A Punchy Comeback
Table of Contents
As a Christian, the recent Will Smith situation is a difficult one for me to get my head around.
When real life happens
If you're unfamiliar with the situation, the comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the Oscars about Will Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Jada has suffered from alopecia for quite a while and has been very open about this. Rock, joking about Jada's condition, said "Jada I love you, 'G.I. Jane 2,' can't wait to see it." (For those of you who are unfamiliar, GI Jane is a fictional character famous for having short hair, a direct reference to Jada's alopecia). Apparently jokes about obscure movies from the late 90s are in vogue ever since Ricky Gervais dropped an airstrike on the Oscars by giving a speech that everyone outside Hollywood applauded and everyone inside Hollywood ignored.
At this point, Will Smith has walked onto the stage, slapped Chris Rock and, once seated again, shouted "Keep my wife's name out of your f*cking mouth." Chris Rock, with the face of someone who is desperately trying to keep it together, has done his best not to appear rattled and to defuse the situation, but ultimately, the slap heard around the world will be talked about for years to come, especially as it was the only thing of note at this year's Oscars. At the time of writing, Will Smith faces no charges for assault, Chris Rock faces no charges for slander/deformation of character. Both of their stellar legacies have seemingly been tarnished by this. Will Smith's (well deserved) Oscar win seems somehow diminished. Chris Rock probably will face some backlash for some of his comments.
In the aftermath of the incident, there's been a lot of analysis by Christians of what's happened, how people responded, what should have happened. Everyone seems to have an opinion. There does appear to be a lot of commentary from people who really are commenting from a position of their version of idealism. The more extreme left have co-opted the idea that because a man did a thing, it's misogyny or toxic somehow. The right, of course, have defended both Chris Rock for free speech and Will Smith for being a real man. A lot of Christian commentators have said Will Smiths actions are absolutely not ok and presented an idealised version of what "should have" happened yet no one has really dug a bit deeper into this.
One joke, one slap, two shouted insults, and it's caused a furore. Whilst no one involved (Except Jada, it has to be said, who has been an absolute boss) has handled it well, it has been blown out of all proportion for what it is.
Two blokes had a fight because one insulted the others wife. You'll find the same thing down your local pub at chucking out time. Yet somehow, because the people are famous and it's on a public platform, it's, of course, been pulled to bits by everyone with an opinion.
I think the thing all these commentaries miss are four really obvious things.
Sticks and stones
Firstly. Words and actions often carry a similar weight.
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock is not an ideal outcome, slapping someone is absolutely not ok. Violence is generally never the answer. But nor is Christ Rock making fun of a woman with a serious medical condition that impacts her appearance. Punching down at an autoimmune disease is a bit scummy. Doing so by referencing a 90s film no one remembers in order for a cheap laugh is a bit scummy.
Both the violence and the joke are examples of extremely crappy behaviour. Yet all too often we are examining one without examining the other. We are happy to point the finger at Smith for his violence without pointing it at Rockfor his joke. Neither of them have come out of this looking well.
All the current Christian commentary seems to focus on the physical assault, but to leave the commentary there is to only examine half the story. It is to look at an incident but not examine what actually caused it.
Proverbs 18:21 says this: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Often we aren't willing to admit that words hurt. Whilst we can easily judge the physical impact of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, we cannot easily judge the impact of Chris Rocks words on Jada.
Why is it we are seemingly committed to examining one side of the story without examining the other? We are happy to assume that the physical violence is ok but not the verbal violence.
Physical violence is no better or worse than verbal assault. Both are sinful, both are not honouring to God and both are equally hurtful in different ways.
To examine one without examining the other is just ridiculous.
In our eyes, the violence might seem worse, but in God's eyes, there is no difference. Romans 3:23 tells us "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," That means Chris Rock has, Will Smith has. Jada has. You have. I have. Let's not pretend either party is somehow exempt in this. Let's not pretend that somehow Will Smith is the only one at fault.
Defining our boundaries
Secondly. There are some things a man just cannot allow.
Will Smith, in his seminal album Lost and Found said "gotta understand, some stuff a man just can't allow" in response to a lot of abuse he was receiving from commentators like Wendy Williams. And it turns out he was right.
Some stuff a man just cannot allow.
I don't know if any other bloke out there will be prepared to admit it, but for me there is a line that I will not allow people to cross. That line is different for all of us. All of us have it, and it's different for each of us. There is a minimum standard of behaviour I expect towards myself and the people I love and the things I am passionate about, and I cannot, will not, allow that line to be crossed by anyone.
Sometimes, a stand needs to be taken.
Whether you'll admit it or not, you have that line too. And that line is involatile. You should have that line when it comes to your spouse, when it comes to your kids, your church, your family, your friends and anything else you care about. I can't speak for women, but many men won't know what the line is until it's crossed, but the line exists all the same. That line is the division between what a man can allow and what a man cannot allow. When someone crosses the line, there should be consequences.
Every examination of the Will Smith incident has come from the point of view of "he shouldn't have assaulted Chris Rock," with lots of condemnation of how it's a bad example to kids, how violence isn't the answer, how it sets the Oscars back years.
But here's the question. Would we act differently if the line is crossed for us?
Truthfully, I don't think we would.
One thing I am very protective of is my friends. Were someone to humiliate someone I love publicly, would I behave any differently to Will Smith? Probably not. I am as capable of anger as the next person because, just like the next person, I am a broken, sinful idiot at the foot of the cross.
And whether we recognise it or, are willing to admit that if that line we have were crossed, would we not respond the same way?
All of us respond in anger when the line is crossed. A lot has been made of how that anger was manifested and how violence is the answer. Proverbs 16:32 tells us "Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty," and truthfully, violence probably wasn't the answer. But a response was needed. To pretend it wasn't is insane.
What we have done, in our criticism of Will Smith, is to criticise the manifestation of his anger, yet ignore the heart behind it. Under all the Hollywood glamour and the high pressure environment of the Oscars, you just have a bloke standing up for someone he loves. Take away the fancy suits, the paparazzi, the media and the awards, here is a man who has simply said "no, that's not ok," and responded to an injustice.
He has not responded well. But who among us responds well in the heat of the moment?
The reality of Men's Mental Health
The third thing we have conveniently ignored is that, once again, Men's mental health is being disregarded.
I have found three of my closest friends dead by suicide. One hung herself, the others cut their wrists. I have never been completely open about the impact that has had on me, simply because it's no one's business but mine. But also because, as a bloke, there is a resigned fatalism that most men have that no one either cares about their problems, or that they can't talk about them.
My mental health, occasionally, can get a bit messed up.
I want you to consider Will Smith. Here is a man who, when it was revealed on live TV that his wife had cheated on him, had a very public breakdown. The internet's response was to turn a crying will Smith into a meme.
Because men's mental health is not taken seriously.
In the YouTube series "Best shape of my life," Will Smith talked about how he considered suicide. And yet that completely passed us by.
Because men's mental health is not taken seriously.
Here is a man who has been subjected to years of abuse from people like Larry Elder and Wendy Williams. Who has been publicly dissed by rappers like Eminem and Dr Dre having done nothing to provoke it. Who was criticised for not being "black enough," by his contemporaries, who has been publicly abused on shows like "family guy" and "the view." Who has worked under inordinate pressure for years and never once had a public meltdown, a breakdown or a scandal.
What we've seen, in part, is the pressure get too much. Will Smith is a man who has carried way too much for way too long. Yet we have done nothing but criticise the slap.
Because men's mental health is not taken seriously.
So many of our male celebrities cope with so much pressure and strain, yet everyone has a break point. Everyone has a limit for how much they can take, how much pressure they can cope with and what they can handle. Consider Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, or Robin Williams. Consider Anthony Bourdain or Jonathan Brandis. Consider Chris Cornell, Chris Benoit or Alexander McQueen. So many men work and graft for so long, they all have a break point. And that break point is different for each man. For some it's public outburst. For some it's meltdown. For some it's suicide.
Consider Chance the Rapper talking about his struggle with Anxiety. Or Trevor Noah talking about his depression. Consider Kid Kudi talking about depression and anxiety, or The Rock asking people to reach out. Even when high profile men talk about the men's mental health crisis, we turn a blind eye as a society.
When we see Will Smith, we see someone who has carried so much for so long. Is it any wonder he had a moment of weakness?
And in that moment, as Christians, how should we respond?
Do we respond by condemning Will Smith for one incident?
Or do we respond with grace? With love? With prayer? With affirmation?
Finally, the last thing we are missing is restorative grace.
The other side of the slap you may have missed was Will Smiths apologies. Here are a couple of quotes:
"I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to my fellow nominees, This is a beautiful moment and I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people … Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father just like they said … just like they said about Richard Williams. Love will make you do crazy things."
"Now I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse. You gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business you have to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you gotta smile and pretend that’s OK, Denzel said to me a few minutes ago, he said, ‘At your highest moment, that’s when the devil comes for you."
Isn't it odd that we all saw the slap, but none of us saw the apology?
See, what is all too often absent, particularly from Christian commentary on these issues, is the idea of restorative grace. How many times have we seen someone make a mistake, and yet that becomes a vehicle by which we vilify them?
Matthew 7:1-2 reads "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Why are we so comfortable judging someone as wrong for their actions when ours are no better?
On the messy side of life
How many of us remember when a prominent Christian leader falls from grace? The usual scenario is that a news story will break of how a prominent Christian leader has messed up. There are a ton of recent examples. Often a private issue is turned into a public whipping post. The Christian leader is cancelled or removed from position, there's normally a hashtag, a Twitter campaign, demands from groups for apologies for perceived slights and that becomes, to a lot of people, the entirety of the leader. They are reduced to that one incident, that one mistake.
And yet, are we really any better? Are we somehow so holy and perfect that, were our worst actions publicised, we would not be vilified and shamed?
Truthfully, we need to take a step back. We need to see the bigger picture. We have ignored the apology, the explanation, the heartfelt atonement.
All we have focused on is the slap.
Where is our forgiveness?
Where is our grace?
It has felt that, in our need to apportion blame and point the finger, we have forgotten that people are more than their one mistake. That their worth is more than one assault or public slip up.
In conclusion, I don't really know that, had I been in Will Smiths shoes, I would have responded differently. And ultimately, none of us do.
Maybe we just need to chill out and recognise what we've actually seen is two broken, sinful people under a ton of pressure to perform not have a great moment. None of us are exempt.