There is a debate about the name of a public school in the Richmond area; for decades its name has been that of a politician, a deceased government leader, who many say served the Commonwealth of Virginia for most of his life and deserves to have a school named after him. When others point out that he was a staunch segregationist and fought integration and equality the response often is, “He was just a man of his times, that’s the way people were back then.” Is the idea that a man or woman was reflecting the attitudes and thinking of her or his “times” justification for his or her attitudes, words, and actions – especially when it comes to honoring the memory of people and therefore holding that memory up as an example for present and future generations?
Regarding the above example, let me first point out, that the above individual may have been “serving” the white population of Virginia, but he was hardly serving the black citizens of our state. Furthermore, he would have better served the white population had he not been a man of his times and therefore had led the white population in moral and ethical change; and this leads me to the heart of the issue: people who are products of their times are not the people who should be honored, it is the people who transcend and overcome their times that should be honored.
Now to be sure there are some things in which being a product of one’s times is innocuous, others which are amusing, others which are wrong-headed but not moral or ethical; but there remain those which are matters of life and death, of good and evil, or of morals and ethics; these latter are the things that matter. It doesn’t matter if someone believed there really was a bird called a Phoenix which rose from ashes, or that the sun revolved around the earth, or that swamp gases could make one crazy, or that travelling on a train at high speed would change your molecular structure. These are not first-tier questions, they are not life and death questions, they are not questions that affect the basic moral and ethical and spiritual structure of our lives. One can understandably be a person of “the times” in many things such as these without approaching issues that touch on the core of human life. (Think of how often dietary advice changes in our own “times” – smart people test the rats, then they ask us to behave like rats, then they test us, then they test the rats again, and then they ask to us change our behavior again based on what they just learned anew – it is a cycle that doesn’t end – we are all people of our “times” in many ways that don’t much matter).
Anyone can be a person of his “times” – but great men and women ought to be people above their “times” in the things that matter, and certainly segregation and equity and justice matter. If people of their “times” honored a man of his “times” using the standards of their “times” then we have an unexceptional honor given to someone by unexceptional people using an unexceptional standard. If our standards have changed today for the better, then we should ask how they changed and how we changed and what people were the catalysts for the change and honor them. This is not changing history or rewriting history, it is not about denying the past, it is, if anything, acknowledging the sins of our past, including the grievous sins of the leaders we chose to follow – their sins are our sins – perhaps that is why many of us are loath to question them, perhaps that is why we’d rather not consider renaming a school.
When we take this argument into the professing church we move from the civic to the eternal and in so doing have the argument that a person was a product of his “times” cut more deeply from beneath our feet – for the eternal by its nature is transcendent, the Biblical is not a prisoner of time and space and circumstance, it transcends all of these things for it spans the eternals. The earthly life of Jesus Christ is a recurring statement and example that life ought to transcend the things of earth and in doing so change the things of earth – change the hearts of men and women. Those who follow Jesus are called to be not people of their times, but people who change their times if possible, and if not possible people who live in opposition to their times.
When Christian leaders of the past have succumbed to fractured (and worse) moral and ethical thinking we ought to not explain it away by saying that they were people of their times – we ought to say that they sinned and fell short of the glory of God in those areas. When the professing church has failed to articulate righteousness and justice and failed to live in faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to its neighbors then we ought to acknowledge the truth of the matter and use not their “times” as our standard, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word.
When our own lives come to an end and we stand before our Lord Jesus and our brothers and sisters, will our lives be products of our “times” or will they be products of the transcendent Kingdom of God?