By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
Students at Princeton University made news recently with their demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings and from the School of Public and International Affairs due to Wilson’s racist views and discriminatory actions. He apparently supported the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, refused to hire blacks in his administration as New Jersey governor, and believed that black students did not belong at Princeton, among other transgressions.
Wilson was honored by the university as a former university president who went on to become governor of New Jersey and President of the United States. He was also honored for his work toward creating the League of Nations as an attempt to prevent future wars after World War I. He received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was well known for his progressive political views, even as his racist views have been hidden from public view.
Princeton has decided to agree to the students’ demand and remove Wilson’s name. Whether one supports that decision or not, it has implications for how we acknowledge our history as a nation. Two of our greatest founders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, and Jefferson may have even fathered six children with a slave. To be consistent, do we demolish or rename the Washington and Jefferson memorials? Does slaveholding (reprehensible as it is) disqualify someone from being a national hero or having their accomplishments recognized?
As Christians, we have a different way of looking at our heroes of faith. Reading the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 points out that many biblical heroes were deeply flawed persons. Abraham took matters into his own hands to fulfill God’s promise and also allowed his wife to be taken as a concubine by Egyptian and Canaanite rulers. Jacob deceived his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and parented his sons with favoritism. Samson was sexually promiscuous. Jephthah made a rash oath and sacrificed his own daughter. Barak was a coward who refused to lead Israel’s armies unless the prophet Deborah came along. David, an adulterer and a murderer, was considered “a man after God’s own heart.” Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines and turned away from following God, yet is renowned for his godly wisdom.
When it comes to the New Testament, Peter denied Jesus three times, and after the church was formed and began admitting Gentiles, he reneged on welcoming Gentiles and began separating from them. All the apostles (except perhaps John) deserted Jesus in his hour of trial. Paul persecuted the church and killed Christians.
We realize that every one of us is flawed and guilty of sin. Were it not for the grace and mercy of God, we would be totally lost. And it is only God’s grace that is able to use flawed people to extend his love and accomplish his Kingdom work. As Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
We American Christians tend to idolize certain leaders of the faith and gloss over any imperfections they might have. But the Bible treats heroes of faith with wide-eyed realism. Their sins are not glossed over, but recorded for everyone to see. That takes the focus off of the person and puts it on the Lord, who is the reason why we are able to do anything worthwhile.
And yet, we do not repudiate our flawed heroes, we celebrate and learn from them—from their successes and faith, as well as their failures and flaws. The good news of the Gospel is that God does use “cracked pots” (or is it “crackpots”?) to do his work in the world. God is able and eager to forgive our sins and redeem our flaws for the sake of his Kingdom. He wants us to grow into maturity, which means leaving behind flawed thinking and behavior, overcoming failure, and taking advantage of the Lord’s “second chances” that we are given.
I don’t know whether Woodrow Wilson’s name should remain on any Princeton buildings. But I do know that we will be better off as a nation if we are able to acknowledge the great accomplishments of our leaders, while at the same time being aware and learning from their faults and failures. There is no such thing as a perfect hero, only persons who are redeemed by God’s grace and used in his service.