We seem to hold a pretty high bar in the honoring of our heroes and to tolerate a relatively low one for those to whom we give the reins of power.
The long and heartfelt affirmations of the life and legacy of John Lewis have given expression to the highest levels of honor for his courage, compassion, modesty, humility and consistent commitment to the cause of justice, especially for those who have borne the burden of prejudice and discrimination.
One cannot help being moved by the flood of reflections and testimonials from those who have been touched directly and indirectly by his life and the larger historical movement that he has personified.
The experience is reminiscent of other memorial tributes that have called to public attention the legacies of others who have reflected the values we claim to be central to our collective life.
You would think, amid such affirmations, that we as a people would insist on such qualities for all that we select and approve for roles of leadership in our national life.
And yet, the split screen news broadcast with a hero’s memorial on one side often has on the other a report of corruption, abuse and disfunction, or a demonstration of attitudes and behaviors that are the near opposite of what is being honored on the other side.
For every John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, John McCain and George H.W. Bush, to name the most recent public figure memorial honorees, who were committed to integrity, intelligence, morality and commitment to a common good, there seem to be dozens whose interests serve a more narrowly centered set of objectives.
The use of “irony” to describe this picture recalls Reinhold Niebuhr’s lectures on the topic that became his book, The Irony of American History, written in the context of the challenge of communism in the middle of the 20th century.
His use of the term pointed to the inherent power and weakness present in a community’s (nation’s, in his case) exercise of its freedom.
The unique freedom that is humanity’s gift offers both extraordinary creative possibilities as well as opportunities for misdirection and abuse.
The “irony” is that negative outcomes are the consequence of free choices, of which the “choosers” are largely unaware.
Niebuhr’s focus was on the role of the United States on the global stage at the time, but his point has relevance for the internal challenges that are current for us.
How do we get to a place where on the one hand we are overflowing in our praise and honor for those “heroes” who speak up and stand up against the features of our common life that perpetuate the suffering that many experience at the hands of prejudice and greed, and on the other hand we tolerate as “normal” those in positions of power and influence who are the “henchmen” of the very system that supports those features?
The irony of this disconnect seems to characterize where we are and where we will be in coming months, as we approach the unique opportunity for choosing the direction of our future.
How do we get heroes like John Lewis and the countless unknown bearers of his legacy?
We grow them, as we always have, in homes, schools, churches and other contexts where the values of liberty, morality, justice and compassion are demonstrated and taught. This has been our story for generations, and it will surely continue.
How do we get leaders who loyally serve more narrow interests at the expense of a broader application of values we claim in our better moments?
We choose them, as we always have, in a process that offers us the greatest practical possibility for making wise collective choices and the greatest risk of being subverted by the sophisticated manipulation of moneyed power to serve other ends.
This also has been our story, and our vulnerability will surely continue as well.
If at any point we find ourselves being poorly led, the fault will lie not only on those whose flaws get public demonstration, but also on our choosing.
The irony will lie in the disconnect between the values we claim and the choices we make.
Niebuhr’s concluding words speak to the irony of a struggle on the world stage between the values of a faith and its foes.
With a little imagination, it is not hard to see their applicability now in our current peril:
“For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history, but by hatred and vainglory.”
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).