I ran across an article this week – well, a sort of meditation, really – that mentioned that Gandhi, the great Indian revolutionary who led India to independence from Great Britain through a remarkable non-violent movement, and who spent his final years as a Hindu holy man, revered by millions, had a problem. He had, apparently, a weakness for young women, and as he got older, it seemed that the women for whom he had a weakness got younger. Mother Teresa may also not have been perfect. There are a number of people who have said that she refused to provide desperate young women with birth control (in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church) and encouraged them to remain in poverty and not seek to improve their situation. It has also been said that Martin Luther King, Jr., the great American civil rights leader, was not perfect, also (it is said) being rather vulnerable to the opposite sex. And we have all recently learned that Tiger Woods is not perfect. Okay, Woods does not belong in the same category as Ganhi, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, but we Americans do have an odd way of elevating and venerating people who are exceptionally good at sports.
The reality, of course, is that no one is perfect. Deep down, we all know that (or, at least, most of us do). And yet, when we choose to elevate someone for public veneration, we nevertheless seem to have an expectation that those people should be perfect. Then, when an imperfection is eventually exposed, we become shocked and disappointed, and then use that imperfection to invalidate anything good that person may have done. Then, we continue our search for the next perfect person, knowing all the while that it will only be a matter of time before that next hero’s imperfections will be found, and then we can turn our backs in cynicism once again.
I am tempted to think that this fruitless quest for the perfect hero is a function, at least in part, of the way in which religion (or, at least, Christianity) has become synonymous with moral rectitude. There are many Christian preachers and writers who will tell you that the goal of the Christian life is some form of moral purity. Interestingly, they will at the same time acknowledge that moral purity is impossible for flawed human beings to attain, and thus we require God’s forgiveness. Yet, somehow, this admittedly unattainable moral perfection is held up as the standard for which we should all be shooting, all the while knowing that we can never hit the bull’s eye.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for promoting morality and ethics in public and private life. But if we look at the Bible, we will find that it is populated by a host of people who, in our time and place, would be dismissed as discredited heroes, whose imperfections ruined what otherwise would have been stellar careers. Think of Abraham, who slept with one of his servants. Think of Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of what was rightfully his. Think of Moses, who ran away and hid in the desert after killing an Egyptian. Think of David, who slept with one of his soldier’s wives and then had her husband killed to try to cover it up. Think of Peter, who denied having even known Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. Think of Matthew who, as a tax collector, extorted money from people. Think of the various “fallen women” who were among the circle of Jesus’ followers. None of these people would survive the tabloid mentality of our current culture. You can imagine the headlines that would be conjured up. And I’m sure you can imagine how these imperfections would be used to define each of these people, so that in the end, that was all anyone remembered about them.
Yet, each of these people appears in the biblical text as a servant of God or a worthy follower of Jesus. Each of these people are depended upon to carry the sacred drama forward in some important way. Each of them is somehow indispensable to the unfolding of God’s ceaseless effort to get humanity to fall in love with God and, in the embrace of that love, to act on behalf of that love in the world. The imperfections of these biblical figures are never excused, but they are transcended. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we do not need to wait until we have achieved some kind of impossible moral perfection before we can take our place in God’s kingdom. And the Bible makes equally clear that God does not define us according to our flaws or in terms of the worst thing we have ever done. The incredible grace is that while God sees these things, God looks beyond them to find and affirm our essential value.
Gandhi wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man who did some amazingly good things. Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man who did some amazingly good things. And Mother Teresa wasn’t perfect, but she is on her way to becoming an official saint. And her truth is the truth of every saint, and of every one of us: that despite our flaws, we can indeed do great things for God and for the human family.
What a world it would be if, when we discovered another’s imperfection, instead of focusing on how terrible that imperfection is, we said, “Wow. Isn’t it amazing that despite that, this person has done some amazing things.” What a world it would be if we could like through a person’s flaws to see her or his essential value.