I can’t recall the exact number of times I’ve heard that Thomas Jefferson’s opinions are irrelevant because he owned slaves, but if I could make an estimate, it would have to be about several dozen. And if Jefferson were alone the subject of such an unjust and ridiculous opinion, I would leave the matter, but I have heard it sincerely professed about Martin Luther because he didn’t have an un-Christian and Evangelical obsession with the Jews, and about John Calvin because he burned a heretic at the stake. And the more I examine the matter, it seems that everyone feels perfectly comfortable finding a characteristic of a great or genius man insufferable, when what such people really mean to do is ignore other ideas which, perhaps if not perfect, are worth serious consideration.
There is good truth in the idea that our actions speak louder than our words: Jesus Himself said that a tree is known by its fruit. Yet if we are completely honest with ourselves, this truth manifests itself more usually in consistency than in totality. To profess something one day and flout it another may be an indication that a man does not really believe something; but anyone with any experience whatsoever knows that our urges are oftentimes not consistent with our morals (in fact, we may say that our morals exist separately from our urges because they contradict our animal passions), and that even though a man may believe something, he is often incapable of carrying it out, or he may carry it out inconsistently, and with great struggle. Thus, for Thomas Jefferson to have owned some slaves, when the overwhelming majority of his actions betrayed a sincere and consistent devotion to the principles of universal liberty and brotherhood, and his own autobiography testified of his endeavors against the slave trade, may perhaps not be acceptable, but it is entirely expectable.
This willful inconsistency, however, is greatly compounded if we consider that men, being ignorant not only of the universe, but frequently of themselves, are oftentimes blind to their faults, and that blindness oftentimes results not from our lack of reason, but from our lack of righteousness. In other words, humans see only what they desire to see; and if our desires are not yet perfect, then we cannot expect perfect knowledge.
And thus, admitting first that men do not always know what they ought to know, and they do not do what they know they should do, it is only fair to admit that every man in some way not only compromises his philosophy, but does so in manners unusually brazen. In essence, the entire course of humanity, if it is not remembered by its unnecessary moral calamities, exists as a testament to our immense hypocrisy. I have yet to meet more than a handful of Christians, in my four years since conversion, who actually lived as though the world was passing away, and preached as though the eternal destiny of their neighbors could very likely be hell (I myself am not among this handful). If this is the case with the redeemed, how much worse must it be with the unregenerate?
When people are quick to abandon great men and great ideas because of glaring but isolated and entirely expectable flaws, it says less about the person ignored and more about the person ignoring them. It says, in essence, that what we seek is not divine ideas, but idols; but even more importantly, it shows willful ignorance and conceit. It shows willful ignorance, in that we pretend the flaws of our champions nonexistent or unimportant, while constantly recalling the flaws of our enemies; and it shows conceit, in that we are unwilling to admit not only our own moral inconsistencies, but our outright and purposeful failures. It not only wrongly suggests that our preferred historical persons are perfect — not because they were, but because of their contributions to our current mode of thought — but it suggests, by implying we should listen to ourselves, that the current mode of thought is perfect, and the wisest and most righteous people alone worth listening to are the ones currently speaking.
If we are such a perfect and enlightened people, consider why so many liberals claim to love black people, but so few of them — in fact, none that I have ever known — move into black neighborhoods. I wonder why so many “Christians” unfairly claim that Jesus said not to judge, and then feel perfectly comfortable snubbing those who do not agree with their interpretation of this principle, or with the way in which it is carried out. I wonder why we claim to be against slavery, but endorse a prison system that commits essentially the same injustice against non-violent offenders, and does so at great expense to victimized citizens. I wonder why Americans care about Syrian children being gassed, when the President of the United States personally supports children being left for dead after birth. I wonder why so many pastors feel comfortable preaching a biblical basis for law when they are unwilling to follow a biblical basis for church. I wonder why gay people feel that it is less tyrannical to force a man to make someone a cake than it is to say he doesn’t want to bake a cake for someone. I wonder why so many feel perfectly happy fighting rich businessmen, who give jobs to poor people, but then say nothing negative about prosperity Gospel preachers, who not only make the gullible poorer, but further their damnation. I wonder why Christian conservatives spend so much time, energy, and money fighting gay marriage when they have already accepted no-fault divorce. And if our priorities are rightly placed, it is only fair to wonder why Miley Cyrus and Trayvon Martin receive so much attention, but when we airstrike an Afghani wedding, or when black teenagers roam in packs across the country, beating up white strangers and robbing innocent store clerks, almost nobody has the decency to blush.
We claim that Martin Luther hated Jews. I ask, by examination of our own behaviors: whom do we prove that we hate? We claim that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves — I ask, why do we enslave the poor in usurious debt? We claim that others are flawed: if so, then none more than we. Modern Americans are so saturated in their own hypocrisy, across all spectrums, black and white, gay and straight, Christian and secular, that it is a wonder we can feel comfortable judging any men for any reason at all — for if there ever was a people more fitly necessitous of humility than modern Americans, I have yet to encounter them either in the present world or the past.
What need we have — to encounter ideas by merit alone! What joy it is — to look past the fragility of man, and grasp wisdom, utility, and righteousness! To grapple with the invisible and subject the visible! To wrestle with truth until, like Jacob, we refuse to let go until we receive a blessing! What is the difference between the strong and weak? Is this not it? By God’s grace, let those of us who are strong dominate the rest!