It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Matthew 15:11
As a writer who concentrates on food and all its implications for our spiritual lives, it was impossible for me not to be interested in the recent story about Paula Deen. For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t call myself a fan. I have never bought one of her books or watched her show on the Food Network, never been interested in eating a burger between two doughnuts.
Even so, I find much of Paula Deen’s story to be remarkable. Having lost her parents at an early age and a marriage not long after, Deen struggled to support children and other family, all the while battling agoraphobia. Her earliest jobs involved selling insurance, working as a bank teller and hanging wallpaper before beginning a catering business. The business became a restaurant which turned into books followed by a TV show, then an empire of products and publications and food. A true rags to riches story.
A recent controversy – concerning the disclosure of her diabetes and the type of food she markets – didn’t put so much as a dent in her enormous fame. But a recent unearthing of statements Deen made about African Americans has created a storm that seems to have cleared away a considerable amount of her popularity and her brand. Sponsors have dropped her and, though her upcoming cookbook had a long line of advance purchasers, her publisher backed out.
I find myself overwhelmed by the swirl of noise surrounding these events and it makes me reflect very soberly about human nature, ours as well as Deen’s.
We human creatures love to build heroes and villains. We crave champions to lionize and scoundrels to despise. We create narratives that offer us these very things and we have done so for centuries. There was a day when crowds poured into the coliseum to cheer gladiators who fought to the death, or to witness Christians and other miscreants executed in satisfyingly grisly fashion. Our modern tales are less bloody, however. In the 21st century, they take the shape of soap operas, professional wrestling and politics.
The drive to revere or to loathe – often with very little reason other than the gratification it gives us – has led us to make a lot of poor decisions. Wouldn’t it be better to keep our heads? To have rational, civilized discussion? Such conversation might help us to understand how easy it is to drift into offense without intending it, or to miscalculate the weight of careless words on people whose backgrounds are vastly different from our own.
I don’t mean to excuse words that should never have been spoken, or to make light of the pain such words can cause. Derogatory language is never okay. But if it can ever be forgiven, I think Deen’s situation presents us with just such opportunities. Her pejorative words were spoken in a private setting following a traumatic event. Her less-than-sensitive description of an African American man was an injudicious attempt to illustrate a trusting relationship. I won’t try to explain away the beyond-terrible idea of hosting an event in which African Americans play the role of slaves. I have simply heard the heartfelt apologies from Deen and I wonder if it isn’t time to say “enough.”
I realize that I will never fully feel or understand the hurt that racist language can cause. I will never have such words aimed at me or be connected to the excruciating history that makes them so sharply painful even today. I hope, however, this doesn’t preclude me from talking about it. In fact, my prayer is that we will all move from quick judgment to a more measured conversation about these issues that separate us, that remain so difficult because of the very tensions that still exist in our hardly-post-racial society.
I am sad to see this controversy over Paula Deen. I am saddened for her because I believe her heart is better than the way it has been portrayed. I’m disappointed because most of us are too ready to call villainy in others, while focusing comfortably little on our own thoughts, words and actions.
I am sad mostly because we have missed yet another opportunity to have a desperately-needed conversation about race. I think it would be so much more productive to talk about how words can hurt even when they are intended to be harmless, how history doesn’t disappear, how hard it is to see through another person’s eyes and how frightened we often are – deep down – by the differences between us.
I would like to see us slow down and bring more wisdom to the table. It is a long-held maxim that we are what we eat, meaning that we are just as healthy as what goes into our mouths. But Jesus reminds us that we are what we say, that our character is contained in the words that we speak for good or for ill. May we choose them wisely.