Mood swings are part of the human condition. So it’s no surprise that the history of the human race is also marked by wild, irrational tides sweeping in extreme directions. Back in 1863, Americans wanted to honor George Washington prominently in the newly completed US Capitol building. A renowned artist was commissioned to paint a fresco on the underside of the capitol dome. Today you can still marvel at The Apotheosis of George Washington that depicts the first president elevated to the status of a god and seated among divine beings in the heavens. Don’t miss the point: he’s seated in Heaven as a god, not a saint!
It’s a majestic fresco, but I’ve always hated it. There’s only one God and his name is not George. Indeed, Mr. Washington was a modest man who would never have tolerated such an irreverent comparison during his lifetime. But by the 1860’s the country was emotionally charged, war drums were already pounding, and the impeccable character of the late first president was one of few things everyone could agree on.
So it’s painful to see angry mobs running toward the other extreme today. We all agree that slavery is the darkest blot on the history of our nation, and it’s on the record that George Washington was one of many who owned slaves in the colonies. Amazingly, even some well-educated Americans have actually been caught up in the delusion that this sin outweighs everything else the man ever did. It matters not that he fought to win our liberty, or served as a unifying first president, or even that he refused to be crowned king for life! The rumbling has already begun that statues must come down; schools and institutions must be renamed. To some, George Washington is nothing more than a despised human trafficker and a disgrace.
As Christians, you and I appreciate the simple principle that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Even saints have sinned. The only reason any of us can ever stand before God hopeful and unashamed is that someone has carried our condemnation for us. Christ has exchanged his righteousness for our fetid rags of guilt and shame. That’s why Scripture never conceals the fact that David committed adultery with the wife of one of his oldest and most loyal generals. Worse still, he finally ordered the death of that trusted friend in order to conceal the illicit pregnancy and claim the woman for himself. How can it be that God is a holy God and yet David can be described as a man after His own heart? Grace is messy.
So it’s actually ungodly to demand that capable leaders must also be morally flawless in order to serve their country. Nobody is. That explains why a woman caught in adultery walked away unharmed after Jesus concurred with her death sentence, but insisted the first stone should be cast by someone who had never sinned.
It’s also outrageous and irrational to judge historical figures by present day standards that evolved in a different environment decades later. Many of us in 2017 are offended by President Roosevelt’s order that Japanese-Americans should be rounded up and relocated at the onset of World War II, but we have the advantage of knowing how everything turned out. He made that call in different circumstances under unimaginable pressure. We cringe when we read about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but President Truman had to sign that order back in 1945 having been advised that the military invasion of Japan could result in another 4 million casualties and 800,000 additional deaths among US fighting forces. Wouldn’t it be grand if you and I could delay all our hard choices fifty years until we could confirm how everything had turned out?
The desire to erase painful national history is rooted in ignorance and immaturity. History is dead and gone, for better or worse. Bad history doesn’t enslave and destroy people, but bad memory can. There’s a reason we build Holocaust Museums. We say “Never Forget,” so that it will never be tolerated again. The same should be true of slavery. Let’s not deceive ourselves with the illusion that great people are not capable of serious mistakes. We all are.
The irony here is so rich. Matthew 7 doesn’t actually command us not to judge other people, as is commonly suggested. In context, it reminds us not to judge unfairly; not to hold others to unrealistic standards we could never meet in our own lives. Christ’s warning is that people who judge unfairly will be held to the same unjust standards. So the angry idealists assailing Washington and Jefferson are doing precisely what the Bible warns against. Witch hunts can feel unifying and even satisfying in the moment. They invariably lead to painful history, easier to prevent than erase.
And lift up the Cross!