This morning I was reading the book Dallas 1963 and came across a dreadful but affecting story. A Jewish man in Dallas, a survivor of Auschwitz and of a gruesome procedure by Josef Mengele, was worried about the proliferation of extremist rhetoric around him. So he started speaking out in public about his own experience to churches, civic groups, and synagogues as a warning. In January of 1963, he came home from work to find a cross burning on his front yard. The perpetrator was caught and released after paying a $10 fine.
Moved by the man's courage and his monstrous sufferings, I looked him up. He was not likely to be alive today, but perhaps he had gone on to do more, either locally or elsewhere. He had, in fact died many years ago. And his family, who was largely estranged from him, remembered him not as an everyday local hero but as a tyrannical and emotionally abusive husband and father.
I always wonder what people mean when they talk about someone being (or not being) a "saint." This, I suppose, is a hazard of having too much theological education. But then I see how I have my own ideas about sanctity--ideas that meet my own need for the world to make sense. A "saint," in everyday usage, can be someone who exemplifies a virtue we admire (especially a virtue we admire from a distance), or who endured suffering without lashing out or exhibiting any symptoms of trauma, or who made the world a better place in a difficult but needed way. And it's easy to select depictions of the people who might qualify, under these criteria, in such a way that they do what we want them to do: they validate what is best in us, even if we don't feel we can achieve it ourselves. This sort of depiction is what we call hagiography, the writing of sanctity--literally as in the written life of a Christian saint, and colloquially as a term that disparages overly favorable biographies of famous people.
But those depictions have to leave out many things in order to give us the saint we want and need. And that is, ultimately, unfair to the real person underneath the depiction. It was not fair of me, as a reader, to want and need that Holocaust survivor to be a moral exemplar of anything. People who suffer grave evils are not obligated to be better for it, certainly not in order to edify someone like me. People who cultivate profound kindness are no less entitled than anyone else to instinctive resentments or long-simmering bitterness. Those who pursue a religious vocation do not thereby banish vice, pettiness, sloth, or hatred from their lives.
People are always more complicated than we want them to be. And that's especially true for saints, whose visible sanctity may not tell the whole story, but only the part we want, for our own reasons, to know.
This week we celebrate the Feast of All Saints', an ancient observance in Christianity in which all the notable faithful departed and all the martyrs were remembered together. In our Lutheran tradition it has tended to embrace all the Christian dead, or even all the people we, personally, knew and loved who have died. But what, exactly, do we commemorate on this day? What in the saints needs to be remembered and lifted up, even after time uncovers some of their complications?
More on All Saints:
"In many ways, this [reading from Ephesians] is the perfect passage for All Saints Day. It may be time to remember “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and live in such a way that is worthy of that high calling. With Christ as the “head,” the church—“which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23)—is called on to represent the Christ figure in the world. What should this representation look like?" (Professor Emerson Powery, on Workingpreacher.org)
"All of creation is one disciple, together amidst the flesh of dirt—its aches and illnesses, its abuses and violence. Creation is one, its members mixed together hearing echoes of the Creator, redirecting their lives away from messages of conquering and amassing things that do not matter." (Oluwatomasin Odein, Christiancentury.org)
"Over the weeks of learning and preaching, these distant lives began to feel very contemporary. Perpetua and Felicity, the third-century North African martyrs, defied a death-loving culture. Ninth-century missionary Ansgar strove to bring the gospel to an indifferent or hostile Scandinavia, while doing works of mercy that overcame his many disappointments and setbacks. The radical servanthood of Elizabeth, a 13th-century Hungarian princess who lived most of her short life in Germany, reflected ironically on contemporary princess culture, just as her mistreatment at the hands of an overbearing spiritual director reflected on the enduring vulnerability of the pious to religious abuse. The apostle Paul broke down worldly barriers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, obscure in his own lifetime, amplified his personal heroism by trying to make Christian sense of a world that no longer needed God." (my essay "Discovering the Saints: A Church Meets a Cloud of Witnesses" in The Christian Century, 2013)
God's Work. Our hands.