Throughout human history, racism has been a major problem. Which has lead to war, persecution, genocide, imperialism, slavery and economic inequality. Due to the recent death of George Floyd, racial justice movements around the world are trying to wrestle with history in order to pave the way for a better future. Unfortunately, many widely admired historical figures are tainted by racism. Nations such as the US, the UK and France are now having fierce debates about whether to take down statues of historical figures who had histories that include racial bias.
When debating whether past leaders deserve to be celebrated. Context matters as does the complexity of human nature. Often our historic heroes are portrayed in one dimension when their legacies are more complicated. Here’s a quick list of highly influential historical figures who made significant positive contributions to humanity, but who also had darker side.
Martin Luther born on November 10th, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and theology professor who rebelled against the Catholic Church from which the Protestant Church splintere. Note the word ‘protest’ in Protestant.
Despite starting off as a devout Catholic. Luther found himself frustrated with what he saw as a Church that had lost the humble and otherworldly message of the Gospel. Because of the distractions of wealth, power and privilege. Luther was particularly frustrated by the sale of indulgences. A practice in which Catholic officials would sell full or partial remission of divine punishment for sins.
By studying St. Paul’s epistles, Luther also came to a new and very un-Catholic position that salvation comes only from faith in Christ and not from good works. Luther also emphasized the Bible as the only foundation for Christian doctrine. Believing that all Christians should read the Bible for themselves. For this reason, Luther used the newly invented Gutenberg printing press in order to mass print his theology and his translation of the Bible into German.
Luther’s moral emphasis on literacy along with Gutenberg’s printing press dramatically increased access to knowledge and rapidly accelerated the birth of modern science. Early in his career, Luther held a more positive view of Jews than other Christians. That changed after a significant number of Jews refused to convert to Lutheranism. He later wrote “On the Jews and their Lies,” an infamously bigoted book which greatly worsened an already horrific problem of anti-semitism within Christianity.
Thomas Jefferson born in colonial Virginia in 1743. Jefferson was one of the most important leaders of the American Revolution. A statesman who helped create a new nation based upon the Enlightenment ideals of reason, liberty and equality. Jefferson’s staunch belief in freedom of expression and religion helped create liberal democracy as we know it today.
In contrast, the same man who wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence was himself a slave owner. Who believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites. But he also believed that slavery was incompatible with America’s founding ideals and that it should eventually be abolished. Complexity. Ultimately, he decided to free his slaves toward the end of his life.
Winston Churchill born on November 30th, 1874, in Oxfordshire, England. Churchill became the Prime Minister who lead Great Britain in its epic World War II struggle against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Of the three great powers on the allied side of WWII, only the UK was brave enough to declare war on Hitler in 1939. After the Nazi invasion of Poland. In contrast, the other two powers joined the war in 1941, after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany and the US was attacked by Imperial Japan.
As it happens, Churchill was himself a racist despite having led an epic struggle against another racist who was far more dangerous and extreme.
Churchill believed in white superiority. He frequently expressed a violent hatred for the residents of the Indian subcontinent. A region of the world that had already suffered from hundreds of years of brutal colonial oppression and exploitation at the hands of the British Empire. Churchill is most controversial for his role in the Bengal famine of 1943. In which 2 to 3 million people in the Bengal province of India died of starvation. While grain was exported from India to Europe in order to help the war effort. Historians today debate whether this decision was a genocide. Or merely a policy failure resulting from the complexities of a global war.