Hitler was evil. No one debates that. He is synonymous with evil itself. While I agree with this fact wholeheartedly, I wonder if we want all of our historical figures to be like Hitler. Black and white, good and evil. Hitler was evil and there is no arguing. But, for most historical figures it’s not that easy.
Let me explain, people are complicated. Sinners and saints. Except, all saints are sinners. There isn’t a person in the Bible besides Jesus that doesn’t have a part of their story complicated by sin. Hagiography refers to the biographies of saints and it’s something that has been done to people throughout history.
En vogue now is the opposite of that. Many people came out with posts today tearing down the legacy of Columbus because today is Columbus Day. Does the man deserve an American federal holiday? Of course not. He did terrible things to Natives, his main accomplishment was a mistake, and he didn’t ever set foot in what would become the United States. Not to mention the fact that Columbus Day is the lamest and least celebrated federal holiday.
However, I don’t subscribe to the view that he was totally evil and not worth studying. After all, even though he wasn’t the first European to discover the Americas, his discovery was an incredibly important historical event. He did have the courage to set out on his own and do something no one else dared to do. There is something to admire in that at least. We shouldn’t worship him, but we shouldn’t dismiss him either. Our study of him should study all aspects of his life. We must learn from his mistakes as well as his accomplishments.
I’m bothered by this culture of extremes. History is full of complicated people because all people are messed up. I only use this example of Columbus because it is his “holiday” today. I could use the example of another man who has a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr.
MLK is a hero to millions and deservedly so. He is a personal hero of mine, and I greatly enjoy listening to his speeches, especially his final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. That speech itself is so stunning in its prophetic nature I can’t help but believe that MLK was a truly a man in touch with the heart of God. However, there is also quite a bit of evidence that MLK had multiple affairs throughout his life. Does that make him less important in history? No. But does that change the saintly perspective of the man that most people have? Probably.
Which brings me to Jesus. Jesus is the only person that is deserving of a hagiography, because he was actually perfect. Except, we killed Jesus. Human beings couldn’t handle a perfect person.
As a student of history I can’t stand this idea that people are either great or evil. People are people, nothing more. Some accomplished great things, some didn’t. I love good biographies because I can learn the good and bad of famous people. We can’t learn from others without learning from their accomplishments and their mistakes.
Some Columbus day listening for you.