I did not watch last night’s Academy Awards show live, but when my social media feeds began to sizzle with news of the altercation between Chris Rock and Will Smith, I quickly went to YouTube to see it for myself. What I saw both shocked and saddened me. What should have been a night to celebrate excellence was quickly marred with shame and embarrassment as two men at the top of their craft compounded poor decisions to draw a dark cloud over the evening.
I realize that my opinion on the matter isn’t relevant, but for the record, I believe both men were wrong in their actions. Chris Rock is a comedian who makes a living making fun of people and situations, including himself. He is expected to go hard at people, even if it means there will be some groans and cringy moments involved. But wisdom should have kicked in somewhere last night when he was making the decision to make a joke about a black woman’s hair or lack thereof (already a sensitive subject in and of itself) when the cause of it is a well-documented health struggle. On top of that, making the joke in a very public forum in front of her husband when you already have some rocky history over past jokes at her expense, is in very poor taste at least, and downright stupid. Yeah, I know “freedom of speech” is the comeback. However, we have to know that just because we are free to say something does not mean it must be said. All of us, comedians included, need to have better filters.
Will Smith, on the other hand, could have exercised wisdom before taking the stage in retaliation. I like to think most husbands when put in that same situation of having their wife publicly shamed (whether jokingly or not) would have the same thought cross their mind. I’m a pastor, and I will confess that there have been times when someone has disrespected my wife and my response was unkind. I have never laid hands on anyone, but God knows I thought about it every time. So, while I do not condone Smith’s action, I certainly understand it. I wish he had done better, but I cannot say with any certainty that I would have done better if I were in his shoes.
Both men were visibly shaken after the altercation. Chris Rock was able to finish his task of presenting an award through the awkward silence of the stunned crowd. Will Smith was surrounded by friends calming him down as tears of frustration and embarrassment ran down his face. There is a lot of pressure on these celebrities. They live their lives in a fishbowl. For example, we know way too much about the intimate details of Will and Jada’s marriage. While I don’t agree with what I’ve heard about it and I’m sure the state of their marriage has something to do with Will’s reaction, it’s still none of my business. But the media has made it my business because they are celebrities and, apparently celebrities’ lives are supposed to be an open book. To work through that kind of scrutiny and still be recognized for the excellence of your work is a huge accomplishment. To have your excellence overshadowed by putting your very worst on display in a grand public forum is a disaster.
I write this today, not so much to give my take on the incident last night, but to comment on the reactions I’ve seen in the aftermath of it. Of course, the racists will see this as a violent altercation between black men that proves they are of some lower species and not worthy of being part of civilized society. Or some crap like that. This is low-hanging fruit for them. But those voices have been droning on for hundreds of years and have become white noise after a while. The truth is black people are worthy of dignity and respect, even when our flaws are put on display, because we are people created in God’s image.
The amateur comedians and social media influencers have been quick with the jokes and memes, raking in the likes and retweets. That’s what we expect from them. They snatch up the low-hanging fruit, too, in attempts to grasp or maintain internet relevance and maybe even make a few bucks doing so. I believe they, too, should exercise wisdom and show an understanding that just because something can be said doesn’t mean it should be said. People can get sucked into this tornado of content very easily. That includes me.
This morning I thought about something I preached yesterday and felt it applied to this. As children of God, our practice should be proof of our parentage. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus. This will be completed when we go on to our ultimate glorification in Heaven, but his righteousness, holiness, and purity should be evident in our lives right now. How we behave in the world should reflect our relationship with Jesus. How we treat the people around us should radiate the same love Jesus has for us. Our words and actions should imitate the Savior as we abide in him.
When Jesus was approached by a leper, looking for cleansing, (Mt. 8:1-4; Mk. 1:40-45; Lk. 5:12-16) he did not recoil in disgust. He did not rebuke the man for approaching him when it was inappropriate to do so. Rather, he extended his hand through the cultural and religious barriers and touched him. When a woman who was caught in adultery was brought to him, (Jn. 8:3-11) Jesus threw no stones, even though he was the only one who could. This is our model. When we see people at their worst, we should choose kindness and compassion over piling on and poking fun. You do not have to condone one’s action or speech to be kind and compassionate. Sometimes it’s a matter of not saying or doing anything at all. When somebody messes up publicly, try remembering they are a person just like you. Perfectly imperfect. You’ve messed up too. Then, maybe, try leaving them alone to work through it rather than using their horrible moment as an opportunity to make another bad joke or comment on someone’s business that’s none of yours. Each one of us can do better. Let kindness and compassion be your “go to” strategy when someone messes up.