Good People and Bad People and History

July, 1875. Memphis, TN. To an audience of black Americans.
“I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

The ideas contained above are radically progressive for anyone in 1875, let alone an ex-Confederate officer, so were they said by a “good guy” or a “bad guy”?

Today has been a day for me to reflect on how people have both good and bad parts to them, and do both good and bad things. I want to encourage and celebrate the good things in people while lovingly holding them accountable to the bad things.

It would be wrong to assume the person responsible for the above quote is a “good guy”, because he demonstrably is not (as we will see later). In the same way, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t a “good guy”, because he did bad things, serial adultery. St. Peter wasn’t a “good guy” because he abandoned his Lord and friend only to later bow to peer pressure and deny the freedom that Lord had gained. Alexander the Great was definitely not a “great guy” because he habitually committed murder, genocide (and other war crimes), was a raging alcoholic, and was one of the more spectacularly self absorbed people to have ever lived.  Yet all three of these men also did things that were spectacularly good (or great, in Alex’s case).

Why do we label people “good” or “bad”? Are we really so afraid of nuance and causing offense that we cannot accept the good things people do and invent because they have a blemish on their character? If we ever wish to truly live, we will need the ability to evaluate people in our time and times past without the lens of “good guy” and “bad guy”. Our heroes will always disappoint us, and we will rob ourselves of the valuable contributions of our villains.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is by a self-educated (good) son of a blacksmith who became one of the richest men in the south through his speculation (good), multiple cotton plantations (bad), and as a slave trader (VERY bad). When the war broke out he enlisted as a private, but was quickly identified as an excellent leader and promoted to Lt. Colonel (good). Throughout the war, he showed remarkable bravery (good) and competence as an innovative cavalry commander (good), ending the war with the rank of Lt. General (good). The case can be made that he was the most competent officer in the Army of Tennessee (good). The tactics he developed laid the foundations of mobile tactics with tanks, although he predated tanks by fifty years (good). He was accused of war crimes for his alleged slaughter of southern white “volunteer” and black union troops at the battle of Fort Pillow (really bad). When the war ended, his farewell address urged reconciliation, forgiveness, and obedience of the laws (good). He joined the Ku Klux Klan by 1867 (bad) and probably served as the first Grand Wizard (bad), the equivalent of president. Because so much of his pre-war wealth was tied up in the slave trade and the southern economy was demolished by the war, he lived out the last years of his life ruined in a simple log cabin in Tennessee. There, he seemed to undergo a massive change of heart, experiencing what some acquaintances called a “born-again moment” (good). Two years before his death, he delivered the speech quoted at the top of this (good).

When you read through that list of events and deeds, did you find yourself trying to categorize him into “good guy” or “bad guy”? I did while writing. It felt wrong to write “good” about anything after I typed that he had made a fortune as a slave trader. I know I am not alone in this reactive desire to label.  Our culture is obsessed with simple answers that feel good, with eschewing the discomfort of moral complexity, and devolving into ad hominem dismissals. Yes, Forrest amassed a fortunes buying and selling human beings which is reprehensible and inexcusable and I condemn his actions as strongly as possible. But the story doesn’t end there. Yes, Forrest called for racial harmony ten years after the war ended, offending his friends and compatriots and instead pledging himself to the work of racial equality. That is remarkable, and we still need people that “progressive” today to help heal the same racial wound, even though no amount of good deeds would ever balance out a single one of his evil deeds. If we were to have dismissed him for the horrific things he did, we would have missed the good things he did. He is not a bad man who did some good things, or a good man who did some evil things; he is just a man, like you or me.

When Jesus became incarnate, he came to save men like you or me. The Pharisees expected the messiah to come to save the “good guys”, and were scandalized to see Jesus commiserating with “bad guys”. Jesus’ response is classic: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17]  If the Pharisees thought they still fell into the “good guy” category, the Holy Spirit through St. Paul later states: “None is righteous, no, not one!” [Rom 3:10]

To be a Christian is to be called out of our camps of “good person” and “bad person”. It is to enter into the position where we recognize our need for a savior, regardless of all the good things we have done. But our Lord in his redemptive work is so powerful that even death had to give him up after three days! No one is beyond the power of his salvation, regardless of all the bad things we have done. If we only entered the kingdom by abandoning this dualistic moral framework to accept his grace, why then should we pick it back up? Are we like the Galatians to so quickly “turn back to the weak and elementary principles of this world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” [4:9]. We can no longer judge in a manner Christ has not applied to us. We must evaluate everyone individually, complexly, rejoicing in the good and holding the bad accountable, but never condemning the person, be they in our time or of a time past.

Nathan Bedford Forrest did horrific, evil things.  Many of his evil actions were legal when he did them, but that doesn’t excuse him whatsoever from culpability in the souls he demeaned and lives he destroyed.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brave, self-taught, innovative cavalry commander who laid the foundations for the mobile tactics used in both world wars on until today.  He admonished his troops towards peace and reconciliation at the end of the war, and at the end of his life seems to have undergone a radical transformation in his views on race, pledging himself to work towards true equality.

Both of those paragraphs are true.  Neither one diminishes the other.  If we want to live sufficiently enriched by our forefathers and countrymen to defeat our national demons we must be secure enough in our own moral standing to simultaneously condemn everything in the first paragraph while embracing and learning from everything in the second.  Jesus calls us to reject moral dualism and live in grace.  He who rejoices in our successes and convicts us of our failings can empower and train us to do the same towards others.

Post Script: I understand that the current political climate is heated with emotion.  Nine of my fellow Charlestonians were murdered for the color of their skin.  This short essay in no way is meant to comment upon the appropriateness of naming streets or parks after anyone, or taking down statues or symbols.  That is a separate issue entirely.  This essay is solely focused on that gut response within each of us that demands our neighbors and historical figures to conform into good and evil camps.  That gut response is wrong, responsible for a lot of harm in the world, and philosophically opposed to the gospel.  I encourage intelligent debate on what we do next, but here is not the place: email me or write your own essay.

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