Well before controversy exploded around Paula Deen, she had decided to title her forthcoming cookbook "New Testament." The name was intended to wittily refer to the television chef's adoption of a healthier approach to Southern cooking in light of her own diabetes. Now, however, the biblical reference serves as much more than a pun.
After admitting that she had used a racial slur, and with a lucrative commercial empire to protect, Ms. Deen took to YouTube seeking forgiveness. In the broadest way, she was addressing her fan base, customers and sponsors. Implicitly, though, she was throwing herself on the mercy of the African-American church. And indeed, as The Associated Press reported on Wednesday, Ms. Deen has directly appealed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Who was it, after all, she was denigrating when she used that racial epithet? Black Americans. And which religious institution in America sits most directly in moral judgment of this nation's original sin of slavery and all its continuing bigoted manifestations? The black church.
Ms. Deen, facing that specific kind of theological court, is likely to be far more fortunate with it than with the commercial partners like the Food Network and Walmart that have dropped her. African-American Christians, drawing on both the Jesus narrative and the civil rights movement, have become well-practiced at forgiving their racist tormentors for both idealistic and practical reasons.
"The tradition of forgiving was central to the civil rights movement, and it's grounded in two things," said the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, a professor of Christian morals at Harvard and minister of its Memorial Church. "One cannot be held accountable for how others treat us, but we can be held accountable by God for how we treat others. So forgiveness and reconciliation are central to us. Particularly for Martin Luther King, it was not about defeating an enemy but defeating injustice by bringing people from opposing sides into beloved community."
Some of those moments of reconciliation have been soul-stirring in their force. One thinks of former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama rolling his wheelchair into a reunion of Selma marchers in 1995 to renounce the segregationist beliefs that had defined his political career. Yet even if the offender never apologizes at all, black Christianity has repeatedly offered God's grace in the all-too-real world.
"Forgiveness is just expected," said the Rev. Douglas A. Slaughter, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C. "Even as a child, we were not allowed to hate the racist but to hate racism, and to fight against it. We were taught ways to understand that the racist is more in need of understanding than we were. It's just how you were raised."
Black Christian theology holds in creative tension the social-justice teachings of the Old Testament prophets and the conciliatory principles of Jesus and his disciples. Verses like Colossians 3:13 ("Forgive as the Lord forgave you") and Luke 6:37 ("Judge not and ye shall not be judged") are regularly cited. A famous gospel song popularized the phrase "God is not through with me yet," a sinner's plea for a second chance.
Applying such an ethos to the political arena, Dr. King was capable of saying in the aftermath of the 1956 bombing of his Montgomery, Ala., home, "We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us." Some current black ministers also cite Nelson Mandela's statement about making peace with South Africa's apartheid government: "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."
Source: The New York Times | SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN