Former US President Barack Obama has just concluded a moving lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was the key speaker in the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth.
I say the speech was “moving” because I found myself inspired, nodding and agreeing with much of what Obama said. He spoke about the importance of helping the poor, loving our neighbors and championing the cause of justice — especially for the less privileged amongst us
Obama grabbed Mandela’s legacy and wielded it against the forces of injustice, oppression and inequality that continue to pervade an otherwise “progressive” 21st century.
“Stick to what is true. Stick to what you know is right in your hearts. Ultimately right makes might. Ultimately the better story wins out. My message to you is keep believing. Keep marching. Keep raising your voice. Now is a good time to be fired up.” – Barack Obama
Who can argue against that? He went ahead to quote Madiba on the value of universal human rights and freedom, saying: “We have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.”
Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of all the cheers and claps, the shares and retweets, there were many people who did not, could not, approve of Obama’s message. More specifically, there are many people who listened to the lecture with disapproving head shakes and regretful sighs.
When Obama said, for instance, that he believed in a vision “built on the premise that all people are created equal,” some people felt it necessary to point out Obama’s failure to live up to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, while some religious people highlighted his “evolution” towards accepting of gay marriage.
If you live in America, the lines between strong supporters and critics of Obama can be conveniently drawn between the Democrats and Republican camps. For instance, if you were to listen to Dinesh D’Souza, you would find it very difficult to believe anything good can come out of Obama’s mouth.
Yet, this is the world we live in today. We are so enamored with hero worship that we forget how often the person preaching the truth we believe in may have lived out a life that starkly contradicted those truths.
We live in a world where we want our favorite speakers, preachers and writers to promote societal values that neither they nor we could ever come close to living out. Little surprise that we have politicians at the forefront of the #MeToo movement being outed for being perpetrators of the very sexual violence they rail against.
Name your hero, and I will point out 99 reasons why they are not worth being anyone’s heroes. Remember Thomas Jefferson who was the main contributor to the US Declaration of Indepence? He of the “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” fame? Well, he also owned slaves and even bought two slaves to work at the White House when he became president in 1801.
It really depends on whose script you’re reading: Gandhi was wishy washy about supporting Britain in World War I and even actively recruited Indian soldiers for the British war effort; Martin Luther King Jr allegedly cheated on his wife; and even Mandiba, the man behind the event in South Africa today, is said to have sold out black South Africans in his negotiations with the colonial government.
While some may opt to press their confirmation bias and rationalise all the flaws of their heroes, my point is far more subtle and fundamental. There is no single human being who has actually lived up to the message they preach. There will always be something to criticise, something to disqualify them. All have sinned and fall short of the glories they proclaim.
Yet we continue to admire and celebrate and quote fallen men for the few words of hope and inspiration they share with the world. Amidst the relentless darkness that shrouds this fallen world, these people that we call heroes have managed to shine the much needed rays of hope and faith and love that is much needed in this world – if not in deed, at least in words. If not in all their deeds, at least in many of their deeds.
Fallen human beings are still able to inspire us to rise from our fallenness — or at least to want to rise. Their falleness does not disqualify the truth of their message, even though it may sometimes make it harder for us to buy the truth from them. You see, in a world that demonizes any semblance of higher beings and transcendent human principles that cannot be deduced through science and rationality, we are left rather wanting for heroes.
A fundamentally secular atheistic worldview that has no room for beings embodying truth, love, kindness and all things humane (be it in myth or reality), will always be frustrated by our flawed heroes. There will always be a reason to criticise anyone who is admired in this world.
Clearly, we need new heroes. But until we get perfect heroes, we will have to learn to make do with the flawed heroes that are available to us — Obama included.