“They’re Both True” | A Fourth of July Sermon
A while back I watched a PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.” For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days. My favorite part of this particular special were the interviews with the actors, most of them people of color, who play the roles of our Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white, and slave-owners to boot. At one point in the special, the actors were taken to some of the historical sites where the story that they dance and sing on stage each night actually took place. At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home, standing in what would have been the slave quarters of the Father of our Country, the actors were asked to reflect on their feelings about being there.
George Washington became a slave owner when he was just 11 years old and his father died leaving him ten slaves. When he died 56 years later, George Washington owned 317 slaves. And he wasn’t unique in this. At least half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. Slavery was America’s Original Sin, that and the wholesale extermination of the America’s original residents.
Playing people who were responsible for doing such things on stage, those “Hamilton” actors confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism, and genius of these historic figures. But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, the ignorance and the evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators. “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr. And their response was simple, direct, and spiritually profound – “They’re both true” – they said.
The picture at the top of this posting is part of the glorious antiseptic version of American history that I was taught in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at Glenoaks Elementary School in Glendale, California. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were all presented to us as flawless giants of virtue and vision. They were uniformly noble and moral. No shadow on their lives was ever seen. No flaw in their character was ever discussed. No contradiction of their values was ever exposed.
In the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. there is a fresco called “The Apotheosis of Washington.” It shows our first President ascending into the heavens and sitting in an exalted state, draped in royal purple, a rainbow arch at his feet, flanked by the goddess Victoria to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right. The word “apotheosis” literally means “the elevation of someone to divine status.” And that’s how I was taught American history as a kid. Our founders were transcendent heroes to be revered.
Today the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction, and our tendency is to criticize and condemn them. Their flaws have been fully revealed. Their failures have been thoroughly exposed. Their contributions have been minimized, and in some cases entirely dismissed, because they believed things and did things that we now find – and rightly so – morally and socially repugnant. The knowledge that they were all products of their times who suffered from all of the limitations of their age has left some of us unable to find any good in them at all. The discovery that they were very real human beings with the same jumble of wisdom and stupidity that afflicts us still has contributed to the widespread desire to pull them down from their pedestals.
Recently Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has voiced his deep concern about what he calls the attempts to “rewrite American history” that he says he sees happening all around him today.
Slavery is an undeniable fact of our history. So is the costly war fought to end it. Neither can be denied. Neither can be ignored. Neither will go away through cultural cleansing… Removing statues and renaming buildings will not change the past.
But why would we want to change our knowledge of the the past? As Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British Statesman and Philosopher said – “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Neither the distortion of blind adulation nor the destruction of unrelenting criticism serves us well when looking at the past and its people. I need neither worship nor devastate those who have come before. There was greatness in our Founders, to be sure, and depravity, without a doubt, just as there is greatness in us too, in you and me, and a healthy dose of depravity as well. Let go of either of these twin truths about our humanity, and you’ll wind up in the ditch of romanticism on the one side of the road, or in the ditch of despair on the other. To keep the car in the middle of this road you’ve got to keep a steady eye on both the potential for greatness that resides in our being human, and on the reality of the misery and miserableness that is just as much a part of our being human.
I remember an exchange that Randall Balmer had with Doug Frank at the Oregon Extension of Trinity College on his “journey into the Christian subculture of America” narrated in his 1989 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Oxford). Doug Frank referenced the exclusionary tendencies of those of us who are Christians to draw lines and make judgements about the spiritual condition of others. He said –
We put ourselves on the good side of that line and figure out who’s on the bad, so that we can take our shots across the line and justify ourselves.
Then he contrasted this way of thinking with what he found in the New Testament, concluding –
I’m to the point now when I know when I am in the presence of bad theology when I hear that line being drawn. When I hear that line being drawn, I know that I’m not in the presence of the Gospel. … The Gospel says we’re all sinners, but God loves us anyway.
Instead of lines being drawn that divide us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank argued that what we probably should be drawing instead is a great big circle that takes us all in as sinners, and that positions us all squarely under the umbrella if God’s grace. And this is precisely what I see Jesus doing in the familiar story of the woman taken in adultery that only the Gospel of John tells (John 8:1-11). The Pharisees drew a line. Jesus drew a circle. The Pharisees wanted to exclude the sinner. Jesus wanted to forgive the sin. The Pharisees saw the situation in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, in or out. Jesus looked at the women, and at her accusers, and what He saw instead was what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would much later call – “Simul justus et peccator” – the fact that we human beings are “simultaneously just or righteous, and sinful or pitiful.” From the perspective of Reformation theology, the cast of “Hamilton” got it exactly right when they looked at the nobility of the ideals of our national founders and at the depravity of their actions as slave owners, and concluded that “they’re both true.”
This is the kind of realism that needs to characterize the way that we as Christians both think about ourselves and look at others. The Bible harbors no illusions about human nature. It names both our potential for greatness and our capacity for corruption quite clearly. The trick, it seems to me, is hanging onto these two parts of ourselves as human beings at the same time.
Let go of our capacity for corruption and our potential for greatness inflates beyond all bounds and become a judgmental kind of perfectionism. Francis Schaeffer in his sermon “The Weakness of God’s Servants” talked about the cruelty of perfectionism and the way that it shatters our relationships. If you have to be perfect, then when I discover that you’re not, my relationship is going to wobble and maybe even crash. Francis Schaeffer saw it clearly –
In the home, in the man/woman relationship, nothing is crueler than for the wife or the husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up…
When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys the child as well as alienating the child. But the child can also expect too much of parents… And because the parent does not measure up to the child’s conception of perfection, the child smashes the parent…
How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal? And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?
And how has our citizenship suffered when it dawns in us that our Founders weren’t perfect and that our embodiment of their noble national vision of justice and liberty for all has only been partially realized even in our own day?
“Bible-believing Christians should never have the reaction designated by the term ‘shocked’” Francis Schaeffer once explained. “There is a type of Christian,” he said, “who constantly draws himself or herself up and declares, ‘I’m shocked’ and acts completely surprised when somebody actively demonstrates that they’re a sinner.” “But we’re all sinners,” he said, “and we don’t need to look beyond ourselves to know this.” But we also don’t need to look beyond ourselves to know that we are capable of greatness too, and so we must not let go of that impulse either.
Sin is serious business and we must never minimize that… but we must have compassion for each other, too… The realism of the Bible is that God does not excuse sin, but neither is God finished with us when He finds sin in us.
“They’re both true.”
That’s what the actors in “Hamilton” – almost all of them people of color – said when it was pointed out in that PBS special that the genius and courage of the historical characters they are immortalizing on stage were all deeply flawed individuals as well. They refused to excuse the darkness that they found in them, even as they couldn’t ignore the nobility of what it was that they attempted and actually, if imperfectly, accomplished. So look again at that picture of George Washington at the top of this posting. We need neither deify nor demonize him. See his moral greatness as the Father of this country. Then see his great moral failing as a slave owner. See that contradiction, and then see me, and see yourself, and see everyone you know and love.
Jesus said “you without sin can cast the first stone,” and “go and sin no more” in the story of the woman taken in adultery. And it is only as we come to terms with both of these things that Christ said, one about our corruption and the other one about our genuine capacity for greatness, that we will understand the struggle that is in in our hearts, and the grace that is in His. DBS +