On January 26th, a helicopter carrying former NBA star, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others crashed in Calabasas, California, killing all on board. News about Kobe’s death quickly circulated, and, given his celebrity status, countless individuals announced their condolences and memorialized his life.
As these tributes to Bryant took shape, I could tell that a cultural conflict would soon develop. Early in his career, Kobe was accused by a woman of sexual misconduct. He denied the allegations but did provide a monetary settlement to his accuser in order to end a civil court case. (Similar accusations were never made against Kobe throughout the rest of his life.) In the wake of the “Me Too” movement that swept the nation over the past three years, a clear message was sent: Sexual misconduct could not be tolerated, regardless of one’s wealth or celebrity status. Numerous highly notable figures, many of whom were synonymous with their brand or position, were quickly ousted from their roles as public figures. In the wake of Kobe’s death and the tributes paid to him, it was inevitable that the accusations from his past would re-emerge, and they did. Some people questioned whether it was appropriate to celebrate a figure who had these accusations made against him in the past.
Parallel developments can be seen in other areas of society. For example, in 2017, Yale University changed the name of Calhoun College due to its namesake’s defense of slavery. John C. Calhoun was a graduate of Yale in 1804. He served in both houses of Congress and held other prominent political positions such as Vice-President (1825–1832) and Secretary of State (1844). Despite his long and distinguished political career, Yale student protests eventually convinced the school’s administration that Calhoun’s legacy as an advocate for slavery fundamentally conflicted with Yale’s mission and values.
As Christians watch these and similar events unfold, we must consider a question: How should Christians celebrate significant figures and their accomplishments, both within our own tradition and within our larger society? The following three points are offered as a starting point for such a discussion.
1. There is always a danger in celebrating fallen creatures.
The Bible is explicitly clear that every person (past, present, and future) is sinful. For unbelievers, this means that they are incapable of pleasing God or acting in righteousness (Rom 3:10–18, 23; 5:19; 1 Cor 15:19–22; Eph 2:1–3). Even believers, who have repented of sin, accepted Christ as Savior, and committed to the lordship of Christ, are still vulnerable, both wittingly and unwittingly, to sin (Rom 7:15–20).
This should cause every Christian to hesitate before celebrating any prominent figure. As a fallen creature, anyone who we would seek to celebrate will inevitably fail miserably in some area of life and thus betray the confidence of those who had celebrated him. Conversely, as fallen creatures, our ability to evaluate others is inherently flawed. It is possible that there are glaring instances of sin within a person’s life of which both he and us are unaware. The passage of time often adds tremendous perspective. Human societies often have a developing awareness of injustice. (This is not to say that what is right and wrong has developed or is culturally bound. It is to say that our ability to recognize immorality often develops. What is morally right and wrong is consistent throughout time.) We are often able to look back on individuals who were celebrated in the past and recognize that there are several reasons why we may not choose to celebrate that individual now. As Christians, we must always be hesitant to celebrate any individual.
2. It is often helpful to hold up notable figures as examples of the qualities we should seek to emulate.
Human Beings naturally admire those who contain the virtues and qualities we want to be characterized by ourselves, and we seek to emulate those individuals. There is, perhaps surprisingly, biblical warrant for this. The apostle Paul encouraged several of the churches to which he wrote to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thes 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thes 3:7, 9; cf. Heb 6:12; 13:7; 3 John 11). To the degree that Paul embodied a specific quality he wanted those churches to display, he encouraged them to follow his example. In a similar manner, the author of Hebrews presents numerous figures from the Old Testament as examples of faith for New Testament believers to admire (Heb 11). Thus, even though human beings are all flawed due to the presence of sin in our lives, that sin does not preclude the possibility of celebrating a person’s virtues or accomplishments.
3. The gospel teaches us that we should not measure a person by either their greatest achievements or by their greatest failures.
No matter what a person accomplishes in life or how strongly he exhibits a specific virtue, his works will never justify him before God. His justification, which is far more important than our celebration of him, is only possible through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In the same way, no matter how flawed an individual is who we may have previously celebrated, those flaws are nothing compared to the forgiveness that has been made available to him in Jesus Christ. Since a person’s sin is not the final measure of his life in terms of his standing before God, it should not be the final measure we use to evaluate him either.
We should be able to celebrate Kobe Bryant’s dedication to excellence in basketball without being forced to endorse every decision he ever made. In the same way, we should be able to celebrate Calhoun’s service to his country even though he clearly fell short of earning our admiration in terms of his views on slavery. We could say the same thing concerning Winston Churchill’s leadership capabilities or of John Calvin’s exegetical excellence. As Christians, we are free to celebrate excellence and virtue even while recognizing that these are often contained in deeply flawed vessels. In doing so, we are compelled to faithfully serve the one who was perfectly aligned to God’s righteous character on our behalf, Jesus Christ.