Truth floats, even out of human darkness

Here is a question that I often wrestle with regarding Martin Luther King (Jr.) and any "great" man. Assuming that the following is true: "(According to) the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in his book, ‘And the Wall Came Tumbling Down,’ King spent his last night in the motel having an immoral liaison with three women and then beat one of the women in the morning before he was shot. … If these allegations are true, this man should never have been put forward as a national hero."

Does the private, hypocritical practice of a preacher (or anyone who leads) pollute or denigrate that which he preaches? — J.D., Hilo, Hawaii.

While you did not tell me what/who you are quoting here, I have seen similar quotes over the years. If I called it "insulting crap," I would still be guilty of irony. It is despicable and malicious. In some ways more of a slap in the face of Ralph Abernathy than of Dr. King.

I’m quoting

"False. Abernathy acknowledges in his autobiography that King had a ‘weakness for women’ and indulged in extramarital affairs, but makes no mention whatsoever of ‘drunken sex parties’ or prostitutes, and explicitly denies that King had dalliances with white women. Furthermore, Abernathy writes, far from being physically abusive, King was ‘always gracious and courteous to women.’ "

What we can know, J.D., is that King was unfaithful in his marriage. Serially unfaithful.

Your use of the word "hypocritical" provokes questions for me. It’s a Greek compound, and it literally means "to play-act." Used literally, we could only describe King’s sexual behavior to have been hypocritical if indeed we remembered him saying, "I’ve never cheated on my wife," or if we remember him harshly condemning that behavior in someone else.

In our modern day, most people use the term "hypocritical" to refer to any behavior that doesn’t exactly match our stated values. Used that way, everyone is a hypocrite, because no human being always and in every way lives their values. For example, condescending to people doesn’t fit my values; but I am sometimes condescending. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, merely a garden variety sinner.

Choose either definition and you’re still stuck. Either it misapprehends the term or is an observation so banal as to be nearly meaningless.

To your question: Does bad behavior have the power to pollute or denigrate what he preaches? Strictly speaking, no. Bad behavior can and does ravage our integrity. certainly our credibility. It can make our words harder to hear and our good works harder to see. But truth floats. So do beauty, brilliance and inspiration. Even when those things float out of darkness.

And maybe that’s the most uncomfortable truth in this: Truth, beauty, brilliance and inspiration tend to flow most powerfully from the brokenness in human beings. Our darkness is a part of our light. It no longer surprises me, for example, that so many of our world’s most gifted people seem so often to flounder in excesses of appetite and instinct.

Not saying those excesses are OK; just observing the facts.

Henry Ward Beecher had an affair with a parishioner, and I still think he’s the greatest American preacher in Protestant history. Paul Tillich died in the arms of a prostitute, and I still think he ranks in the top two or three among American Protestant theologians. George Washington owned slaves, and Thomas Jefferson probably sired children with one of his slaves, and I’m not wanting to remove either visage from Mount Rushmore.

Here’s what I notice: When Americans raise questions like you have raised, it almost always regards sex. When a preacher, for example, is gluttonous, emotionally dishonest and manipulative, arrogant, spiteful, envious, mean — nobody ever wonders aloud if these sins might pollute or denigrate what he/she preaches. But sex? Well, then the very doors of hell hath opened.

President Clinton had a sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and the larger part of his presidency will be forevermore the butt of jokes. President Reagan, er, sorry, some mystery folks in the Reagan administration, er, I mean Oliver North went behind Congress’ back to trade arms for hostages and to fund Contras, and we’re pretty much OK with that. He/they/Ollie were just being benevolent and paternal, doing what was best for us.

I’m asking us to notice and examine that our acculturated hostility to sexual sin is curiously, even astoundingly disproportionate when measured against sins eminently more dangerous and destructive to the collective. I wonder why that is.

Originally published in View News, March 9, 2010.

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