Friday, June 28, 2013

Casting Stones at Paula Deen

Did you guys see that Today Show interview with Paula Deen? The one where she looks directly into the camera and urges us to throw a big stone at her head and kill her? Yeah. I think we need to talk about that.
Let he who is without butter cast the first biscuit. (Photo credit)
Here's what Deen, who is hemorrhaging money in the face of revelations that she's kind of a big racist, actually said. "If there's anyone out there that have never said something that they wish they could take back. If you're out there please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you. I is what I is, and I'm not changing."

The celebrity chef is a Baptist, and she's quoting (sort of) John 8:7. This is the story in which Jesus tells an angry mob to stop stoning a woman to death for committing adultery. Except he doesn't tell them to stop. What he says is, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And one by one, they walk away.

There are quite a few interesting things going on with this passage. First of all, it should be noted that many scholars don't believe it was part of John's original text. There's decent evidence on both sides. It's possible, though, that this story was apocryphal, taken from another source and applied to Jesus. It's a pretty tidy anecdote with a good punchline. You can almost picture it popping up on the ancient Middle Eastern version of Snopes.

Nevertheless, it's one of the most-quoted things Jesus ever said. The phrase "cast the first stone" is still in common usage, alongside with its secular descendent, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." 

I say it's one of the most-quoted things Jesus ever said. I should clarify: we actually don't know everything that Jesus said in John 8.

Before and after he says the thing about stones, Jesus is writing on the ground. In fact, that's his immediate reaction to the situation: he bends down and starts writing with his finger in the sand. The men then start "questioning" him, according to John. Eventually, Jesus stands -- or just looks up, depending on your translation -- and questions whether they should be throwing stones. Then he goes back to writing, and the dudes decide to leave the poor woman alone.

What was Jesus writing? Nobody knows! This is the only time in the Bible we see it happen. Some scholars believe he is drawing, not writing, since a peasant from Nazareth would probably not have known how to read. (Depends how much time you believe he spent in the temple, I guess.)  Often it's suggested that it's the act of writing that's important, not the content; it denotes divine authority, much like God inscribing the Ten Commandments. Another popular theory: he was re-writing the words of a prophecy, specifically Jeremiah 17:3. The obvious theory, perhaps, is that he was writing down the sins of the men with the stones. Or the sins of the woman, in order to forgive her. Or both. 

(Another important bit of context: we're told that this situation Jesus finds himself in, is a "test" from the Pharisees who are seeking an excuse to lock him up. It was a Catch-22: if he said that the woman should be killed, he would be undermining the authority of the Roman government, because Jews didn't have the right to enforce this penalty. If he objected, he'd be in violation of the Hebrew law -- the law of Moses -- which ordered adulterers to be stoned. But Jesus did something they couldn't have predicted: neither.)

With her plea to the Today Show audience, Paula Deen is casting herself in the role of the woman. (Forgot to mention that this woman is often interpreted as being the prostitute Mary Magdalene. There's no concrete textual evidence for that, though. Back to you, Matt Lauer!) Deen is saying, "I made a mistake. I said something I shouldn't have. If you've never done it, you can cast the first stone." She is begging for mercy. And yet she concludes her statement by saying, "I is what I is and I'm not changing."

What makes me uncomfortable is how heavily Deen is playing the victim card.  In our modern eyes, Jesus stopped the stone-throwers from delivering an outsized punishment, and a judgement that only God could pass down. Paula Deen lost a sausage endorsement after years of racist behavior. Doesn't seem like the most over-the-top punishment to me. 

Also, she didn't seem at all apologetic about using the N-word until she started losing money over it. She still doesn't seem especially sorry for her actions, or aware of why people were hurt by them. There's no forgiveness without repentance. Maybe that's why her apologies all ring hollow.

In another sense, though, the moral of John 8 applies. Jesus is saying that people have no right to judge what only God can judge. As a culture, we are so quick to condemn celebrities who are accused of wrongdoing, and for the most part, we do not forgive. I'm sure Paula Deen is experiencing a fan backlash that's wildly disproportionate to the crime, because that's the norm these days. "I'll never buy a Paula Deen cookbook again" is a reasonable fan response. Tweeting "Paula Deen needs to die" is not. No wonder she's feeling persecuted.

So WWJD about Paula Deen? In the story, he tells the adulteress that he doesn't condemn her, saying, "go, and sin no more." If I were Paula Deen's shoes, I'd take that as a cue to cut my losses (go) and rethink the way I treat other people (sin no more). But I'm not a diabetic Southern chef, and that's why I don't plan on picking up any stones.