Unfortunately, Paula Deen did not stop at fried okra and sweet potato pie in her glorification of the Old South, but distastefully resurrected a vision of antiquated race roles in a few comments that have recently been revealed to the harsh light of public judgment. While her expulsion from Food Network and the collapse of her career may come as good news to many and bad news for nation-wide butter sales, there are many conflicting ideas about the appropriate reactions and consequences. Joshua David Stein’s recent article in The New York Observer, which we covered in the latest weekender, says that the bloodthirsty public has punished Deen enough with the incessant demand for vengeance via public humiliation (if I were Paula, I think I would prefer another ham to the face). Writing for USA Today, Rod Dreher describes himself as “a reluctant Deen supporter,” and reasons that we should not “drive Deen’s personal history and antique views out of the pubic square”:
To demonstrate our racial righteousness to the media commisars, are we younger Southerners required to agree that our gray-haired kinfolks are irredeemably tainted? If so, forget it. We know better. We know these people, we love them, and in most cases we grant them grace, knowing that they too were twisted by the evil of racism, by a world into which they were born, and which — contra Mr. Faulkner — has passed and is passing away.
This is a hopeful take on the situation, but Dreher’s take on grace seems more like justice disguised as optimism. We can forgive Paula Deen because we know that she is capable of doing good as well as evil and because there is hope for future improvement; in other words, the scales will balance out.
Tanner Colby of Slate warns against putting Paula Deen in time out while we clean up her mess:
Whether it’s Ross Perot’s “you people” or Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos,” our reaction is always to ostracize the offender. But as perverse as it may seem, you cannot have a National Conversation About Race and not invite racists to be a part of that conversation… Paula Deen is America’s racist grandma, and we should treat her as such. Racist Grandma may be racist, but she’s also your grandma. You can’t just disown her.
Colby thinks that a more just punishment would involve letting Deen keep her show:
She knows exactly where she screwed up and why, and to have to face that with the whole country watching? Just imagine it: with no pause for “reflection,” with the eyes of a multiracial nation upon her and “the N-word” like a yoke around her neck, Paula Deen standing in front of a big Sunday spread…
Colby’s vision of justice for Paula is its own form of cruelty, but his point about the disservice of ejecting the guilty from the conversation is insightful and very relevant for the church. Distancing ourselves from our racist grandmas, or other Christians with whom we disagree, becomes an exercise in asserting that where we’re standing is the highest moral ground. It’s our natural inclination to judge one another: we’re calling Paula Deen out for being racist—and making her pay for it—because we are not racist, we are better than that. (The game changes when we talk about the body of believers because the prohibition of condemnation in Romans 8:1 is followed by “for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Public racism, especially coming from a celebrity, follows a different rulebook.)
Distancing ourselves from those that, in our views, have faulty theologies or read The Message instead of the ESV is an effort to push ourselves away from imperfection, drawing a line between the screw-ups and, well, the not screw-ups. Much like elderly Southerners, young blue-state vegans, and humans in general, we Christians are not going to stop making embarrassing mistakes, confusing self-righteousness and conviction, or offending lots of people. We could never pass the test by the standards we impose on others. It’s not that we need to shut our mouths, pat Paula on the back, say grace around the table and dig in—we can never just brush racist remarks away as harmlessly misguided. At the same time, though, sitting comfortably on our couches and watching in judgment while she tearfully pays her dues in the unforgiving public eye is hardly compassionate. Perhaps we get up next to Paula, in front of the cameras and the audience, and add our own casserole to the spread.