The Danger of Sanitized Biographies: Gandhi Edition

April 2, 2011

There was a time when I hated it when people would ‘tear down’ the heroes of old. I hated biographies that exposed Thomas Jefferson’s immorality and mistreatment of slaves. I hated the tell all biographies of George Washington and Ben Franklin. I wished that heroes could just be heroes. But I have changed my view on this. I am glad for biographies that tell the full truth regarding great men and women of the past. Of course biographies can be libelous and we need to be careful to distinguish between good scholarship and cruel and uncharitable speculation. I have read such works and we need to reject them. But well researched and charitable biographies that are not afraid to look at the bumps and warts of a hero’s life are a good thing.

I think that, as Christians, we are prone to assume that we are the only ones who struggle with sin. We think that there is this group of “super-saints” over there and then there are the rest of us. Every preacher or politician that does or says the right things causes us to start thinking of them as somehow exemplary human beings. But look hard enough and you will see that even great people are imperfect and often have major weak spots in their lives. Go back in history and look at every great saint and you will see problems in each of their lives, spiritual state, and teachings. This is one of the things that I love about the Bible – it doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the great saints. Abraham? He had sex with a servant, Hagaar, because he and his wife couldn’t wait for God to fulfill his promise of children. David? Adulterer and murderer. Solomon? Idolotrer. Elijah? Sent bears to eat some of mocking youths. Peter? Blasphemer. Et cetera. Et cetera. There are very few Biblical saints that have no major sins on their record and, in my experience, I think this reflects life in general.

This fact doesn’t make them unhelpful to study, respect or follow –  it makes them human. All Christians are sinners saved by grace. There is no boasting. There are no special cases. It is the work of the Holy Spirit not the human spirit. Biographies that show saints who did great things in spite of their weaknesses are encouraging to me because it shows that God uses imperfect people (like you and me) to accomplish great things.

But this fact does remind us of something. We need the forgiveness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We can’t be saved by doing good things because sooner or later we are going to do bad things. As King David writes in Psalm 130:3,  “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Recently, there was a hubbub about Rob Bell the Michigan pastor who suggested that maybe there would be no final state of hell. The controversy started when Bell released this promotional video for his book:

Notice who he points to as someone that really could not be in hell. “Gandhi is in Hell? Really?” The idea here is that Bell found a non Christian who everyone agrees is a super-saint. Gandhi didn’t have explicit faith in Jesus but he did live a darn good life. Right? Well, hold on…..what did King David say? No one lives a darn good life. Look hard enough and there are always warts.

Well. It turns out that the Wall Street Journal has decided to show some of Gandhi’s warts. Here is an interesting article that details some of those problem areas of Gandhi’s life. For example:

Gandhi was in many respects on the wrong side of WWII. Gandhi encouged Jews not to fight back against Hitler and thought that nonviolence would work. He addressed Hitler, in a letter, “My Friend”.  Gandhi said that there was an exact parallel between Hitler’s Third Reich and the British. He got along well with Mussolini. Further, Gandhi waged a serious effort to support the brutal Japanese against the British – a decision that, had it been successful, would have undoubtedly led to many deaths of Indian citizens.

Gandhi was racist. In South Africa, he complained about not being classified with the whites. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the ­Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.” Of white Afrikaaners and Indians, he wrote: “We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do.”

Gandhi was sexually immoral. From the article: When he was in his 70s and close to leading India to ­independence, he encouraged his ­17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him. After sacking several long-standing and loyal members of his 100-strong ­personal entourage who might disapprove of this part of his spiritual quest, Gandhi began sleeping naked with Manu and other young women. He told a woman on one occasion: “Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience.” Although Gandhi’s attraction to women might not have compared to his attraction to men. Hermann Kallenbach, a South African architect was a homosexual lover of Gandhi’s for years. Gandhi had several explicitly sexual letters to Kallenbach and once wrote, “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women.”

Gandhi could be cruel and insensitive. Often using cruel statements longing for people’s death. When his niece risked her life for him and then cried, Gandhi laughed and said “If some ruffian had carried you off and you had met your death courageously, my heart would have danced with joy.” To a Hindu who asked how his co-religionists could ever return to villages from which they had been ethnically cleansed, Gandhi blithely replied: “I do not mind if each and every one of the 500 families in your area is done to death.”

Gandhi was not easy to get along with and alienated two other major leaders in India (the leader of the lowest caste, B.R. Ambedkar, and the leader of the Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whom he called “a maniac”.

Gandhi was a tireless self promoter who edited his own biography before it was published and also bought up the first edition to ensure that it went into a second printing.

All of this is not to say that Gandhi is lacking any admirable qualities. He was an intelligent man. The practice of nonviolent resistance is an effective practice when you are dealing with a power that is unwilling to massacre (such as the British who were not at all like the Nazi’s). Of course, this plan fails when the power is willing to massacre (Stalin, Hilter, Mao, etc) but it has merits in certain situations.

What all of this does tell us is that Gandhi was in as much need of God’s forgiveness and grace as any other human being on earth. Unfortunately, statements like the one from Rob Bell suggest that salvation outside of naming Christ is possible. Just live “a good life” and you will be ok. But no one lives a good life. Everyone has warts. And warts, if you look at them close enough are very ugly.

HT: Justin Taylor

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