Talking About Flawed Patrons

Who are our forefathers? Why do we care? At one level, all identity/lineage, whether family, religious, or national is in pursuit of the same validation, that we know/have a place in the world, that we are part of a bigger story that runs deeper than the shallow activities that fill much of our days. We tend to lionize the deeds of historical figures and our personal ancestors, even though we know at some level that they were as flawed, and vulnerable, and human as we are. Does it really matter that my great-grandfather flew planes in World War I? He left my great-grandmother and my grandfather while Grandpa was still a young boy, and I only have a fraction of his genetic material. But I choose to connect with a story of his courage and willingness to embrace the challenge of a new era, even if I reject his model of fatherhood completely.

Archbishop Yesehaq’s “Ethiopian Tewahedo Church: An Integrally African Church” traces the church’s monotheistic roots to Menelik I, Solomon’s son by the Queen of Sheba. This is probably not literally true, but it means that the church’s adherents feel a connection to biblical origins (despite later conflicts between the Ethiopian Christians and Jews). The Tewahedo Church rejects Rastafarianism as misguided (for worshiping Haile Selassie as a god), but claims a particular pan-African pride from being the first/only church on the continent. The liturgy and music dates to St. Yared in the 6th century, whose story of being a poor student and then returning to commit himself to study reminds me of Rabbi Akiva’s (though in Akiva’s case he was illiterate until he was 40, while Yared became more studious still as a child). I was appalled to read about the persecution of the Tewahedo church by the Italians in the 1930s, including tortures and beheadings. That religious differences can provide the excuse for extreme violence is not news to me, but I still find it perplexing and heartbreaking that racism/jingoism could allow soldiers to dehumanize their victims even where religious similarities on the most fundamental elements (monotheism, worship of Jesus) exist. There’s an immense amount of world history to try and learn, but I’m humbled and ashamed to only now learn that 20% of the population of Addis Ababa was murdered in the 1930s in reprisal for an assassination attempt on the Viceroy. National traumas on such a scale leave deep scars, and yet many of us think we know something about the world and remain blithely ignorant of profound elements of other countries’ experiences.  

<As an unrelated aside, I am currently enjoying an Ethiopian coffee while I write this, from my friends who roast at Copper Horse Coffee. It’s wonderfully flavorful, fruity, but if you grind your beans by hand, be warned: it’s quite a workout compared to others I’ve ground. I’m not sure if the light roast leaves more resilience in the beans or there’s something else behind it.>

Division and simplistic thinking has insidious implications and consequences. Jovan Byford’s Denial and Repression of AntiSemitism describes how Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic was derided by the Communist authorities as a fascist and anti-Semite, but recently has been rehabilitated (and canonized) by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Nikolaj Velimirovic’s anti-Semitic writings have been largely either a) denied (as taken out of context/misunderstood), or b) excused (as prophetic, analogous to Old Testament prophecies, or “Anti-Judaist, not anti-Semitic.” The need for a national figure and desire to protect or rehabilitate a Saint in the face of current criticism leads to normalization of his opinions, and in turn, risks approval of them. A detailed exploration of anti-Semitism is beyond the scope of my research and thinking, but the fact that Velimirovic spent time in the concentration camp of Dachau is used to argue that he couldn’t possibly have been anti-Semitic. This is, of course, nonsense. One can be treated unfairly and suffer and still inflict suffering on others (in fact, that may be true of most of us, albeit to lesser degrees than Velimirovic). Byford carefully outlines how excusing the Bishop’s writings has led his defenders to redefine anti-Semitism to exclude anything that he wrote, and create the untenable distinction between “anti-Judaism” and anti-Semitism.

I was struck by the parallels to discussions of race in America are clear. The term “racist” as a pejorative has become so loaded that anyone wishing to participate in public discourse feels the need to defend against accusations of racism. At the same time, appropriate pushback against occasional overbroad definitions can readily slide into reflexive opposition to any highlighting of uncomfortable facts related to race in America. Personally, I think we have to get better as a society at highlighting and acknowledging the complexities of our founding heroes. There are too few people (if any) in the world who have never done harm to make that the criterion for praise; but defensiveness on behalf of George Washington’s importance in the founding of the U.S. should not require us to ignore his legacy as a slaveholder and condemn it unequivocally. Perhaps this is part of why the first commandment is against idolatry and graven images; it’s hard not to want to defend a statue that you’ve grown up with, but none of us are perfect. I don’t have the wisdom to weigh the balance of a life’s actions and say whether someone is, in aggregate, good or bad. I can, however, look at that person’s actions and say that I feel that Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence was an important contribution to the development of this country, and also that his slaveholding was abhorrent. I understand the impulse to defend our childhood heroes; we feel protective of those whose actions represent some portion of our values and ideals. But that needn’t extend to every aspect of their lives. Even within a single act, we can find both aspects to admire and that are troubling; King Kamehameha’s “unification” of Hawai’i, for example, was ambitious and courageous (and contributed to the state’s sense of identity), but also brutally violent. I hope that my daughter (and her descendants, if any) will find a way to speak well of my contributions to the world without feeling shame for the ways in which I have fallen short.

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