Today happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day and like most MLK days, I have had to work. Nevertheless, today gave me occasion to reflect on some of the similarities between the memory and controversy of MLK and Nelson Mandela. In fact, the similarities between the two of them in this regard are quite striking. What I seek today is not to give a full account of either, for both were flawed men who nevertheless serve as a great inspiration for people who felt downtrodden and abused. This hope is both strength and weakness, a reminder of how we are fallen beings but also an inspiration to fight against the darkness that we all have to deal with in this world. Because we are all ourselves partly dark, we cannot help but have some aspect of that darkness influence our lives and our legacy.
To be sure, both MLK and Mandela are seen as heroes against racism. Their example and leadership has led them to be seen as models of moral leadership. In order to properly determine their lives and their place, we must recognize that both men stood against evil systems of domination. To be sure, both men were deeply flawed in their personal lives, flaws that certainly take away from the luster of their loyal wives seeking to preserve their memory while they faced prison and (in the case of MLK) assassination. These flaws ought to be openly admitted–certainly no heroes are without some sort of shortcomings, given that all are human and that none are entirely blameless. The more we can only admit the flaws of others, along with their nobility, so as to place our own lives in a better context, being both more responsible as well as more merciful to ourselves and others.
A particularly serious flaw relating to both men is their dalliance with Communism, which is a common aspect of a false dilemma between the far-right and the far-left pointing to people to make a choice between which of those grave evils seems less evil. Also, in all fairness, Communism and its cousins puts on a kind face when it is weak and seeking support and domineering when it has power. For their failure in political wisdom, and for their desire to harness elements in coalitions against their enemies, they deserve some censure. We can be fortunate that their folly has been less dangerous than it could have been. That said, we should also recognize the fact that such an ability to see beyond political false dilemmas is beyond the means of most people. In fact, whether one is in the contemporary United States or Thailand (to give but two examples), the existence of two wicked and corrupt false dilemmas is a common facet of political affairs in nations with a crisis of legitimacy in government but with at least nominally free institutions.
We have to remember of ourselves, and our rivals and enemies, that we are all humans. We all have similar longings, a desire for advancement, for love, for the fruits of our labors, for recognition and honor. We all have aspects of good and bad in our backgrounds, in our worldviews, in our behavior, and in our character. This is not to say that all such mixtures are equal, only that none of us have subjective standards of judgment that are just and fair, given that we are guilty of sins against the same moral laws that we enforce against others. We who complain with justice about the threat of government oppression, are we oppressors ourselves? We who denigrate men for disloyalty to their wives, are we fornicators or adulterers ourselves? Keeping an awareness of our own flaws helps us to be merciful and understanding with others who are similarly flawed, so that we may be inspired by their strengths, and conscious of their weaknesses, and our own.