A couple weeks ago, comedian Bill Maher casually used the n-word on his political commentary show. I’m guessing this is not news to you as it made a media splash. Obviously, this is problematic, but I’m not really the best person to comment on why. I want to talk about his apology and not so much about him as about how it fits within the way many of us respond to the feeling of shame after doing something wrong.
I did not watch the whole show in question – just a brief clip. However, I did intentionally watch the full segment from the following episode where he discussed the incident with Michael Eric Dyson (pictured above). Maher did genuinely apologize for the hurt he caused and did acknowledge that it was wrong regardless of what his intent may have been. From that point forward though, Maher spent much of the rest of the conversation defending himself by citing his past engagement in confronting elements of racism, by pleading a level of ignorance, and by stating that this only happened once.
I hear that as apologizing for the moment he spoke but refusing – perhaps unconsciously – to confront how it sprung from his mind to his lips. The moments of our lives are not isolated events. Each flows into the next; our words and actions today are rooted in experiences, choices, and voices from our past. When we say or do something hurtful to others, ultimately it is because we have not seen ourselves through the eyes of those who would be injured by us. It is only after the injury that we see and then feel shame for having not been smart enough or strong enough or considerate enough. We then protect ourselves from that shame by labeling the moment isolated and pointing toward the many other moments where we did not injure.
Shame is unpleasant – can even be deadly. It is natural to resist it. Certainly, dwelling in shame and internalizing it is not the answer for this does violence to our souls. However, stuffing it and getting defensive does not really resolve it and almost inevitably results in later violence in word or deed toward others. What if instead we confronted it? One of my favorite bands, Cloud Cult, has this simple song called “Responsible.” The final lyric is
Maybe for a moment, you need to feel responsible
For all the things you’ve said and done.
We often feel that sort of message as burdensome, but I think that’s only true if we measure our worth by our actions or by what others think of us. If we accept that we are worthy already, it actually gives us freedom to feel responsible in a healthy way. It allows us to respond differently to moments where we feel shame by seeking new eyes to see rather than by defending our overall track record or by internalizing an “I did this because I’m bad” message.
I would contend that Jesus called people to repent of their eyes more than any other call in the Gospels. He famously rebuked the teachers of the law, saying “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” in Matthew 23. Over and over Jesus referred to eyes to see and ears to hear.
Repentance was a hopeful call for Jesus. We can begin to see anew. Our love-lacking actions and words do not define us, but they do inform us. We can integrate the perspective of those we hurt into our own eyes and thereby work toward redemption and justice. We can believe that we are loved and work toward loving those around us. It’s a journey of more than a few steps and no one can make it alone, but it is possible and even joyful.
When I was in high school, I remember calling someone who was not present in the conversation a faggot. Whether this was my intent or not, I was saying that this person formed in the image of God was fit for burning like a bundle of wood. I have no doubt that my words did great harm that day.
I could have excused it as the only time that has happened. But it was not an isolated moment. It was part of a pattern of refusing to see how I was hurting people by participating in systems that called into question the dignity of people with a different sexuality than the dominant culture. I felt shame about what I had said pretty quickly and started taking my first few steps on a journey of confronting myself and my contribution to oppression particularly in my understanding and practice of faith.
Today, I am at least consciously affirming of LGBT people in their full humanity. That only happened by walking and talking with LGBT friends and allies, engaging with the stories and experiences of LGBT people through reading, podcasts, etc. I needed a lot of heart work. Still need it.
Confronting harmful ideology (seeking new eyes to see) is not easy, and I have by no means arrived. I know still that I live with so much privilege and regularly fail to engage with it in race, class, orientation, gender, education, ability, etc. I know I participate in systems of oppression to this day. I know that violent oppressive thoughts and judgments still spring up in me. I probably consciously confront at least one thought daily – most days more than a few. Clearly, I’m not “woke.” I’m still waking to many things, I still have to work at staying woke in some others, and I have no doubt there are more than a few things I have not yet begun to confront.
But I want to keep on this journey because it has brought so much joy into my life. My life is richer when it is shared – with people who are like me and also with people who don’t seem as alike. Ultimately, I’ve found there’s a lot more to our common humanity than whatever lines I may impose on others. Consciously at least, I believe that none of us can be truly free until all of us are free. Still working on embodying that belief, and I don’t expect that work to end.
I want to challenge you, reader. When you do or say something that hurts someone else and you know that it is wrong, will you seek to confront your eyes rather than excusing the moment or allowing shame to paralyze you? Will you be responsible for what you’ve said and done? Better yet, when a thought or judgment arises within you that you know is wrong or unfair, will you examine and question its roots? Will you choose deliberately to listen to voices and stories that may challenge you? Will you challenge those around you to do the same?
Repentance is a hard narrow road to life and freedom. It’s easy to get sidetracked and find ourselves on the broad road to suffering for us and those around us, the road of self-centeredness and self-preservation. None of us walks the road to life alone, and none of us can begin to walk it without love first prompting us and assuring us that there’s always room in the Kingdom of God – room to love our neighbors as ourselves.