Faith Politics

Toppling statues: the art of untangling sins from legacies

Talk about a #MeToo moment!

Media outlets didn’t know exactly how to handle the situation. Some avoided it completely, but others felt compelled to print the details.

FBI documents revealed the alleged details of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conversations with a Baptist pastor discussing which women in his church they thought would be “suitable for natural and unnatural sex acts.” Then, King “looked on and laughed” as the pastor actually raped a woman in a hotel room, according to the documents. She had just voiced her disapproval of their lewd conversation.

FBI officials claimed that in 1964 they had bugged the hotel room King was in and that they heard the incident.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Garrow wrote an article about the incident, which he learned about by the FBI documents. 

Here was the dilemma. On the one hand, Garrow was a Pulitzer Prize award winner, so his judgement is highly respected. On the other hand, it is well known that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deeply distrusted King and wanted to hurt him. That alone doesn’t discredit the allegations, and FBI documents are typically considered credible documents. But still, Hoover had a bias.

But Garrow is one of the main historians — if not the No. 1 historian — on Dr. King. His Pulitzer Prize award was given because of his 1981 book about King.

“I have been the King guy for 40 years and I wrote a book on exactly this 38 years ago,” Garrow said. “I felt a complete obligation to confront this stuff. I did not feel I had a choice.”

Even if this incident isn’t true, there’s no way King would survive the #MeToo era today. He was constantly unfaithful to his wife and had dalliances with other women. 

The #MeToo movement has forced America to question the legitimacy of powerful men who take advantage of their authority for sexual favors or sex discrimination. There’s no excuse for it, regardless of how influential the man — or woman — may be.

Powerful men have lost their jobs, their careers, and their status. 

So how should we deal with the legacy of Dr. King? Should we continue to view him as an icon for Civil Rights in the United States? Should we continue to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday? 

This could be a tough question to ask in broader terms. How do we deal with iconic people who left a legacy but who also had major character flaws or who committed terrible sins?

Today, people have been advocating tearing down many historical monuments. It started with tearing down Confederate monuments of people such as Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. They fought for the Confederacy but have often been known as men of high character. Nevertheless, the legacy of slavery is despicable. 

Confederate flags have been removed, and the state of Mississippi has voted to change its flag and remove the portion that includes the Confederate flag. 

These decisions are the easier ones. National Review Editor Rich Lowry said that Americans shouldn’t have any particular attachment to Confederate statues. 

President Donald Trump said this is a slippery slope, and that eventually people may want to take down statues of our Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both are regarded as two of our country’s best presidents, and they were undoubtedly brave men who risked everything to gain independence. They were bulwarks for our country even after it was founded, helping to develop the country from a fragile embryo to one of the major powerhouses civilization has ever witnessed.

Nevertheless, they owned slaves.

Thomas Jefferson never showed any inclination to free his slaves, even though he did say it was an abominable practice that needed to end. Ironically, Jefferson lived an extravagant life and died with debt, whereas his fellow Founding Father John Adams, who never owned a massive plantation and never dreamed of owning a slave, died with plenty of money in the bank.

Washington was more noble. He did free his slaves in his will when he died. However, even he struggled with the idea and never seemed to know how to free his slaves and continue his way of life. His conscience did wrestle with it, unlike most other Founding Fathers. 

Some do believe today that we should rid ourselves of Jefferson and Washington’s memories. Protesters in Portland toppled the statue of Washington and burned it in June 2020 due to his history of slavery. 

Here’s the problem with that idea.

If we read about just about any historical figure and truly dig deep, we are going to find virtually all of them were deeply flawed individuals. 

We could point to Alexander Hamilton, who never owned slaves and abhorred the practice. We could point to how he was a hard worker, how he always forged ahead despite his opposition, and how he never wavered.

Except he did waver. He was unfaithful to his wife and had an ongoing affair with another woman and ultimately was bribed. His affair was ongoing while he was forging away with major plans for the new country. 

We could point to the Bible at the failures of King David, who was still referred to as a man after God’s own heart. He committed murder and adultery. We could point to the Bible at the failures of Sampson, who enjoyed fraternizing with prostitutes and his country’s enemies. He still carried quite the legacy as a warrior for God’s people. We can point to the legacy of King Solomon, who despite the privilege of ruling Israel during its spiritual and economic peak, brought the kingdom down due to his foolishness, idolatry, and for falling for evil women. 

King David and King Solomon would definitely not survive the #MeToo era any more than Dr. King would!

Dig deep enough, look at the heart of people the way God would, and you will find that no one truly deserves to be revered. There is no one who is fully innocent. And those who haven’t sinned greatly have only been held back by the grace of God. 

If we dig deep, we will see that untangling the good from the evil is often quite messy and even impossible. 

The best we can do is to elevate the positives to promote their legacies. 

No, let’s not discard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. May we continue to make him the face of Civil Rights progress in the 60s. 

Let’s not discard George Washington’s legacy. May we continue to hold onto his legacy as the father of our nation and one of the great defenders of freedom. 

Let’s not discard Thomas Jefferson. May we continue to hold onto his legacy. 

Yes, let’s acknowledge their faults and be sure not to repeat them. 

But we do not owe anyone any penance for their errors. 

Let’s not discard King David’s legacy or stop reading the Psalms because of his poor choices. Let’s not discard King Solomon’s legacy or stop reading the Proverbs because of his poor choices. 

Instead, may we continue to elevate their legacies while also pointing out their sins, knowing that there is only One Who is good.

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