I recently read that Shaun King has declared Thomas Jefferson a monster because he owned slaves.
Back in 1999, I conceived of and directed a show entitled My Grandma’s a Fat Whore in Jersey, a two-person improvisation that began with the notion that even our greatest heroes in society have a dual nature.
The concept went something like this: A local priest spends 25–30 years as the advisor to his community, marries countless couples, baptizes babies, raises money for good causes, hosts food drives and works tirelessly for the homeless. Then he fucks a little boy and all of that three decades of good work is automatically erased and he is dubbed a monster. The central premise of the characters created in the show was to see if that is an accurate appraisal of these outliers in society or if there is a more relativistic approach to the debit/credit of deeds in humanity. Simply put, do the negative acts of a human eradicate the good?
Back to Shaun and Jefferson.
1. Wrote The Declaration of Independence (1776)
2. Wrote The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1777)
3. Advocated for free public education (1779)
4. Participated in the founding of the Library of Congress (1815)
5. Revolutionized gardening and advanced sustainable agriculture
6. Doubled the size of the United States during his presidency
7. Abolished the slave trade (1807)
8. Popularized macaroni and cheese in the United States
Also while announcing that all men are created equal in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Jefferson himself owned around 175 slaves. Also unlike several leading figures of the time, he never liberated his slaves and remained a buyer and seller of human beings.
Now the Catholics have a system of categorizing sin. A mortal sin is a gravely wrongful act, which can lead to eternal damnation if a person is not absolved of the sin before death. A sin is considered to be "mortal" when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God's saving grace. A venial sin is a relatively slight sin that that does not entail damnation of the soul. The only way to cleanse oneself of a mortal sin is repentance and an act of contrition (confession of the sin is implied…)
The Puritans pretty much viewed all sins as mortal. Unlike the Catholics, the Puritans decided that they couldn’t wait for God to dole out the punishment so any sin they caught was punished in the most harsh way. Steal and get your hand cut off; lie and lose your tongue. Be a woman unwilling to completely subjugate yourself, be burned as a witch. That sort of thing.
I am not a believer in the concepts of good and evil. The idea of sin doesn’t work for me. I mean, Gandhi was an amazing force for peace and liberation but he also was a vehement racist. MLK was a force for good but really liked to fuck around. Mother Theresa was, well, fucking Mother Theresa. But she also was coercive to people to convert on their deathbeds, lauded poverty and suffering as a righteous way, and was an anti-abortionist.
We are largely living in a waining religiosity in the world today but the pernicious need to root out sin and evil hasn’t quite gone the way of really believing that the cracker and grape juice are really like eating Jesus.
The new modern mortal sins (replacing Dante’s Seven Dead Ones) include:
• Ideological Impurity
As both the Extreme Right and Extreme Left truck in moral outrage (Rage Profiteers), those left in the middle have to walk an increasingly cautious line. Any step or joke in the wrong direction results in personal destruction. And any human creative and ingenious enough to make something or do something notable better be perfect in every way.
This apparently includes those long dead as the need to revile those who made differences in times past are now held to the same revisionist scrutiny and Puritanical confines as anyone today and without the ability of defense. You know, cuz they’re dead.
I’m reminded of the phrase attributed to Jesus “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Unfortunately, the Rage Profiteers have convinced themselves that their sins are either so cleverly concealed as to never be found or have so deluded themselves to justify any sin they have committed as venial.
Shaun does have a point. Owning humans is about as close to a mortal sin as I can think of, let alone all the fucking horrendous things one did to slaves to keep them as property.
Which means that William Ellison, Jr. (former slave), Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton (yes, of the popular musical), Muhammad (the founder of Islam), Plato, Socrates, and Martha Washington are all monsters.
Assigning culpability without the benefit (or hindrance) of either context or defense is dicey territory no matter how you slice it.
The question really goes to whether or not there is a balance to these things and if you are one to decide there is not, how you will be prosecuted following your death (if you are notable enough for anyone to give a shit, of course.) The question is, is there some sort of redemptive value in accomplishing great things if those things are undone by the awful things we do.
On the other hand, I really love macaroni and cheese.