THE MAN IN THE ARENA

Accept your share of suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Nobody who serves in the military gets tied up with civilian matters, so that they can please the one who recruited them.

[2 Timothy 2:3-4 Common English Bible]

The words of the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy echoed in my mind yesterday morning when I learned of the death of General Colin Powell due to complications from COVID-19.

The flags were ordered to be flown at half-staff in honor of this soldier who served his country in various capacities. The accolades flowed all day long from those who knew him well and even those who didn’t. I happen to fall into the latter category. Still, when I read the news, it was as if I had lost a close relative.

As one who makes a concerted effort to limit my praise for public figures in this space, it is a challenge to restrain myself in this situation, given the significance of Powell’s accomplishments on a personal, military, political, diplomatic, and patriotic level.

But as Paul counsels Timothy in the scripture verse above, there is no amount of success that isn’t accompanied by some measure of suffering. How Powell will be remembered depends upon whom you ask.

General Colin Powell

To some he is a hero, a man who overcame humble origins and racial prejudice to rise to the highest ranks of leadership in the country’s military; hold powerful positions in government;  and exercise remarkable influence among the world’s heads of state.

To others, he leaves a legacy of dishonesty, being complicit in one of this nation’s most heinous foreign policy decisions; when, as Secretary of State, in 2003, he went before the United Nations with fraudulent information that led to the invasion of Iraq – a conflict whose consequences still linger today.

It is hard to believe that a person who had such a respectable reputation would have shown such poor judgment and been so misled. I choose to think it was his loyalty to the administration that blinded him to the overwhelming opposing evidence.

William Shakespeare once wrote that, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” [from Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Antony]

As it was with Caesar, I fear it will be with Colin Powell. To his credit, in his later years, he owned up to his role in the duplicity, hopefully regaining some measure of his integrity.

Theodore Roosevelt

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt, eyeing a comeback into the Presidency of the United States, gave a speech in Paris, France, entitled, “Citizenship in A Republic.” It has come to be more popularly known as the “Man in the Arena” speech, because of the most quoted paragraph of that nearly 9,000 word speech. (Click here for the full text of the speech.)

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt could have well been describing Powell, who was still a century away from recognition.

Powell was a soldier, and soldiers are acknowledged for their sense of duty, and single-mindedness of purpose. If I were to speculate, I would guess that the decision to go forward with his presentation to the United Nations was motivated and guided by those principles.

Colin Powell was a role model to the ones who identified with his trailblazing achievements; especially to African-Americans who learned from his experiences, and developed under his mentorship.

But long after the flags have been restored to full-staff, people will continue to debate this one tragic and tearful moment in history.

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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