He was a man I looked up to, a voice I like to listen to, whose insights I valued and whose books I enjoyed reading. Today Jean Vanier is being described as “manipulative and emotionally abusive”.
She was a rising star, dancing her way into the nation’s hearts, becoming the vivacious host of the latest reality hit show. Then overnight she is shown in a different light, an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence. Caroline Flack unable to come to terms with a seeming all too public fall from grace tragically takes her own life.
Whether it is celebrities in the world of entertainment, super humans on the sports field, or saints, holy men and women, in the aisle of faith, we set people on pedestals and then fain shock when they come tumbling down.
When we cast people as either heroes or villains we reduce them to a caricature of themselves. The multi-faceted reality that makes up each human being is reduced to a single, inevitably distorting, single dimension. The good in a human beings should not blind us to their faults. The bad in a human beings should not blind us to their goodness.
Wrong and criminal behaviour must be called out and people must be held responsible for their actions. The behaviours of Jean Vanier need to be named and his victims heard. It rightly changes the light in which we see him but it does not in and of itself invalidate the work he did or the insights his writings gave. Domestic violence is wrong but Caroline’s action on that night do not mean she was less of the loving, vivacious person her friends knew.
Truth is not single stranded. Different truths about any human being can and do exist alongside each other. Each of our lives is an intertwining of many strands and many stories. These strands may deeply contradict each other but they do not necessarily invalidate each other. We need to depose the idea of celebrity, resist the idea of both the super hero and the evil villain and debunk the idea of the specially holy. These false and alienating concepts distort our understanding of the reality of what it means to be human. They can blind us both to the harm people do and to the good of which they may be capable.
Such simplistic assessments of humankind infect and distort so much of the way we relate to one another. Too quickly we make a judgement based on where and how people live, the way they dress, the job they do and their apparent education. We divide people into skilled and unskilled, those we want to welcome to our shores and those we will not admit, the deserving and the so-called undeserving poor. We categorise people, like butterflies pinned in a frame, then turn on them when they fail to live up to our narrow expectation.
From the lens of Christian theology all have fallen short. Before our heavenly Judge we are all worthy of condemnation. The mystery at the heart of Christianity is of a God who knows us for who we truly are, and from whom no secrets are hidden, and yet never stops loving us – a God who needs us to face the reality of who we are and recognise our own need of divine grace.
We need to burn all pedestals. We all have feet of clay and our understanding of each other needs to be properly earthed. Human beings are capable of great evil and of great good. We are all a mix of the ugly and the beautiful. To over flatter or to over condemn any human being is in all probability a misrepresentation. If a person seems to be too good to be true they usually are. If we are told a person is all evil we should not be surprised if there is also another story.
No more putting people on pedestals. Let us be more honest about being human. May our approach to truth be more nuanced, understanding its multi-faceted nature. In response to the other may we neither eulogise nor demonise. We must each face up to what we have done. May none of us be portrayed in a one dimension caricature of our true selves. May the final assessment of our lives be both rounded and honest.