COMPLICATED LEGACIES IN A CANCEL CULTURE: How Do We Handle Imperfect People?
On the one-year anniversary of basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s death, we were reminded of the tragedy that took the star, his daughter, and seven other lives away from us too soon. Tributes were given, murals and statues erected. Other athletes and celebrities were asked for comment on Kobe’s legacy. Grieving fans were encouraged to preserve his memory and support his ongoing causes.
But what do we do about the 2003 rape allegation?
Jeff Pearlman, who followed, interviewed, and chronicled Kobe for years, writes:
It’s the most damaging piece of the Kobe Bryant puzzle — the night of June 30, 2003, when he traveled east for knee surgery and checked into the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Once there, Bryant either invited the 19-year-old front desk clerk back to his hotel and raped her, or invited the 19-year-old front desk clerk back to his hotel and merely had sex with her. Whatever the case, the woman reached out to the police, and Bryant was arrested and charged with sexual assault. In researching “Three-Ring Circus,” I interviewed one of the lead detectives, as well as the district attorney — both of whom remain convinced that Bryant was guilty of rape and should have served serious time. (The accuser ultimately dropped the charges and received a confidential settlement from Bryant.) After deep diving into the details of the case, I find it hard to disagree with either of them.
But, weirdly, legacy is tricky, and learning the bad doesn’t always decay the good. Yes, Bryant could be difficult and cruel. Yes, Bryant may well have walked off a guilty man. But the Kobe Bryant who died at 41 was, by all accounts, a tremendous father and husband; a devoted youth basketball coach; a thinker with 1,000 ideas circulating through his mind.
USA Today columnist Nancy Armour writes:
A proud father of four daughters, a man who became perhaps the biggest champion of women’s sports and female athletes, also allegedly raped a woman. Abused her in a hotel room, then stood by while his attorneys and fans brutalized her all over again during the legal proceedings.
That episode is part of his legacy, too, and the horror of what he did and who he was needs to be acknowledged along with the wonders.
History is full of complicated legacies.
Steve Jobs is almost universally praised as a brilliant tech innovator. But he was famously cruel to family, friends, and employees.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is rightfully honored as the passionate, powerful force of the Civil Rights Movement. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is perhaps the greatest modern explanation of a biblical guide to civil disobedience. But, evidence that has emerged since his death regarding his interactions with (and treatment of) women other than his wife, strongly suggests, he would never have survived the #metoo movement.
More close to home for me, as a follower of Christ, was the recent allegations against one of my heroes, Ravi Zacharias. This past spring, I wrote about Ravi’s homegoing to Glory and the powerful ministry God enabled him to have in the lives of millions of people.
When my wife first mentioned the recent allegations against him, I was immediately suspicious and in denial. Must be fake news. Must be the Enemy’s attempt to smear his legacy. Why would anyone say that about someone who was not alive to respond?
So, I went directly to the source. And while, as of the time of this writing, the investigation is still ongoing, the independent, external investigators which Ravi Zacharias International Ministries has wisely retained have issued an interim report which you can read here.
So, what do we do with this information? Do we continue to honor Ravi’s life and ministry? Does this information negate a lifetime of impact? What about the books he wrote, and the thousands of sermons and messages he delivered? Are they now untrustworthy? Is their content now to be ignored?
Do we cancel him?
Complicated legacies are nothing new. But right now, across the country, statues are being removed, schools are being renamed, and it seems every noteworthy person who is no longer alive is fair game for having their story rewritten through a modern lens. Woke culture is colliding with well-known history. Or, perhaps more accurately, a culture which claims to be woke is colliding with a history that claims to be accurate. Most likely, neither side is entirely correct.
One of my favorite spots in Washington D.C. is the Jefferson Memorial, especially during cherry blossom season. But how do we handle the “Author of Democracy?” How can a man who so brilliantly articulated the rights of all men in his public career, also have owned enslaved people in his personal life? How do we handle the dichotomy?
And if Jefferson is to be entirely demonized because he publicly espoused freedom while privately tolerating slavery, will we hold our current leaders to the same standard? Will we be consistent and cancel any politician whose personal beliefs are the exact opposite of their public policy?
Consider our current president. During the 2012 campaign, while serving as Vice President, Joe Biden was asked during the debate how he was able to reconcile his pro-life, Catholic faith with his lifetime, consistent pro-abortion stance (You can read the full transcript here or watch the exchange here). His reply:
My religion defines who I am. And I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who — who can't take care of themselves, people who need help.
With regard to — with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion as a — what we call de fide (doctrine ?). Life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.
I — I do not believe that — that we have a right to tell other people that women, they — they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court — I'm not going to interfere with that.
Is it logically consistent for our culture to cancel Jefferson for privately tolerating the enslavement of millions while celebrating Biden for publicly advocating the killing of millions?
Or consider Robert E. Lee. I must admit, being raised in the North, and hating racism and slavery as passionately as I do, I have a hard time honoring someone who led the Confederate armies in their rebellion against the Union. A bloody and violent insurrection that took the lives of over 620,000 Americans. But isn’t it fair to teach our students that he personally recognized slavery as a moral evil? That his primary, if not exclusive motive for fighting was to stand with his fellow Virginians for states’ rights and against what he viewed as Federal overreach? Can we not carefully present and clearly denounce his flaws and also study his admirable accomplishments? Or must we create a one-dimensional caricature, and ignore any words or actions which may complicate that predetermined narrative?
Do we cancel these men? Erase them from history?
How should we remember such people?
How should we as parents handle these issues with our children?
How should modern educators present the men and women of history, who were both the product of the times in which they lived, and also shaped their times, even to the extent that their actions have transcended to this age?
As with all things, we do well to follow the example of the greatest, most accurate, and most influential historical document ever published: The Bible. How does scripture handle the complicated legacies of very-real and very-human historical figures? Here are seven principles:
1. Be honest about all of it. The good, the bad, the ugly.
We must insist that our history is a study of truth, not myth. Just as a good scientist does not pick and choose only the data that supports her hypothesis, a good student of history must not cherry-pick only good accounts of her heroes while ignoring their flaws.
Noah got drunk. Moses had a temper and murdered a man. Abraham doubted. Sarah laughed. Jonah ran. David lusted. Miriam complained. Martha worried. Peter denied.
All of it recorded for our benefit. No whitewashing; no glossing over. Scripture gives us the victories and the defeats. We must do the same with our past. We must be intellectually honest and do the hard work of thorough historical analysis.
2. Place it in proper perspective.
The apostle Paul didn’t shy away from his shameful past, but openly acknowledged it and placed it within the context of the redemptive power of the Cross.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Paul's pre-Christ violence and heresy did not define him in the end. It is not solely what he is remembered for. The grace of God gets the glory. To cancel him simply as a persecutor of the church is to ignore the big picture.
David’s selfish, sexual sin and the horrific betrayal and murder of one of his most loyal soldiers and bodyguards needs to be acknowledged and processed deeply. But it does not erase his heart for the Lord, his many acts of obedience, the powerful, Holy Spirit-inspired poetry and music he composed, nor his legacy as the greatest King of Israel.
3. Be like the Bereans. Separate the message from the messenger.
History records the reputation of a small group of believers in the Greek city of Berea. Despite the Apostle Paul’s stature in the community, despite his academic credentials, despite his Apostolic authority, they still did not view him as the sole source of Truth. Only God and His Word hold that position.
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Acts 17:11
While this is not always easy, we need to keep the personality separate from the message. We need to train our students not to be swept up with charisma, or blinded by credentials or titles, but to keenly evaluate the validity of a message by its content alone. Likewise, we need to develop the ability to see past an inarticulate speaker to discern the truth of his or her message.
4. Learn from all of it.
If scripture had whitewashed David’s sin, we would never have gotten to see his response to being confronted. Unlike his predecessor, King Saul, David did not deny his sin, make excuses, or try to rationalize his behavior. Instead, he was brokenhearted by it. He immediately confessed and sought God’s forgiveness. He humbly accepted God’s punishment, and lived his remaining years wrestling with the natural consequences and fallout of his decisions.
Thankfully, by documenting the full truth of David’s life, scripture gives us both a cautionary narrative and an instructive pattern to follow in our own lives.
5. Heroes are fine. Idols are not.
David didn’t slay Goliath. God did.
Moses didn’t part the Red Sea. God did.
Mary didn’t bring about the Messiah. God did.
Scripture records the exploits of heroes with a singular, unambiguous message. God doesn’t take already-great and talented people and borrow their abilities. Rather, God takes ordinary, flawed and frail men and women and empowers them to do great things. We must learn from their availability and obedience, not idolize their achievements.
In the age of the early church, when his position as the Christ-appointed head was still new, Peter could have sought to scrub his history of any blemish, especially his cowardly denial of Jesus. But instead, Peter was undoubtedly one of the primary sources for the Gospel accounts, particularly Luke and Mark. He did not seek to erase his failures. He did not seek to be idolized.
Hebrews 11, a list of the great heroes of the faith, concludes with the reminder that, “These were all commended for their faith…” [emphasis added]. God is the focus, not the men or women he uses.
6. Sometimes, presenting both sides is not possible. But this is rare.
Scripture does not give positives about some people. Cain, Jezebel, Herodias, Herod, Judas. The evil deeds of these and other historical figures are recorded accurately, but no positive qualities are mentioned. Sometimes, the sheer magnitude of their sin is the sole lesson to be remembered.
Several years ago, while teaching a leadership elective, I asked my students to read a biography of a famous leader and to present leadership lessons from their life that we can apply to our own. Most chose the obvious names: Lincoln, Churchill, Mother Teresa, MLK. After class, I had a student ask if he could select Adolph Hitler. My initial response was, “Are you kidding? Of course not!” Then, I reflected a moment and discussed it further with him. Knowing the student (he was a solid young man and not in the least bit sympathetic to Hitler) and after setting some clear parameters, I allowed it, hoping the exercise would be a good learning tool for him and the class. When the time came for his presentation, to be honest, it was extremely difficult for all of us. Even the student admitted that while--objectively speaking--Hitler was able to successfully rally his followers to a cause, and while that itself—technically speaking—made him a leader, on the whole, it was an extremely uncomfortable discussion for us all. The sheer horror of what he used his leadership skills for—the pure evil he unleashed--so greatly outweighed all other considerations that his “leadership skills” didn’t seem a worthy topic after all.
Of course, we cannot erase Hitler. We must learn from it all to avoid the same evil in the future. It is a powerful study in the dangers of an unbiblical worldview coupled with the furor of a mob mentality. But, it also demonstrates that with some people, there are not really two sides worth considering. But this is (thankfully) rare.
7. Guard your own heart.
Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of all. Even (especially?) the most influential are a constant target of the Enemy. We must:
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 3:17-18
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
To what extent we honor flawed historical figures is a discussion worth having.
To what extent we learn from their example, and humbly rely on God and each other for obedience and accountability should never be in doubt.
Share your thoughts and comments with the author at email@example.com
Take a moment for Integrated Reflection:
Follower of Christ:
What steps are you taking right now to guard your own life and legacy?
As you study scripture, are you careful to evaluate the whole message of any particular narrative?
What steps can you take to present historical figures as fully-dimensional as you can?
What age-appropriate details should be shared with students about heroes and villains, and what real-life lessons can you highlight for them?
Do the complicated personal lives of historical figures cause you to evaluate your definition of ethics?
Without a common, external, moral standard, what is the basis for human morality? Can a villain with good, moral intentions, be excused?