In the 2006 biopic Amazing Grace, my favorite monologue takes place in a scene where the movie’s hero, William Wilberforce, is compelling an elite class of society to come face to face with the horrid reality of slavery. During a lunch cruise, the luxurious reception is interrupted by the ship’s pause next to a less lavish ship called the Madagascar. It is a slave ship.
“Remember that smell,” on the putrid smell of death emanating from the ship, “Remember the Madagascar. Remember, that God made men equal.”
My recent blog posts, starting from A Child of All Nations, Human Strudel, and the three-part series on the Story of Complex People (Part I, II, III), are spawned from personal reflections on recent reading and watching materials. They comprise of historical accounts and biographies circa World War II, the Bosnian War of the early 90’s, and stories of war survivors. I need to process the information and answer the questions, “What have I learned from history?” and “How am I to live now that I’ve learned these things?”
In this historical journey, I encountered incredible accounts of human resilience, the inconceivable horror of torture, and humanity’s amazing capacity of both good and evil. In war situations, reality and ethics are thwarted. People who previously mingle together can quickly become hostile to each other once they are convinced that their subgroup is superior to the other. Everybody is a victim of war, no matter which side one belongs to.
The end of Wilberforce’s monologue in that movie scene emerges as the silver thread: God made men equal.
It seems to me that at the root of many ethnic conflicts, wars, and massacres, is the attitude that says, “I am better than you.” The thought may seem innocuous at first, but translated in situations where entire societies are swayed by convincing propaganda, it can easily turn into “I am better than you, therefore I can exist, and you don’t have to.” Our love for vanity and (group) pride cannot be underestimated.
It is easy to be distant and judgmental of the great evil recorded in historical books: “I cannot believe how evil these people are.” But what guarantees us that we would not act the same way given the same situation, living in the same cage of manufactured hatred by the prevailing powers? I’d like to think that I would stand for the tortured if I lived during Nazi Germany. I’d like to think I’d champion Wilberforce’s cause to abolish slave trade in Britain if I lived in the early 1800s. But what guarantees that I would indeed be such a person given the social pressure of the time?
If I don’t have human compassion right now, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t be part of humanity’s evil in any part of history. What I can do right now, as a 21st century global citizen, is to abolish any notion that “I am better than you” due to socio-economic status, race, education, or any social strata we have manufactured for ourselves. I need to cultivate that human compassion by seeing each person with respect and dignity. Then maybe, if I was thrown into complicated situations, I would actually have the moral backbone to stand for fellow mankind, no matter what race, religion, level of education, social status, or any group they belong to.
The antidote of many great wars and conflicts lies in the simple, but profound, powerful statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because my neighbor and me are equal. The phrase is said often, perhaps too lightly. But it carries with it such power that can counter and prevent much evil. And isn’t it fitting, that those who should first and foremost live by this statement are the same ones who say it the most?
A human being is in a very questionable position to judge another’s motives. After all is said and done, at the end of our lives, we only have our own complexity to understand, and perhaps not even that. But there is a set of biographies, as I am persuaded, that tell the most honest truth about humanity.
When it comes to exposing hidden motives, divulging the inner heroes and villains in one person, and telling the full truth about human beings, Bible biographies stand in a completely distinct genre compared to human biographies. The way it treats its heroes and villains are at times unpredictable, since heroes sometimes become villains, and villains heroes. Some of the most horrendous things recorded in the book are committed by its supposed heroes and heroines.
For example, take a look at this list: “Noah, the survivor of the flood, got drunk and exposed his nakedness; Abraham, the friend of God, lied and doubted God; Lot, the hero of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, got drunk and had an incestuous relationship with his daughters; Miriam, the beautiful singer and prophetess of Israel, had a racial and jealousy problem and was struck with leprosy; Rahab, the woman of faith and the ancestor of Jesus Christ, had been a prostitute; David, a man after God’s own heart, was guilty of adultery and murder; Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, lived the life of a fool…”
I quote Heschel a lot, and I’m going to do it again, “The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology.” It depicts a view from someone who can see all humanity to the deepest core of the heart.
Human biographies typically enhance the social standing and reputation of notable men and women. Naturally, aspects that would mar this image are prudently tucked away or limited to a handful of cases just to make the said person relatable and human enough. “This is the way men write history; but when the Lord undertakes to tell His story of a sinful man, He does not select a poor miserable beggar, and show him up; He does not give even the name of the thief on the cross… but He takes King David from the throne, and sets him down in sackcloth and ashes, and wrings from his heart the cry, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness…’ And then when he is pardoned, forgiven, cleansed, and made whiter than snow, the pen of inspiration writes down the whole dark, damning record of his crimes, and the king on his throne has not power, nor wealth, nor influence enough to blot the page; and it goes into history for infidels to scoff at for three thousand years. Who wrote that?”
I had a college professor who once said, If the Bible is such a moral book, why does it have horrible stories like Lot’s incestuous relationships, rapes within a family, etc?
I would submit that the reason why the Bible has these grotesque stories is precisely because it tells the truth about humanity. It doesn’t cower from exposing the great evil a human being can do towards his neighbor. History of wars, ethnic conflicts, and slavery can attest to the unimaginable evil people can do in unusual times. And most of these people are, at some point, regular people, like you and me. The Bible is not a collection of fairy tales; it tells the stories of real people, with real conflicting motives and inner turmoils.
“You find a man who will tell the truth about kings, warriors, princes, and rulers today, and you may be quite sure that he has within him the power of the Holy Ghost. And a book which tells the faults of those who wrote it, and which tells you that ‘there is none righteous, no, not one,’ bears in it the marks of a true book; for we all know that men have faults, and failings, and sins; and among all the men whose lives are recorded in that book, each man has some defect, some blot, except one, and that is ‘the man Christ Jesus.’”
 Samuel Koranteng-Pipim. Receiving the Word. Berean Books, 1996. p. 53.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel. Man is Not Alone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1976. p. 129.
 Horace Lorenzo Hastings. Will the Old Book Stand? Review and Herald. 1923. p. 17-18.
Who can tell the truth about a person? An autobiography gives access to someone’s psyche and thought processes, but is there anyone who thinks unfavorably about himself and would put his own life story in writing? Biographies have the advantage of a third person’s distance to the main subject. But then again, the author’s biases and motives add another layer to the original story. Besides, rarely does anyone write a biography about someone they don’t like or admire. Thus before anything is ever written, the author is susceptible to ‘partial blindness’, especially to weaknesses, faults, and embarrassing things that would reduce the value of the book or mar the perception of the said person.
Biographies and memoirs were not a big part of my reading list, until recently. While this genre is indisputably valuable, I have to remind myself that these people, whose lives are being told, are still human beings. Sometimes authors are capable of lauding a person so much such that the admired person appears somewhat like a demi-god, having an existence a little higher than normal people. Virtues are emphasized, but faults are downplayed or omitted, resulting in a picture of someone who is a little more perfect than the rest of us. But even these extraordinary people are subject to the tension between their inner heroes and villains.
I wonder what the contrast would be if, for example, two biographies were written on a person, one by an admirer and another by an enemy. Perhaps two very different personas would appear, each partially true. The admirer would likely be blind to the person’s faults, and the enemy to the person’s strengths. In contrast, the enemy would likely tell more truth about the person’s inconsistencies and impure motives, and the admirer the truth about the virtues. The real person is probably somewhere in between or a composite of these things.
The question then remains, who can tell the truth about a person? Is there anyone of us who can know and express the full reality of another human being, or even the reality about ourselves?