What I love most about figures like Jefferson, Spinoza and Jesus is that they have come to be admired by people on all ends of our ideological spectrums. Right wingers claim them. Progressives claim them. This reflects the fact that these men can come across as being uber-conservative one moment and provocatively radical the next. The true Originators are like that. Rather than being preachers who come from an established church, they don’t have to worry about what their fellow churchmen taught or thought. After all, freedom is the genesis of truth. And those three free thinkers told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as best as they could.
Sometimes, however, they got it wrong. At least I can say that about Jefferson and Spinoza, of whom we know so much more than we know about Jesus. It’s hard to look back at a philosopher from thousands of years ago who never published a complete book of his own writings and state with certainty exactly what he did and didn’t say. But we know that Spinoza, who wrote in the 17th century, thought that women should be excluded from the government. And we know that Jefferson, who wrote in the 18th-19th centuries, thought that black people were intellectually inferior to white people. Surely, nobody in their right mind would be calling a flawed man like Spinoza or Jefferson the one son of God. But to me, their obvious flaws simply humanize them and turn them into MORE compelling figures, not less.
I dare say that Paul’s association of Jesus with divinity, not to mention the relative lack of factual information about Jesus’ life and teachings, will make it difficult for people ever to discuss him as robustly and objectively as we can discuss a Spinoza or a Jefferson. But if we can’t fully “humanize” Jesus, at least we can do so with respect to some of his greatest disciples. No, I’m not talking about guys like Peter, James and John – the fog of 2000 years has passed between us and them as well. I’m talking about men like Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis. Clearly, these are individuals who took to heart the teachings of Jesus as best they could. Are they originators? Perhaps not. But as followers go, they’re as brilliant as stars can be.
Much has been said in the past couple of weeks about Francis, just as much has been said in the past couple of days about Mandela. But what I appreciate most about this coverage is that some of it has been quite critical. Both of these men are being lumped in with the scourge of Marxism. And in the case of Mandela, he also gets the pleasure of being associated with terrorism as well – kind of the Daily Double, wouldn’t you say? As someone who admires these two individuals tremendously, I say bring on the labeling! Go ahead and compare them to Castro or Lenin. Please. Let’s get all the criticisms out on the table. Surely, some of it will even be valid. We’ll be able to find one stupid comment after another that they have said in their lives. Such is the human condition that we don’t always speak with the wisdom of Solomon every second of every day. Actually, Solomon himself had hundreds of wives and concubines; my guess is that he also didn’t always speak or act “with the wisdom of Solomon.” But he’s still a worthy hero just the same.
The great ones, see, don’t simply make mistakes. They perform feats of magnificence that turn their foibles into “redeemable vices,” to use Oscar Wilde’s term, rather than into vehicles of legitimate character assassination. And if you look closely at the nature of these magnificent feats, I think you will likely find common ground. Whether they are originators or followers, they tend to be bridge builders par excellence. They inspire people on different sides of a great religious or political divide. They work to bring together people of different races or different social classes. They don’t simply preach forgiveness, they practice it.
It is trendy these days to call economic inequality the characteristic vice of our age. Rubbish. That’s simply a symptom. The real vice is atomization. The contemporary world atomizes us into discrete individuals who are expected to further our own interest as individuals, and with as little regard for the collective as possible. Call it Adam Smithianism run amok – that’s surely what such “Marxists” as Pope Francis or Nelson Mandela would say. As self-seeking individuals, we then are encouraged to join up with other similarly situated people into political parties or other social organizations and fight like demons to promote our own interests. And, as for those who stand in our way, they become our enemies, and we are free to ridicule or otherwise vilify them any way we choose.
In that way, rich and poor turn against each other, as do Arab and Jew, black and white, gay and straight …. You get the picture. In fact, if your eyes and ears are open, you’re witnessing it every day.
That doesn’t have to be the way we live. We can eradicate poverty. We can beat swords into plowshares. Or more specifically, we can have a Catholic Church that cares about the born every bit as much as the unborn. And we can have insurgency movements in such “third world” areas as South Africa whose leaders show respect even to those who have abused them in the past. Our great heroes are proving that so much more is possible than the cynics would have us believe.
Most importantly, we can listen to each other, even our sworn “enemies.” And we can remember the words of Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” It is my understanding that he borrowed that concept from the Buddha. But that's OK. The issue here isn’t our originality. It’s whether our time spent on earth involves building bridges or ignoring the need to build them.
If building bridges isn’t your thing, then please step aside and let the adults get to work.