The Forest of Deen appears in the last installment of the Harry Potter series as a place where Harry and his friends hide for a time while they are on the run from He Who Must Not Be Named. Recently, Americans slipped into our own Forest of Deen as people got caught up in the controversy swirling around celebrity chef Paula Deen regarding her apparent racial prejudices and the vocalizing of the same.
Honestly, I was rather determined to steer clear of this controversy, which seems to be beginning to slip off the front pages. But I overcame my reluctance when Paula Deen alluded, in a TODAY Show interview, to a story from the Gospel of John. In that interview, she invited anyone who hadn’t said something that they regretted at some point in their lives to cast a stone right at her head.
The background to her comment is, of course, John’s story of the woman “caught in adultery”. In Jesus’ time and place, the prescribed punishment for her misdeed was to be stoned to death. In an effort to get Jesus to either sanction this penalty or to get him into trouble for refusing to sanction it, the crowd brings the woman before Jesus and asks him to say whether they should fulfill the law with respect to her punishment.
Jesus’ response is, well, classic Jesus. Without getting caught in their question, he simply responds by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The affect of his words is profound: the crowd, one by one, drop their stones and drift away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus. He refuses to condemn her, and sends her off forgiven with the words, “Sin no more.”
This particular teaching story of Jesus seems quite apt, actually, for the Forest of Deen into which we have recently gotten lost. Crowds of people have risen up (and stepped up to media microphones!) to condemn Paula Deen loudly for her apparent prejudicial attitudes and statements, and many have advocated to what amounts to a metaphorical stoning of her career, all in the name of justice or doing the right thing.
But the story from John’s Gospel should make us ask whether we are, indeed, doing the right thing. One of the things that is revealed in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd in John’s story is that the members of that crowd were so caught up in passing judgment on the woman that they failed to examine their own lives. Jesus’ words to them reminded them that they themselves were not so different from the woman they brought before him, that they, too, had made bad choices and sometimes had done the wrong thing. Jesus reminded them that they were really no different from the woman they sought to destroy. And as that truth washed over them, they found all their righteous indignation toward this woman extinguished, and they all walked off to think about their own lives, their own misdeeds, and their own need for forgiveness.
With the crowd thus transformed and chagrined, the threat of the woman’s impending destruction is removed. And that allows Jesus to point her toward her own need for transformation. Notice that he doesn’t just send her off — he sends her off with the words, “Sin no more”. He recognizes that she has acted wrongly, he recognizes that there are things in her life for which she needs to repent and behaviors that she needs to change. But rather than advocating her destruction, he seeks to give her another chance, an opportunity for rebirth.
Paula Deen surely needs to examine her own life — the way she was raised, the cultural attitudes that helped to shape her, and the way in which these have led her to somehow see black people in a different way than she sees white people. But she is hardly the only person who needs to engage in that kind of self-examination. The crowds clamoring for her destruction have their own prejudices and shortcomings that need to be examined and exposed to the light. We all do.
Americans love a scandal. We secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy watching people who have risen to great success suddenly plummet to the earth because — well, because they are human, and they have gotten caught being human. Part of the reason, I think, that we enjoy it so much is that it seems to give us permission not to attend to the darker parts of ourselves, to ignore the fact that we, too, are human and make as many mistakes as the famous and infamous. It is fun to be part of the clamoring crowd hauling others before the judgment seat. If we stop our clamoring, however, we will hear the words of Jesus that remind us that we are on the same level as those we seek to judge. We all stand in need of forgiveness, transformation, redemption, healing, and the opportunity to begin again.
I hope that Paula Deen will be able to use this crisis to grow as a human being. But will the rest of us?