After a year of scandals in which celebrities such as Mel Gibson, Don Imus, and Isaiah Washington have reminded us that fame does not cancel out bigotry, Kathy Griffin last week became the latest public figure to make such headlines with her Creative Arts Emmy acceptance speech. Referring to the tendency of some of her colleagues to invoke divine sanction for their success, she said, among other things, that “no one had less to do with this award than Jesus.” Her remarks were censored on the telecast, and at least one Christian public figure has since implied on CNN that her words were more offensive than Imus’ racist comments about the Rutgers basketball players, or Washington’s homophobic remarks about Grey’s Anatomy co-star T.R. Knight. The questionable logic that led to this assertion is that “85% of Americans believe in Jesus,” while only a minority are black, and a much smaller number are gay.
First of all, the suggestion that only the groups who are targeted in dehumanising rhetoric should be offended by them is absurd — of course you don’t have to be the victim of prejudice to be offended by it. It’s understandable that people get offended when the names of religious figures are used in a derogatory fashion. It is also true to say that today it is more publicly acceptable to criticize Christianity than most other faiths. And sometimes it may be appropriate to protest this.
In the West, however, members of most other faiths and minority ethnic groups have had to put up with a disproportionate share of public insults for far too long. In a healthy society, we should be able to cope with the free exchange of views, including the possibility of upsetting each other. The suggestion that a comedian should be punished for religious mockery is disturbing and bears echoes of Christian imperialism. The point is sharpened by the fact that Griffin was making a commentary that many thinking Christians would agree with: a critique of the superficial celebrity spirituality that claims divine sanction for entertainment awards victories. It is, of course, entirely legitimate to be thankful to God for the blessings of a lifetime; this column is unlikely to win any awards, but if one came my way I’m sure I’d aim my gratitude in the same direction. But to suggest that Jesus is invested in who wins the Emmys is another indicator of a kind of spiritual decadence, akin to when boxers or football teams bow the knee mid-match, suggesting that they think God prefers them over their opponent.
It’s striking also that the outcry over Mel Gibson, Don Imus, and Isaiah Washington’s dehumanising and bigoted comments was not led by the church, but Griffin’s remark at an awards ceremony has been met with the full opprobrium of some religious leaders. I think this indicates something troubling about the priorities of much public discourse by Christians — and also the hamstrung picture of Jesus offered by much of the church. It seems that we believe in a Jesus who both needs us to defend him, and who couldn’t handle a joke at his own expense. It is disturbing also that Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic comments, made while drunk, did not really spark a debate about how to reconcile people from different religious traditions. Instead, the church was largely silent about (ostensibly) one of its own.
Griffin’s comments were a veiled criticism of a culture of superficiality, in which God is constructed as a wealth-affirming, competition-endorsing elitist who likes to go to the Oscars. It was also a joke. We don’t have to like it, but we should be able to take it.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com