Moral Heroes and Feet of Clay
Guest Platform by Hugh Taft-Morales
Originally for the St. Louis Ethical Society, October, 2008
(audio MP3 courtesy of St. Louis Ethical Society)
When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be a hero. A super hero! We had a club. The Kryptonite Club. Kevin, Silas, Michael, and me. We collected comic books, dressed as Superman and Batman for Halloween, and debated endlessly about the superiority of various super powers.
As a teenager, molded by the currents of civil rights and the peace movement, a new heroism called me. I was eleven when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. In processing this, King became my hero. And soon I had many new heroes, such as study Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. I admired them in my head and heart – I wanted to be like them.
So why have I not more like them? Why am I not such a hero?
Am I not confident enough? Not brave enough? Maybe.
But there are also cultural currents that pull us away from heroism. Society tends to criticize heroes. Some say that they're not perfect – that they can act improperly and unethically. Some say that moral heroes are too perfect – that they can be so stridently ethical that they verge on intolerant and inhuman. Other times we accuse moral heroes of being driven by a desire to be moral heroes, and their self-interest demeans their ethical pretensions.
These are damning allegations to make against paragons of virtue such as King, Gandhi and Mother Teresa. My project today is to examine moral heroism more closely from an Ethical Culture perspective so that we might bring out our best, so that we might be heroes.
One caveat before I begin. I'll be saying much about three heroes in my life. They happen to be theists. But I am non-theist; I believe in Ethical Culture and humanism. I am looking at my heroes to understand how to encourage heroism in me and in my faith, in Ethical Culture.
ETHICAL CULTURE AND MORAL HEROISM
I joined Ethical Culture for many reasons. I wanted to nurture my ethical habits and my spirituality – my animating vitality, if you will. I want to understand how the two - spirituality and ethics - support each other. I no longer care to be spiritually apathetic and ethically lazy.
Ethically, I want to follow the golden rule more rigorously. I don't just want to obey the narrower versions of the golden rule that prohibits actions: don't cause pain, don't do evil. ["Hurt not others with that which pains thyself." (Buddhism), or, "What is hateful to yourself, don't do to your fellow man" (Judaism).] I want to do better than have "clean hands".
I want to follow a positive injunction, such as, "Do unto others what you would have done to you". This demands more of me. This asks me to be my brother's and sister's keeper. It encourages the reciprocal activism inherent in Ethical Culture's version of the Golden Rule" - "Always act so as to Elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself"
I also want to overcome my spiritual apathy -- to appreciate that while I cannot accept traditional religious paradigms, a form of religious humanism can inspire me to do this work.
My ethical and spiritual perspective leads me to try to emulate the work of my moral heroes. It brings me to Ethical Culture. Here are others with similar aspirations and similar projects. Here we share ideas, hints, moral support. Here many dare to be moral heroes. But, our challenge is great.
The challenge is particularly great when we find ourselves in the midst of evil. I ask you to consider Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish friar from Warsaw who in the hell of Auschwitz pleaded with his Nazi tormentors to let him take the place of a young father sentenced to die by starvation, sealed alive in a tomb-like basement with nine other people. "I am an old man, sir, and good for nothing. My life will serve no purpose", the 45 year-old priest pleaded. The guards granted his request.
They were used to hearing the screams of victims in similar situations. But the faint singing floating from the tomb shocked the guards. When they entered the basement ten days later to remove the bodies, Father Kolbe was found alive, a living skeleton, but with a slight smile upon his lips. The others who had died had been given the gift of a shepherd who answered hate with love, and eased their last days. One philosopher called this the "miracle of moral heroism".
Another story. Stan Mooneyham, evangelical and former president of World Vision, wanted to build a children's hospital in Cambodia. Upon running into resistance from the occupying Vietnamese military commanders, Mooneyham pulled out a knife, cut his wrist until blood flowed, and said, "Don't look at my face, you'll only see the face of an enemy. Look at my blood." The hospital was built.
These stories are inspiring and terrifying. They demonstrate an extreme heroism. How can anyone - especially someone like me who has lived a privileged, soft life – model such heroism? When you look at the lives led by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa, the challenge grows. It can paralyze. Writer Mark Jacobson recalls meeting Mother Teresa, "…she looked up from beneath her blue-and-white habit and asked, 'Can you help?' Her gaze was arresting. 'How?', I stammered. She didn't answer, only returned a thin smile. It was a bemused look. The sense of it was that this was a genuine question that I would have to answer myself." Jacobson continues, "Recently, though, Mother Teresa's question has returned to haunt me. Sometimes it seems that I cannot get through a day without madly swinging the full 180 on the subject. One minute I assert starving people in Somalia are just none of my business, that my job in life is…to better insulate my family from the inevitable ravages of the coming age of scarcity. Then, an hour later, I am telling my wife that we should just give away all the furniture and book ourselves on a flight to East Timor, because Indonesians are bleeding the people there, the lands a tropical moonscape, and no one is making speeches about it. We can help in East Timor, I tell my wife. But it all comes to nothing. My two impulses collide and I become paralyzed. I slump down in my chair, defeated."
I have slumped down in my chair now and then. Have you? I've felt my inner pendulum swing from commitment to retreat. Have you? And I understand Jacobin's skepticism about moral heroes. He admits, "It's just that I could never be like Stan Mooneyham. I'm not Christian, and history certainly points up the long-ranging havoc God-bound missionaries have wreaked on the cultures of indigenous populations."
But I also share with Jacobsin a subtle jealousy of those who take a leap of faith, who exorcize doubt, who commit to a moral mission. When Martin Luther King Jr. the night before he dies says that he has been to the mountaintop, I am inspired. When King says, "If a man has not found something worth dying for, he is not fit to live", I am ashamed. What would I be willing to die for? There's a huge gap between me and my moral heroes. More importantly, there is a gap between my actions and the ideals I espouse. This gap between what I am and what I want to be can induce guilt, humility, a sense of my own hypocrisy.
To avoid these feelings I could lower the bar. If I minimize the importance of these ideals, or knock these moral heroes off their pedestals, maybe I could avoid the painful gap between ideal and act, hero and me. This is tempting. It feeds a growing societal addiction to cynicism and scandal. I know a part of me wants to tear these heroes down!
ATTACKS ON MORAL HEROES
We tear our heroes down in many ways, but I will focus on the three previously mentioned. Although they contradict each other, the first two criticisms are often paradoxically offered together – these moral heroes are not perfect and they are too perfect.
They are not so perfect.
First, it is pointed out that heroes are not so perfect – these "saints" are also "sinners".
Take Mother Teresa for example. While it isn't easy to criticize her, leave it to Christopher Hitchens to show the feet of clay of this Christian icon. In his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens argues that Mother Teresa directed funds raised explicitly for her charitable work to promote her Catholic beliefs. She was also criticized for reported poor conditions in many of her orphanages. Strike one.
Take Gandhi. Let's start with one unattractive cultural habit. He insisted his wife walk a few paces behind him - a habit I occasionally fall into not due to chauvinism but rather my long legs. My wife kindly reminds me of this with the shout, "Hey Mahatma, wait up!" More seriously, there are questions about Gandhi's commitment to being a husband and father that may have included one brief outburst of violence and a general abandonment of his family. But as George Orwell points out in "Reflections on Gandhi", the Mahatma's transgressions were relatively minimal: "Gandhi's sins, at least his fleshly sins, would make the same sort of appearance if placed all in one heap. A few cigarettes, a few mouthfuls of meat, a few annas pilfered in childhood from the maidservant, two visits to a brothel (on each occasion he got away without "doing anything"), one narrowly escaped lapse with his landlady in Plymouth, one outburst of temper--that is about the whole collection."
But Orwell offers a different more subtle and damning criticism of Gandhi. Orwell said that Gandhi became a moral hero in part to detach himself and avoid the pain of unanticipated loss. Orwell writes, "If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for 'non-attachment' is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work." Strike two.
Take Martin Luther King Jr. The attacks on his moral heroism are more blunt and controversial. King was a hero of mine from an early age. I was disappointed when I heard allegations of graduate school plagiarism and infidelity. From my subjective cultural perspective, these were serious lapses of moral judgment and self-control, and deeply disappointing.
Tearing down these heroes comes with a price. Over ten years ago Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, who loved King deeply, was attacked for tearing down this important role model for all people, especially for minorities abandoned by society at large. Abernathy was blamed for ruining this legacy, for hurting Mrs. King, and for trying to sell more books. Abernathy denied these charges, and explained,
…Jesus was a non-violent personality, but Jesus became violent on one occasion when he ran the people out of the temple because they were misusing his house. Martin Luther King shoved a woman across the bed the next day because he lost his temper. People are just people, human beings are mortal feeble beings and the apostle Paul had a thorn in his flesh of which he spoke about.
I could call you a list of people. I am staying at the Jefferson Hotel, but Thomas Jefferson had made some mistakes also. The father of our nation, George Washington had made mistakes, the slave girls talked about his affairs. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- I don't propose to know and be able to talk about these people and I do not speak of them in this book but I do speak of my friend, Martin Luther King Jr. and he would want me to tell it like it is and be honest and truthful and I am not trying to hurt Mrs. King…
If Abernathy is right about the man he called "my friend Martin", then certainly at least this hero was not perfect. Are our heroes ever perfect?
They are too perfect.
A second attack on moral heroes is that they are "too perfect" - that these heroes are too extreme in their morality, too strident in their lectures, and, as a result, unappealing as human beings. This is Orwell's argument from a different perspective. Orwell takes aim at the fact that Gandhi rejected any and all attachments. He rejected special friendships because "friends react to each other" - one cannot both love humanity as a whole while giving preference to anyone. This is why Gandhi made little room in his schedule for his children - he did not want them to get "addicted" to their father.
Gandhi rejected attachment to pleasure. He gave away his possessions. He ate food without spices. He went beyond chastity by taking the vow of abstaining from sex and eliminating sexual desire itself. He called physical desire the "disease of idolatry….[for] [t]here is nothing in the body." This rejection of the physical world, so evident in many religious faiths, is behind the quest for nirvana, which means "blowing out" or "extinction" - when the flame of desire has been extinguished by commitment, practice, meditation.
Like Orwell, philosopher Susan Wolf criticized moral heroes as unattractive because they lack "the ability to enjoy the enjoyable in life" and that there life is "strangely barren". Without those special attachments that make us unique, without idiosyncrasies, hobbies, or favorites, we lack the "human virtues," she claims.
Orwell points out how delighted most people are to hear that Gandhi as a young lawyer in London wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, and tried to learn to play the violin, because it humanizes the otherwise sterile ethical extremist.
Orwell concludes that we reject "moral saints" because perfectionism is unattractive. He writes,
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.
There is much to Orwell's analysis, but it seems to me that probably few humans are really in danger of becoming saints. Sure, we should avoid being sanctimonious. We should not sacrifice social connections at the altar of self-righteousness.
But if we are honest, we needn't worry. Don't we all have feet of clay despite our best intentions? In our attempt to be moral heroes, there are innumerable mistakes we will make. Sometimes moral heroes fail to live up consistently to their ideals, but they also at times overdue their commitment to ideals in ways that lead them to treat others cheaply?
For those in Ethical Culture, our faith calls us to strive to bring out the best, even while we admit our worst. Adler held up ideals as guides to our moral improvement. Moral heroism is a north star, out of reach but guiding our path to a better life. Adler says that "[e]thical religion can be real only to those who are engaged in ceaseless efforts at moral improvement. By moving upward we acquire faith in an upward movement, without limit." We will never be perfect, and we will probably not work ceaselessly – we need a break now and then. But we should strive in a sustained and significant manner to bring out our best. We should balance our noble intentions and commitment to ideals with an honest, and humble confession of our inconsistencies and short fallings. Being able to hold these two truths simultaneously might relieve us of the pendulum pulling us back and forth from a commitment to feed the poor in East Timor to a retreat to self-indulgence.
They just want to be seen as perfect.
But I want to focus a bit on the third criticism of moral heroes I mentioned earlier, which is a variant on the first two. It is the claim that moral heroes just want to be seen as perfect, by themselves and others. They want to be seen as doing good - they want to be known as a moral saint. Many base this claim on the doctrine of "psychological egoism", the belief that all people always act consciously or unconsciously to further their self-interest. There are different forms of this doctrine, such as Freud who thinks we are generally motivated in a quest to satisfy our sexual desires, or such as Alfred Adler who claimed we are motivated by a desire for recognition.
Now, for anyone like Felix Adler with a stern, northern European, Kantian approach to ethics, self-interest is an unacceptable ethical reason to become a hero. Doing what one wants to do, even if one wants to be a moral person, is not worthy of ethical praise. This counter intuitive argument gets surprising mileage in my moral philosophy classes. My students sometimes say, "If Mother Teresa gets a kick out of ladling soup to the poor, more power to her, but she is just doing what she wants. She no more ethical than me!"
I agree that merely seeking opportunities to display publicly moral commitment is unattractive at best, and manipulative at worst. It is not only ethically shallow to seek opportunities to be seen as ethical, but such behavior treats others merely as means.
Adler's concept of inherent worth grew out of the European enlightenment project and Kant's maxim that every rational being was an "end in themselves", not to be treated like an object as a means to something else.
It might be useful to remember Adler's distinction between value and worth. Value is what others think of us, or, in rough terms, are willing to pay for us. It's our market price. Human worth, however, is intrinsic, independent of external evaluation or judgment. As Adler writes, "Value is a relative term - relative to him or to those who evaluate. If he or those who evaluate were to disappear, value would disappear. But to say worth, or end per se, is to make a cosmic pronouncement, is to affirm of man, that is of the spiritual nature of man, a preciousness that would remain through all the finite world, and all the finite beings that inhabit it were swept away." A do-gooder looking for opportunities to look good is in the value paradigm.
But, who doesn't occasionally stray from honoring worth? We all sometimes fall into the value paradigm, in judging others and in judging ourselves. Are you ever guilty of trying to look good? We all have feet of clay, don't we? How is it that our desire to be good gets twisted to undermine our efforts to be good? How can we more fully embrace our desire to be good?
THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT
To answer this, I return to one of my moral heroes: Martin Luther King, Jr.. In a sermon called "The Drum Major Instinct," King recalls a biblical parable. John and James tell Jesus that they want to sit at the right hand of God. They ask how to help them get there.
King points out that such a request might be taken to be selfish – another example of me first mentality. Should Jesus condemned John and James? King answers that Christ gave James and John a different answer. What was his position on the "drum major instinct?" In King's words, Jesus answered:
Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be …[D]on't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first.
But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.
You mean it's ok to want to be heroic? It's ok to be a drum major if you're leading a good parade?
So, in Ethical Culture, what's our best parade? A detailed answer will have to wait for another platform. But for now, how about if we march to the beat of, say, inherent worth? Can't we get behind that? Aren't we here together to grow ethically?
Regarding our own inner drum major, we should guide it, not hide it! We need to guide our inner drum major, but we need not hide from it. In an 1896 lecture in St. Louis Adler said, "The Ethical Societies primarily exist for the moral improvement of their members." The social reform they promote is, he said, "an indispensable means of personal development."
So we are an ethical humanist congregational self-help group! And maybe when marching along our ego will pop up every once and a while: "Look at me! Look at me! I'm doing good!"
But if we don't dare to march toward goodness, or even to lead the parade of justice, we risk atrophy of conscience. Striving to do right can be joyous, especially when we do it together. In Life and Destiny, Alder says, "Morality does not mope in corners, is not sour and gloomy. It loves to convert our meanest wants into golden occasions for fellowship and happy communion."
So, strike up the band and start the parade! We can all take turns leading – there is lots of work to go around. Besides, if we are honest with ourselves, life will remind us often enough of our feet of clay. We'll hear, "Hey Mahatma, wait up!"
In conclusion, if we allow ourselves to accept both our ideals and our human limitations - if we can learn to accept the discomfort of leading the parade with feet of clay - we can make a difference in this world. If we can accept our own mixed package, maybe we can help create a cultural shift away from seeking perfection in our political leaders. The sickening personal attacks and "gotcha" moments distract from our shared challenge to save our planet and better the world.
I joined the Ethical Culture parade because I think it is a good parade. I think it is a human and humane parade. Working together, supporting each other, we have better chance of success.
But remember, the question lies not on the outside, but on the inside. My talk today is not primarily about what others think, what value they place on you. This is not about our leaders, in the nation or within Ethical Culture. The question of being a moral leader is about you. Marian Wright Edelman said, "A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back -- but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you."
Do you want to be a moral hero?
It's been an honor to speak with you today.