When news of the slap first started ciculating folowing the now infamous moment between Will Smith and Chris Rock at the 2022 Acadamy Awards I remember perusing my feed and realizing that not only had the Oscars decended into chaos, the world had also seemingly lost its mind. Not long after I penned a response on my own feed challenging armchair quarterbacks to dial down the muted judgment. Context is worth a lot, and even at this point there were at least a couple decent articles helping to shed light on some of the nuances of what had just transpired. Taking the time to dig underneath the spectacle and ask good questions could reap some rewards in terms of proper judgment and necessary compassion. Society loves its judgment. It also likes to think of itself as compassionate. It’s just rarely okay when someone or something judges its level of compassion. Especially when its busy losing its collective mind.
A day later and I penned another post. I thought I would inlcude it here:
Just perusing my feed and seeing that the court of public opinion on Will Smith is still very much alive and well.
For my part I felt like I needed to add a piece of clarification from the past few days as to why I hold the position that I do when it comes to our views on justice, who was in the wrong, the letter of law, ect.. I do know there have been varied responses to my point of view, a little agreement, a lot of of disagreement, some offense, and even some outright anger. And I get it. A story like this, for as superficial as it seems on the surface to some (just Hollywood being Hollywood) can tap into all kinds of very real emotions related to personal trauma, past abuses, current social issues, and even matters of race, gender, ect.. Unfortunately some have taken what I said to suggest that I am condoning abuse, and when this connects directly to personal experience/trauma then public commentary surrounding a now infamous slap becomes something far more complicated, and rightly so.
I just want to be clear given the responses that I have gotten personally- my criticisms on certain views of justice is not an endorseent of violence or abuse. Quite the opposite. I’ve said this elswhere but in my own life Chris’ actions are far more of a trigger than Will’s. In fact, I have a significant story from my own life where, after many years of wishing someone would have an emotonal response towards what I deemed consistent verbal and pyschological abuse/bullying disguised as humor, someone finally did and actually stand up for me and significantly changed the trajectory of a possibly damaging event. That part, using that interpretation of events (and we are all interpreting the event fom own careful positions of judgment, just to be clear), I get. I understand Will’s reaction even if I don’t condone the slap.
Mostly though I wanted to add to my mix of thoughts a very brief explanation of my theological stance since I do think that plays very directly into why I hold the convictions that I do. This is a discussion that would need lengthy dialogue so there’s a risk here too of course that this will further muddle my resistence to certain forms of justice and ideas of peresonal responsibiilty, but I hoped it could at least clarify some of my positions a little more clearly.
And I wanted to do so by narrowing in on the book of Genesis:
- Most important to reading Genesis is understanding that each story is meant to be a hyperlink both backwards and forwards to the other stories. There are incredible design patterns that are formulated into patterns of characters, types, formulas, phrases, symbols, numbers, literary structures, each repeating the same story from a slightly different angle and all looking to establish a larger narrative concern.
So, for example, to read the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is to be hyperlinked back to the story of Adam and Eve and forward to the story of Noah. Noah hyperlinks us back to Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve and forward to Abraham and Sarai and so and so on, ultimately culminating in the patterned imagery of the Temple as God’s dwelling place established here as the whole of the cosmic order. Just as Adam and Eve are expelled Eastward away from Eden so do we find the exact same phrasing repeated in the story of Cain and Abel and so on, wrestling then, as it does in the Cain and Abel story, with themes of promise and exile. Married to this is the call to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, a motif that pulls us through all of these stories in important ways.
- With this in mind it is important to note that we aren’t meant to read the story of Adam and Eve as the sole “beginning point” from which all of the other stories then flow.Cain and Abel, for example, is equally concerned with capturing the totality of this singular narrative in telling the same story. It is engaging in intentional narrative repetition. Here’s why that matters to me theologically…
- Cain and Abel in their own patterned way are repeatng the points of “division” between the “two” (which will emerge again with Noah) that we find in the story of Adam and Eve, where we see the three fold impact of the curse- enmity between us and the ground, enminty between the dvided persons, and enminity between the call to “fruitfulness” and the serpent. Important motifs emerge here, but the thing I want to narrow in on is how this point of enmity plays out in the story of Cain and Abel specifically. Here we see the enmity between the two brothers, a symbol of the same self divided. The repeated phrases that we find- “desire”, “sin crouching at the door”, God comes “looking for Abel” while Cain is looking downard and ashamed (the nakedess of Adam and Eve) saying “what have you done”, the curse of enminity with the “ground” is repeated and Cain is driven out away from “Eden” eastward while God “marks” him in the same way that God “clothes” Adam and Eve in the Garden narrative as a “promise”.
Now here is what is impotant for getting at the heart of the central problem. Out of the desires of the heart Cain gives in to temptation and kills his brother. This leads to the call to be “fruitful and multiply” being corrupted, pairing the statment of God in 4:15 (that no one would kill Cain as a result of his actions and exile) with the statement of Lamech in 4:23-24 where it speaks of the direct result of Cains “fall” narrative- “if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-Seven times”.
Here we get two opposing portraits- the cycles of forgiveness and the cycles of unforgivness, both of which lead us straight into Genesis 6 where the same story repeats yet again. To be stuck in the cycles of unforgiveness means to fill the earth with violence that must be consistently repayed in order for there to be justice (leading to the seventy times seven scenario). This is the only way justice can work. To step into the cycles of forgivness means for that cycle to be broken and to be free to fill the earth with the goodness of God. This is a direct reference to Israel of course, but it is given a cosmic context.
- This is the same story that plays throughout scripture and also into today. The same polarizing tension built on two opposing ideas of justice and the necessary “repayment” of sins. Only in Jesus we can see the proclomation that “the full forgivness of sins” has been declared stripping us of our need for scapegoating. This means that when we come to the Cain and Abel story we can hyperlink to Christ and see, in that patterned image of the “son” (Seth, Moses, ect, all representative of Israel as God’s only son) that in Christ the cycle of unforgivnes has been broken. It all stops at the cross where retaliation for death was replaced with the full forgiveness of all sin (not speaking individually but cosmically). This is what heals the cursed divide.
- And yet we still live in a time where the cursed divisions remain leaving all matters of wrong doing needing to be judged and protected against and reconciled. In the scriptural story this is what we see in the clamoring for a King- the establishing of the letter of the Law, the building of moral structures based on honor shame systems, all which appeal in their own way to the same kind of justice as proper reperation, pirmariy because such forms of justice are arguably necessary in a world caught in the cyles of division and wresteling with hiearchal forms of sin and necessary repayment. To be caught in cycle means we need this just so that we feel we have some semblance of justice. We can’t avoid this. And yet, here is what is important to remember- this might be necessary but it cannot actually bring true justice. It can only leave us caught within cycles of repayment that have nowhere to go but persistently forward as it “fills the earth”. The way of Christ is in to a promise that says “I have dealt with the evil out there” through the victory of the cross. That snakes head in the garden, the very agency and symbol of that “desire”, has been crushed through the self giving sacrifice without retaliation and demanded repayment. Therefore rest in the truth that on the cross the cycle of unforgivness that holds us enslaved to sin has been broken through the full forgivness of “all” sin. This is not a portrait of individual responsibility but rather a declarative statement that takes us all the way back to the garden. It is a stamement about the way things are and the way things are said to be in light of the Easter story. It speaks in both directions, to things we have done and things done to us, both collectively and individually.
Now this is I think where I get misunderstood. Forgiveness of this kind does not mean acceptance of evils. Don’t forget that forgivness is about the person not the evil. The Cross is a liberting act of the oppressed told through the lens of the exile, the model we are caled to follow. This is not a call to submit ourselves to abuse because “forgiveness”. We live in a world where cries for needed “liberation”, where cries for “justice”, where the need to protect the “oppressed”, where all manners of law and choices designed to mitigate harm are necessary and necessary to hear. And yet far too often I think we come to think of these things as actual justice, as though our hierachal systems can somehow create a more just world based on appropriated and hiearcal ideas of necessary “repayment of sins”, and as though the letter of the law upholding such views of justice have the power to declare moral goodness alone. You simply can’t read through scripture and avoid the idea of these hiearchal systems being upended continually. The most scandelous message of Christianity is the call to forgive ones enemy, which remains foolish and a stumbling block to so many caught up in the systems of this world rather than the way of christ, the most fundamental concern behind the clamoing for a king that allows us to look just like a world caught in the cycles of unforgivness. We dont often realize it but we are still caught in the throes of damgaing honor-shame type systems and it has narrowed and limited our moral imagination and sense of true justice in so many ways. What this is about is being able to actually judge evil while rescuing the individual from such judgment in the process.
Liberation begins with the statment “i have overcome the world”. To put this in other words-I have made sense of the world by looking at evil and judging it so. In this we can see the good. What is true justice? Not repayment of sin. Thats the cycle that holds us enslaved. True justice is the promise of evils defeat that connects us to the cross saying the cycle has been broken and that, in this grand vision of being fruitful and filling the earth with God’s goodess, all things are in fact being made new. It is about the power of the Christian imagination to be able to lay claim to a truly just world, meaning a world where what is wrong has been made right (or rightouess). Where life has been resurrected out of the very throes of death.
So real world application. How do I approach Will and Chris in light of the Easter story? First, I need to be able to step back from my need to judge the individual and take the opportunity to locate and judge the evils behind them. Learn to see what leads to such a scenario so that we can understood the root of the problem. And then you locate that in the story of Christ as the measure of this right judgment of the evil that divides.
In general what I’ve heard from the vast majority is, the’ wrong in Chris’ action was merely verbal (that or it wasn’t wrong at all). Will’s was physical. Physical carries more weight on the scales of justice, therefore this is as simple as “assault” according to the letter of the law and Will must be punished for there to be justice. We acknowledge and right the evil by repaying the evildoer and giving them their due. The problem is, the minute we begin with condemnation of the person rather than the evil we submit ourselves to the same cycles that hold us in bondage and led to the incdent in the first place. There have a been a few think pieces detailing how Will’s slap emerges from the trauma of his own past. This is so, so important. The long history of such “comedy” has been rooted in expressions of sin that do result in psychological harm. The history between Rock and the Smith family, the pressures and expcations of Hollywood, all of this is crucial for detailing the problem once we come down from our own penhant towards rash judgments, however necessary they might be in the moment. But this is the stuff we miss and resist when we appeal to these forms of justice that cannot ultimately create a more just world. We love our notions of indivdual responsibility too much to entertain the notion that evil is a systemic reality, one in which we all ulimtately are left on some level needing to be repayed for our own wrongdoing in order for justice to be declared, which is the judgement of the serpent not Christ. Sadly both the world and much of Christianity demonstartes just how quickly and easily negleting this leads to the discarding of the indivudal in the same way people have largely discarded Will. The truth of the lie is that this will then lead back to you and it will never lead to a more just reality precisely because it is a systemic problem.
If we are to truly be able to locate evil in this world and call it such without dicarding the individual we need to begin with being able to see the two opposing realities. Consequence emerges in a world living under the rule of one and true liberation comes from living under rule of the other. Reality often bears witness to one and sadly often in the name of justice, but as Christ followers we are called to bear witness to the other even where it leaves us deeply offended and unsettled. This becomes the much harder work. As the flood story that follws Cain and Abel so aptly captures, a world given to its own cycles of unforgivness leads to its own destruction, symbolized in a grand porrait of decreation. One that we see repeated all over the place. This is, however, where the promise of God breaks through with its redemptive covental vision.