reached a point where I had to stop and think hard about his good qualities.
    I believe that if we mature properly (both intellectually and spiritually), we reach a point where we can put it all in context and appreciate the complexity that is a human being. We can see all the faults and still love and respect the person. And we can appreciate what use they have made of their God-given gifts and talents.

  20. I think that we all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that the NAACP and others have an explicitly racist agenda. They want to enforce draconian “anti-racist” (read, anti-European) standards on everyone else; but when it comes to the black community, racism is not only alive and well, it is also accepted.

    This can be seen by their hiding George Washington. It isn’t because he owned slaves: Africans own slaves! It is because of what he stood for, which is the advance of European ideals and culture. To them, this is the greatest evil which is “keeping the black man down.” But if allowing European culture of flourish subjugates another culture by its mere existence, isn’t this an admission of inferiority? Hence the root of the matter is their anti-European racism coupled with a staggering inferiority complex. No wonder they’re so offended by a mere statue! Or certain literature, southern flags, and so on.

    Maybe its time that the NAACP and their ilk turn their wrathful frustration inward into their own community. Instead of projecting their fears and complexes onto the wider culture at large, they should be rooting out their own vices which are holding them back from widespread progress.

  21. We really need to uncouple slavery from racism! There are very few people on this planet who are not descended from both slaves and slave owners. Slavery was globally ubiquitous until very recently. Did you know that Russia freed their slaves at about the same time that we freed ours?

    Even in American history slavery is not a black/white issue. Many white people came to this country as slaves. Many black people came here as free men. Many Asians came here (and are still coming here today) as slaves.

    Blacks don’t own the slavery or racism issues any more than Jews own the genocide issue.

    I believe black leaders stress “slavery = racism” as a way to re-enforce feelings of victimhood, resentment, and entitlement. We need to call them out on this destructive behavior every single time we encounter it.

  22. Thomas and Peg,
    Thank you for your very courageous posts. Here’s a little story that reinforces Thomas’ premise of inferiority complex. You can Google for details.
    A few years ago a group of Native Americans sought to give those of European descent a sense of their feelings about “Redskins” style mascots. They created a team called “The Whites” and gave them the slogan, “If its white, its all right.” They also had T-shirts printed up with a picture of the classic, Ward Cleaver style white guy on the front. Unfortunately, their plan backfired when their intended victims became the team’s biggest supporters and quickly bought up all the T-Shirts, etc. that they had had made. It appears that they were comfortable enough with themselves to have a laugh over it. Hmmm.

  23. There are two parts of the post that really don’t sit well with me. First: we don’t actually know why they covered the GW statue–we are just guessing.

    Second: I read a book once about racism and US history where one of the author’s main points was to address the notion that historical contextualization could explain our country’s tolerance of racist practices (slavery among them, at the time. No one’s saying we invented it) AND the question of national heroes.

    The author went into great depth about about the abolitionists in our country’s earliest history, the ones we have never heard of, who actively worked against racially discriminatory practices. And much of what he was talking about happened even before 1776. I am inclined to believe him; he had done his research. He had names and dates and times and places. And, even more compelling, apparently there were already anti-abolition laws in various parts of America (even before the Revolutionary War), punishing anyone who would try to free or defend a slave. He asked an obvious question: Why would there have been a need for such laws had everyone been “on the same page” regarding the slavery question?

    In other words, there WERE white, European people who were risking their own skins/freedoms/property to protect Native American AND Black people (the ones who were suffering the most at the time from racial injustice). And that’s besides all the other abolitionists who came later, but still before a time when it was P.C. Lots and lots of people suffered and even died for this cause.

    The argument was compelling and I liked his conclusion: teach children about those people. Learn their names and teach this history as American history, instead of excusing their powerful contemporaries because of a so-called culture of blindness. Because even if we DO believe in a “dominant” cultural outlook on a given issue, immorality is still immorality, as we anti-abortion-ists keep saying!

  24. Slavery, a terrible evil? Perhaps not. Israelite fathers were permitted to sell their children into temporary slavery (Ex. 21), and Mary rejoiced in being the slave of the Lord (we translate it as handmaid, but it is the feminine form of slave). True, hers was a voluntary servitude as opposed to the involuntary servitude that we associate with slavery, but the totality of surrender is no different, only the motive. When one has a Lord as good as ours, being a slave to Him is a joy.

    • Would you enjoy slavery? Anyway, what is permitted is not necessarily the same as what is good. Jesus brought out that point in his reference to Moses on divorce.

      Being a “slave of the Lord” is, in the end, a metaphor, whose basis lies, ironically, in human freedom. Let’s not confuse the figurative meaning of words with the literal one.

  25. You sure have a knack for starting intense discussions, Simcha! 🙂

    For my part, I’m just going to say: well-written, and I’m glad you said it. Thank you.

  26. Great points…but I wonder, supposing sometime in the future abortion is abolished. And there is a rally to celebrate some hero who had a significant effect on the issue, as MLK did with racial equality- because even after slavery was abolished, many in this country treated African Americans as inferiors…but 100 years before the rally, a statue was erected of a prominent doctor who advanced some amazing medical miracle like a cure for cancer, AND performed 100,000’s of abortions because hey those were the times we lived in. And (for whatever reason) the rally is in the same place as the statue? what then?

    • You mean, would we cover it up? I sure hope not. Making an ironic note of it in speech would be better in my mind than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

  27. Mel’s point is what I was thinking. The post is thought-provoking, but I’m not sure I buy all the points, mostly the point that Mel brought up…how you can pick and choose what you make morally relative?
    I can see the point in the NAACP having a bit of a problem with the statue being there, but I see the solution as what was silly. Because they aren’t children that need heroes, they’re grown adults that know history. But building a box around it? Why not pick a different place to have the event?

  28. Hi Simcha,
    Thanks for this post. I’ve been surrounded lately by a lot of talk about this beatification, most of it rather negative (the Maciel situation, and sex scandals overall getting the most attention). JPII seemed to me to have been unwilling or unable to address certain problems, and I have to admit this used to make me rather angry.
    My dad’s take was similar to yours, he felt that God would sort our ‘Holy Mother’ out in due time and that JPII had some very particular jobs to do, not the least of which was bringing people to the Church, which he did quite well.
    The other aspect of his life which people forget in the talk of the political aspects of his papacy, was that he suffered and deteriorated IN PUBLIC. In the midst of the culture of death growing ever stronger was this frail, ancient man holding his head up and giving some really wonderful talks and writing a lot about affirming life, when he could barely speak or hold a pen. This to me is the central message of this papacy. That the old, the sick, the frail have incredible things to say and to teach us and that to turn our back on the weakest of our members is a sin and, like most sins, a huge mistake for our own well being.
    Anyway, thanks again for this post and for reminding me of the wisdom of my own father (RIP).

  29. Kind of late to the comments here, but here is something my husband said which I thought might be of interest:

    “Here is a curiosity: One of the strongest arguments for the abolition of slavery is that it violates a person’s natural right to liberty. George Washington believed in, promoted, and defended natural rights. The NAACP does not believe in slavery. But neither does it believe in natural rights. Are they so absolutely sure that their reasons for objecting to slavery are as strong as Washington’s philosophy of natural rights? And if their reasons are not as strong, is the NAACP, on balance, better or worse for black people than the slave holder Washington?

    In short, should the modern black prefer Washington’s strong argument but poor personal example, or the NAACP’s strong personal example but possibly poor argument?”

    • “‘In short, should the modern black prefer Washington’s strong argument but poor personal example, or the NAACP’s strong personal example but possibly poor argument?'”

      Ooo I like that. I will have to save this for future conversation starters.

  30. Simcha, thanks for another great post. I wanted to let you know that on the day you wrote this post, our fourth child was born and we named him John Paul, after John Paul II.

  31. Ignoring all of the slavery stuff above…I loved this post. Thanks for a reminder about the only perfect man. 🙂 I try to remind myself of that when I want to harp at my husband.

  32. […] I’m sorry, but I am reluctant to buy the NAACP’s excuse about boxing up this statue of George Washington. Please, if you haven’t already, run—don’t walk—to read this post by Simcha Fisher: Brilliant Men in Dark Boxes. […]

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