Atrocious saints

Hermitage Tree“A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.”

That’s how biographer James Patton described Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States of America. In seeking to write the first scholarly biography of the native Tennessean, Parton felt like he was digging up facts on two different people. Jackson was both loved and reviled, both gentle and harsh, both brilliant and ignorant.

In case you’re not fully up on 19th century presidents, here are some of the facts: Jackson was president from 1829 to 1837. He advocated individual liberty for American citizens but supported and practiced slavery and championed removal of Native Americans from their homelands. And that’s only the easy part to explain.

Andrew Jackson’s home and cotton plantation outside Nashville is called The Hermitage. On a visit to this 2,000-acre estate, I took a photo of a peculiar ash tree on the grounds near the main house. Look closely, and you’ll see this isn’t really one tree trunk but what appear to be five or six trunks that have grown together.

The description of Andrew Jackson and the sighting of this tree on his estate made me think about how complex most of us are. Aren’t we, in fact, full of contradictions ourselves? Don’t we all have the capacity to be atrocious saints? And, truth be told, the most interesting people live in the space created by competing tensions.

Perhaps one reason few of us can be characterized in single words is we have not been formed by single words or single experiences or single actions. Like the tree with five or six trunks, we are the products of seeds that have sprung up and grown together to create unique persons. That doesn’t deny that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. But it does mean we have choices to make.

And thus one of Jackson’s most famous successors in the White House reminded us of the need to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

So here’s to contradictions held in tension inside all of us saints.

Mark Wingfield

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Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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