We Americans are fascinated by individuals. We are drawn to their stories of sacrifice, endurance, and accomplishment. Programming from this past summer’s Olympics linked personal narrative to individual achievement to get viewers to root for athletes by sharing their stories. We marvel at rare feats like Felix Baumgartner’s free-fall from 24 miles above the earth. We assign credit for the success of social and political movements to a select few leaders. And even when whole systems and structures are broken, we place blame at the feet of those only at the very top.
But does this make sense? It hardly seems logical to give credit to one person for the success of important, broad social movements– even to a person as laudable as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–just as it seems unfair to blame a single person for major mistakes, like pinning all the blame on BP CEO Tony Hayward for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. When teams are crowned champions, we lift up a superstar or superb coach; when teams fail, we are tempted to think the solution lies in having a few heads roll. But does our success or failure really lie in the hands of so few?
In this election season, it’s tempting to think that the decision between Governor Romney and President Obama will make a big difference for our country and for our lives. But do individual figures, even those as influential as presidents, really change that much? President Obama vowed to provide a change in course from President Bush, on both domestic and foreign policy. Many viewed his presidency as an opportunity for the country to enter a less partisan era.
His promises of bipartisan cooperation and progress have stalled, as Washington remains mired in hyperpartisanship. Gas and food prices are up. Unemployment is high and economic growth is slow. Not all of this is President Obama’s fault, of course. Bipartisanship cannot work without effort from both sides to reach a common ground, something that has been anathema to Congressional Republicans.
At the same time, the President hasn’t followed through on a number of key promises, from immigration to the environment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Contrary to the hopes of the Nobel Peace Committee (who awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama), the President has made no progress for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He’s escalated the war in Afghanistan. He has somehow escaped much criticism for his policy of extrajudicial killings by drones, especially for the terror, destruction, and death being caused to innocent civilians in places like Pakistan. In other ways, President Obama has made a positive difference, of course. But my point is that any one individual’s impact is limited, and often not what we expect or hope it will be (and maybe even not what they hope it will be).
Secondly, we shouldn’t put too much trust in individuals, no matter how admirable they may seem. Lance Armstrong is the most recent example. He follows a long line of “heroes” who have fallen hard. It was not that long ago that Tiger Woods was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It would be impossible to name all the athletes and coaches who have disappointed their fans through lamentable indiscretions or patterns of behavior that border on the lewd, corrupt, and egomaniacal. Even one of my childhood heroes, Green Bay Packers’ “Minister of Defense” Reggie White, held some rather bigoted views and was embroiled in an embezzlement controversy over funds raised to rebuild a church that was never built. Perhaps Charles Barkley was right when he said athletes shouldn’t be role models.
But of course, these issues aren’t reserved for athletes. History – ancient and not so ancient – is filled with dirty secrets. Presidents and their mistresses. Visionary leaders and their moral blind spots. And though all of these examples have been of men, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously asserted that “well-behaved women seldom make history.”
I don’t mean to suggest that either President Obama or Governor Romney (or their running mates) are fated to disappoint us. Nor do I mean to insinuate that history does not rise and fall on the shoulders of a few great men and women. Living in Boston, I have gained a new appreciation for the courage and commitment to justice that Revolutionary leaders like George Washington and Paul Revere displayed and spread among their contemporaries. But figures such as these are the exception, not the rule. And attributing the Revolution to a handful of leaders completely ignores the convictions, accomplishments, and sacrifices of countless others who joined in. Expecting our country to rise to “greatness and prosperity” if Governor Romney is elected or to move “forward” if President Obama is re-elected seems a little short-sighted.
A few years ago, Paul Rogat Loeb wrote an essay entitled “The Real Rosa Parks.” In it, Loeb aims to de-mythologize the “mother of the civil rights movement.” He does so not to diminish the contribution of Ms. Parks, but to unmask the overly simplistic understanding that one woman’s decision not to move out of her seat set off an irrevocable chain of events that brought about the civil rights movement. And further, that such an act is reserved for only a few, heroic figures.
In the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim, in isolation. She’s a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lesson seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something equally heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us don’t, so we wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.
By elevating Parks on a pedestal, the myth then obscures the story’s most powerful lessons of hope—that when we begin to act on our beliefs, we set out on a journey whose rewards we can’t anticipate, that seemingly modest initial steps can lead to powerful results, and that any of us can contribute to bringing about change, in small or large ways.
Some moments in history are defined by the vision, prudence, courage, and compassion of a select few leaders. But history is mostly written in the space between these moments of greatness, and most often by people whose story will never be heard.
If we sit and wait for the next hero to come along, we let history pass us by, rather than embrace the chance that we have to shape it, however much or little we can. The extent to which we do shape history has less to do with isolated speeches or actions and more to do with the character we cultivate through virtuous dispositions, habits, practices, and relationships. We are a product of the people around us, which is the biggest reason all this attention on relatively few individuals falls short in telling the whole story about who we are and where we’re headed.
With just a little more than a week to go before the election, we shouldn’t get sucked into thinking that our country’s future hinges on the shoulders of the names on the ballots or that after November 6th, we can pat ourselves on the back, wipe our hands, and think we’ve done our part.
Elections sometimes divide people even more than they unite us. Political parties, carefully-packaged statistics, and offhand quips (like #bindersfullofwomen) can pit American vs. American rather than renew our commitment to the common good.
Our faith cannot be in heroes. It must be in God, a God who calls us to be in solidarity with one another – with no exceptions (see Ephesians 2:19 or Galatians 3:28). The early church was committed to koinōnia. This word is typically translated as “community” but perhaps is more fully expressed as “partnership,” both in the interpersonal sense of building community and also in cooperating with the Holy Spirit in a “divine project.” This work is not just for saints and cannot be excluded from sinners. We’re all saints and sinners, wheat and weeds. We all have work to do, on ourselves, our relationships, in our communities, and for our country. Giving credit or assigning blame to only a few is a self-exculpating deception that, in the end, doesn’t do any favors to anyone.