Presidentwoodrowwilson-e1448043956405-1280x960“We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed’.”

So says Wilglory Tanjong, writing for the Black Justice League, to explain why Princeton University should strip its buildings and titles of any reference to one of the school’s most notable alumni, former president Woodrow Wilson. The Black Justice League believes Wilson’s achievements as president a century ago are overshadowed by atrocious views on race and segregation.

How has Princeton responded to the demands to demote Wilson?

According to Tanjong, the administration claims “we owe a great deal to people who are deeply flawed, and not many people can transcend the prejudices of the times they lived in.” Instead of sitting in judgment, the administration recommends we “assess ourselves with great humility because we, too, are flawed, and it’s likely that we will also be guilty of sins and prejudices that to future generations who look back on our own legacies will be very obvious.”

We could sum up Princeton’s position as an application of the Golden Rule in temporal terms: Do unto others (in the past) what you would have others (in the future) do unto you.

Tanjong’s response rejects that possibility out of hand: “We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed.’” Wilson’s sin in one area outweighs anything good he may have done in another. He is due no honor.

Who is right here?

The Conservative Error

The conservative tendency is to dismiss out of hand the demands of groups like the Black Justice League. If conservatives err, it’s on the side of tradition, by whitewashing history and minimizing the sinfulness of our nation’s heroes.

Tanjong makes a good point when she says that describing the subjugation of other human beings as merely “a flaw” minimizes the seriousness of the sin. The Bible challenges the conservative tendency to minimize past sin, giving us words like “wicked” and “evil” to better describe the reality.

The Progressive Error

But progressives err on the side of the present, by whitewashing ourselves and minimizing our own complicity in unjust systems and structures. When we cast ourselves as pristine in our righteousness, we find it harder to see redeemable qualities in those who have gone before us. We judge ourselves by the lenient standards of the present and thus become blind to our own wickedness and evil.

The biblical worldview also challenges the progressive tendency. We owe everything to people who are ‘deeply flawed.’ Our cultural inheritance does not come to us untainted. Sin has infected all who have gone before us, and sin infects us still today.

An Ever-Present Problem

Americans are not the only ones to wrestle with questions like this.

While I was living in Romania, my in-laws’ street underwent a name change. The street had once been named for a Romanian leader in the 1930’s. After the fall of Communism, many claimed the leader’s dictatorial tendencies outweighed the good he did for the country, and the name was switched.

Major world cities have seen their names come and go: Russia’s St. Petersburg became Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg again. Reassessments of leaders and legacies happen in every country.

Pop culture is not immune to these controversies. Should The Cosby Show be forever banned from television? Is it right for the brilliant cast of The Cosby Show to be relegated to obscurity due to the wicked actions of its star? Does the groundbreaking element of this sitcom’s legacy forever disappear?

The Line of Good and Evil

I am not proposing quick and easy answers to these questions. I agree with Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today about our “beautiful, broken Christian ancestors” and the twin dangers of airbrushing the people in our past or deriding our heritage altogether.

I also find it helpful to listen to people who have faced suffering and oppression in ways I have not.

One example is Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who endured years of abuse in the Gulag for opposing the Communist regime. Solzhenitsyn recognized that most people cannot be easily categorized “good” and “bad.” Life is simply too complex. “The line of good and evil runs through every human heart,” he wrote. That insight comes not from a man of privilege, cloistered in an ivory tower, sheltered from suffering. It comes from someone who looked evil squarely in the eye, and yet was incisive enough to see evil lurking in his own heart.

Good and Evil Grow Together

In his excellent book on sin, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. helps us understand why this categorization is so difficult:

“Evil always appears in tandem with good… Good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”

Plantinga mentions several examples from history:

“Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables.

Other ironies appear in other characters, including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves.

The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.”

He concludes:

“Observing character ironies of these kinds, we naturally conclude that human beings are inexpressibly complex creatures in whom great good and great evil often cohabit, sometimes in separate and well-insulated rooms and sometimes in an intimacy so deep and twisted and twined that we never get to see the one moral quality without the other.”

Flawed Legacies

Recognizing this human complexity is not to cast a blind vote for a pristine past – either by papering over the wickedness of national figures or by only lifting up past heroes who meet all our contemporary standards of righteousness.

Instead, it is to realistically assess the human heart, receive the good and the bad from the tainted legacies of our forebears, and pass on deeply flawed legacies of our own, ever hopeful that God will grant our descendants seeds of grace from the mixed inheritance we leave them.