When the news first hit about Paula Deen’s use of racial slurs and her planning of a plantation style wedding, my initial reaction was that this was another case of the media taking a statement that had a perfectly reasonable explanation and blowing it out of proportion. “What she really said probably wasn’t all that bad,”I told myself. After all, it’s Paula Deen. “Hi y’all!” Say what you will about her contribution to America’s obesity epidemic, she’s totally entertaining. Did you hear her on NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me?” a few month’s back? She was hilarious. And come on, who doesn’t love butter?
Alas, the more I read, the worse it got. Turns out that behind that butter-soaked Southern drawl, lurks the heart of an old-school, garden-variety racist. The Food Network announced a couple of days ago that they are not renewing contracts for her two shows that currently air on the channel. Today, Smithfield pork products issued a statement that they, too, are severing ties. Well, of course. How can you have your company/product associated with someone who testified under oath to using a word so offensive that most of us won’t even say it aloud—even to talk about someone else’s utterance? I feared I might have to give up butter. It was like losing two friends—Paula and Land O’ Lakes.
But then, I had a disturbing thought. What if Paula Deen were a member of our church? What would we do if a member who had been an intergral part of our community, a devoted church volunteer and a regular favorite at our monthly potlucks was revealed, in a most public way, to have called many of our neighbors a name so awful that we can’t even bear to repeat it?
Would we sever all ties? Ask her to withdraw her church membership? Pretend we never really liked her anyway? I can’t see that happening. It’s just not who we are. However, we couldn’t wish or even pray the incident away. It would be painful for everyone involved to continue to embrace and love someone who had done something so hurtful. But that’s what we would do, because that’s who we are called to be. Bearers of the love and grace of Christ. Remembering that forgiving someone is not the same as excusing or condoning his or her behavior. (Perhaps even owning up to the fact that each of us has been guilty of some form of racism at one time or another…and another…and another.)
So am I going to run out and buy a Paula Deen cookbook to show that I support her in this time of crisis? No. Will I watch her on television if she gets another gig? Probably not…at least, not right now. Am I going to write her off as a horrible human being? Again, no. It may be awhile before I can pull out her true-to-its-name poundcake recipe, but I hope that Paula and I can be friends again. I suppose that will depend somewhat on her future actions, but mostly on mine.
–Rev. Anne Russ