I remember seeing trailers a few years ago for a horror movie called “What Lies Beneath”. I am not a fan of that genre of films so I did not see the movie. But for some reason that title popped into my mind as I heard the developing saga of Mel Gibson. I wonder if Mel Gibson fully understood the ugly sin that was lurking beneath until alcohol unleashed the horror of his bigotry and exposed it to the light of scrutiny? I wonder what lies beneath the surface of my tidy little Christian exterior? Is there something hiding deep in my soul that is just as ugly and ungodly? Writer Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News wrote an insightful and soul provoking piece this past weekend entitled “Mel isn’t the only sinner“. I have excerpted some highlights. My observations are italicized.
I’m deeply concerned about the rise of global anti-Semitism, and found my fellow Christian’s drunken remarks appalling. And as someone who loved The Passion of the Christ and defended it in print and online against accusations of anti-Semitism, I felt intensely embarrassed, even betrayed, by Mr. Gibson’s Jew-bashing rant. When news of his anti-Semitic diatribe broke, I hurried to my Beliefnet.com blog to join in the piling-on.
Mr.Dreher’s honesty is so refreshing. He candidly admits that it started out about him…not Mel Gibson. He (Dreher) had defended Gibson against the critics. He felt embarrassed and betrayed by Gibson. So his first reaction was to do what most of us do. Pick up a rock, go into the windup, and start flinging. What happened next is what all of us need to make this journey work. A friend who loves you enough to slap you up the side of the head with difficult truth.
Later in the day, my oldest friend, J., e-mailed to say he questioned my judgment in light of the upbringing we’d both had in our small town in the Deep South.
Yes, Mel was wrong, said my friend, but consider that he was raised by a Holocaust-denying kook of a father. Could either of us, J. went on, say with complete certainty that the racism we grew up around had been entirely eradicated from our souls? We think we’ve put that all behind us, said J., but is it not possible that under the right conditions, either of us right-thinking Southern white boys could shock ourselves by what came out of our mouths – and our hearts?
He had a point. J. wasn’t excusing what Mel Gibson said, only cautioning me to beware of self-righteousness.
Mr. Gibson, in his second apology after his arrest, pleaded with the Jewish community for help in “understanding where those vicious words came from.” Some dismissed this as psychobabbly posturing, but it’s entirely plausible that on the matter of Jew-hatred, Mel Gibson was truly a stranger to himself until his moment of terrible grace on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Regular readers of these ramblings know that I regularly call for accountability and responsibility among my fellow followers of Jesus. When you inevitably screw up…admit it. Seek forgiveness. Pursue reconciliation. Repent…turn away from those actions. I remember a quote from Bull Durham…
“A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.” Nuke LaLoosh
Baseball can be a very complex game but, in its’ essence, that quote is correct. Christianity is much the same. It is complex enough to take a lifetime to mature and develop. But Christianity is, in some ways, a very simple life. You trust Jesus, you follow Jesus, you abide in Jesus. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes there is a storm.
I have figured out that I learn virtually nothing during the good times. I get my faith degrees and doctorates during trials and storms. Mel Gibson hit a storm that revealed himself to the world. And as Mr.Dreher thoughtfully points out, maybe to himself for the first time in its full and ugly totality. Dreher goes on to relate a personal story of racism unawares.
To live in the South is to understand from experience this paradox: It is possible to be both morally upstanding, as a general matter, and a racist. What sustains the paradox is ignorance, an all-too-human blindness to one’s own faults. This lack of self-awareness does not excuse, certainly, but it does explain, and accepting it gives grace the opportunity to do its work of purifying, healing and reconciliation.
True story: About 12 years ago, in my Louisiana hometown, I was writing about a tiny black church that a new, absentee landlord was trying to evict. Appalled white folks had taken up the church’s cause – and a good thing, too, because the impoverished congregation had no one to help them. An older woman leading the charge told me offhandedly that it’s only natural that white citizens would stand up for the little church. “We’ve always been good to our nigras around here,” she said.
You can hardly find a purer expression of white Southern paternalism than that. Part of me recoiled at her words, yet I knew that the lady meant well, and was a good woman. Having been raised in a certain place and time, she would have been genuinely shocked had someone pointed out the racism of her comments.
I chose not to make an issue of it, because she wouldn’t have understood anyway, and besides, she was going to extraordinary lengths to stand up for her poor black neighbors. For their part, the black congregation genuinely appreciated her efforts, though one fellow, noting how the white establishment shut down local black churches during the civil rights era to stop voting-rights organizing, wondered aloud whether white folks would have been so helpful had the landlord been a local businessman instead of an outsider.
In the end, the little church was saved, thanks in large part to people like that white woman. Indeed, it was her belief in the myth of her generation’s innocence that made it possible for her to take up the church’s cause. We have always been good to our nigras, she said, which meant, We are not the kind of people who would stand by and let black people be treated this way.
However blind she was to historical fact and to her own prejudice, that lady did the right thing for the little church because, however naively, she believed in her own capacity for goodness.
Had I reported her unintentionally revealing remark in the newspaper, the entire campaign to save the church would have collapsed in racial acrimony. I wanted the church saved. I didn’t publish her line. So sue me.
I have examined my own upbringing in a small town in Southern Ohio. I left my little town cocoon quite pride of myself because I was not, in my prideful opinion, a bigot. My definition of a bigot was someone who looked down or demeaned blacks. Because I played basketball with black athletes and had black friends I was pridefully blissful about my “openness” and lack of prejudice. But I found that what lies beneath was not so mature. You see, in Chillicothe, Ohio, I had never met and certainly not befriended any gays, Jews, or Hispanics. I was pretty progressive because I had one very good friend who was Catholic. So when I was exposed to the world I realized that bigotry had many heads. It took me awhile to develop a Christlike attitude toward gays. It is so easy to be judgmental when you don’t care enough to love people who are different than you. When you begin to develop a heart for all of God’s lost lambs you simply want them to come into a full and deep relationship with Jesus. And then the Holy Spirit will start shining the spotlight on the dark recesses of sin that lie beneath. This has been a painstaking process for me. As Joni and I go through her cancer journey I see how slow the process is to kill the cancer cells. If the doctors had pumped a year’s worth of chemicals into her all at once to kill the cancer it would have killed my wife. So the healing process is slow, agonizing, and often painful. So is maturing in Christ.
Dreher’s piece continues…
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center graciously held out that possibility, writing in an open letter to Mr. Gibson that if he truly repents, “you can be certain that we will welcome you. You will not find a better fan club than the Jewish community warming up to a foe turned friend.”
The episode could be a moment of conversion, too, for all of us high-minded commentators who take comfort in not being like that booze-addled anti-Semite.
Who among us can say for sure what bigotry and crookedness lie hidden away in our own hearts, concealed from ourselves by our wealth, position or pride, awaiting a moment of weakness or stupidity to manifest?
Who among us, having been laid low by our own vanity and meanness, wouldn’t beg for mercy, for redemption, for the opportunity to show the world that there is more to us than our sins and failings?
Everything that rises must converge. Though the Holy Ghost might use this Road to Malibu experience to save Mel Gibson’s soul, we should all hope to be spared a humiliating epiphany like that one, in which our secret sins are revealed to the world.
I know, I know, we’re all Melled out. But after we’ve exhausted the topic of anti-Semitism among the rich and famous, Mel Gibson’s public disgrace is an occasion for reflection on our own humanity. It’s a moment to ponder the prescriptive wisdom in W.H. Auden’s line: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”
Wow. Thank you Mr. Dreher. I pray that the Holy Spirit will softly and tenderly continue to illuminate what lies beneath in my own heart. Paul says it beautifully to the church at Philippi.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Phi 2 NIV
It is with fear and trembling that I pray for Mel Gibson. Pray that his heart is chastised and repentant. And I pray that my own heart will not betray my precious Lord with ugly sin that I have allowed to lay unexamined and unexhumed.