Judging by the barrage of facebook stati (my made-up plural for status – we have to have words for these things if they're going to become part of our everyday lives), many of my friends (using the facebook definition) are tired of hearing about Michael Jackson. I think some were tired of hearing about him before they started hearing about him. I'm not really sure how that works.
I'm certainly sympathetic to the sentiment in most ways. I find our cultural obsession with celebrity exhausting and shameful. I've said before that if this whole show is still up and running in a few hundred years, I believe this will be one of the real condemning marks of our particular culture from a historical perspective. I think future earthlings will look at our infatuation with famous people in roughly the same way we look at the Germans' love of David Hasselhoff. Except it will be less funny and more tragic, helping to explain how we wound up in the Matrix or the Brave New World or something. (I was actually looking for an analogy a few hundred years in the past, but I grew impatient and decided the 'hoff was sufficient.)
I'm serious about this. I think we passed ridiculous about twenty five famous actress-and-her-boyfriend-fused-nicknames ago. We now not only deem it reasonable for people to be famous simply for being famous, we encourage it. We sit and watch people we've never heard of sift through a group of other people we've never heard of to find a mate. We call them by their first name when talking about them with friends as though they've done something noteworthy by dating and rejecting multiple partners on television. When I was in school, there were relatively unflattering names for people who did that. Now we call them The Bachelorette and build some small part of our lives around following them navigating a ritual we all hated when we went through it ourselves – dating.
I just alienated about three of the ten people reading this. Come back. This isn't really about those shows.
My point is this – I'm possibly too judgmental about our love of celebrities. I mean, I don't understand why anyone would read People magazine. See, it's bad.
I disclose all of that to tell you what an unlikely candidate I am to be interested in Michael Jackson and the response to his death (and preceding life). And yet I'm interested.
I'm sure some of it is nostalgia. I'm too young to have seen his early popularity in the Jackson 5, but I'm old enough to vividly recall him in the prime of his career in the 80's. He was, for a number of years, truly the king of pop – and this was before it was so absurdly uncool to listen to pop music. Shamone! Quite the opposite. I wasn't a rabid fan, but songs like Beat it, Billie Jean, and Thriller easily became part of the soundtrack of my childhood. But that's only a mild piece of my curiosity.
What he became and how we respond to what he became interests me far more than his music. It's easy to scoff at all his bizarre behavior – the butchering of his face, the altering of his skin color, the interactions with children that were, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, deviant and criminal. And I've heard and read plenty of scoffing. It's understandable. I scoff at famous people (and un-famous people) who are far more normal than this guy every day.
But for some annoying reason, the more scoffing I do and see and hear this week, the more this phrase rattles around in my head: We like grace when it's for us.
To be fair, on our good days we also like grace when it's for people like us and people we like. If we're the one whose sins are forgiven, we'll sing songs about it. Raise our hands. Start talking in religious language that most people around us don't understand. We get all geeked up when we can actualize that the miracle at the center of the Gospel – the relentless grace of God – is really for us. And well we should.
Every once in a while, we even realize that if we receive that kind of grace, we ought to be handing some of it out to others. But which others? Is grace just for people like us? Just for the minor offenders? Are child molesters and people who make us otherwise deeply uncomfortable out of luck?
I'm not asking if those people can get "saved." This isn't primarily an abstract question. I'm really asking – how do we decide who we scoff at and who we view with compassion and grace? I'm asking if the ethos of the Kingdom can tolerate unforgiveness of any kind. I'm asking, specifically, if people of the Way can feel okay about calling Michael Jackson names. I'm asking if life in the Spirit has space for our disgust, not for his actions, but for him as a person.
In the last several days, almost anyone I've seen try to go down this road has been bizarrely shouted down by Christians insisting that Michael Jackson is responsible for his own choices. That he chose his own bizarre existence and shouldn't be considered a victim when evaluating his sins. Fair enough.
But here's the thing we really can't get around: any of us who claim to believe the orthodox Christian Gospel simply cannot maintain that we are decent or moral or responsible because we got our crap together and, by God, made ourselves that way. We believe the Spirit of God actually transformed us and generated within us a new being – a new being whose nature we still fight against despite our claim to redemption. And if that's so, isn't this spirit of condemnation and disdain utter folly?
Hang on. Don't answer that yet. First let me tell you this. I'm not anti-judging. One of the poorest treatments of Scripture in (and out of) the church today is our free wheeling use of Jesus' words in Matthew about judging. Even people who are otherwise disinterested in Jesus like that he said: "Judge not lest you be judged." Only that's not all he said, and what we act like he meant doesn't appear to be what he really meant. Eugene Peterson elaborates that passage this way in The Message:
Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—
unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit
has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's
face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the
nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,' when your own face is
distorted by contempt? It's this whole traveling road-show mentality
all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living
your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit
to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.
I think that's a fair rendering of what Jesus was communicating there, especially when read in the context of the rest of his recorded words. It is not a sin to judge. It is simply absurd to do it without expecting it in return, and, for the Christian, it's sinful to do it in a spirit other than the Spirit. So judge away. Just be sure you judge with the heart of the Supreme Judge, who sent his son into the world not to condemn it, but to save it.
Here's what I'm getting at. How we "treat" Michael Jackson, even from a distance, and even in his death, is not irrelevant to the Gospel. And whether or not Michael Jackson was converted is not all that matters when it comes to the Gospel's implications for this moment. The Gospel has something to say in his death either way. And it's going to say it through us.
Does it want to speak condemnation? Does it want to suggest that Michael Jackson was too weird for grace, in life or in death? Does it want to parade its ability to point out the obvious flaws? Does it want to diminish the cracked, sinful life as somehow less significant – less marked with the fingerprint of a creator – than other more "productive" lives?
I think the answer to those questions is found in discovering what the Gospel means for each of us. The Gospel – and indeed Jesus himself – demands that we be people of both justice and grace. Justice is a hard thing to execute on a man none of us knew. Even if he's guilty of all he's been accused of, there is little we can do but continue to affirm that such things are not reasonable behavior. Christians and non-Christians can agree on that. Children deserve our protection in every possible way. Shout that from the rooftops. Something got broken in Michael that skewed his gauges in this area, and there's no problem with that judgment being made. Talk about his love of money and his inability to relate to the real world. Those are tragic things. Say so.
But justice (of which making wise judgments is an essential part) is just half of the Gospel. The other half – grace – is just as real, and it's not just a matter of how grace gets from God to me (or you).
I've learned this from the many people in my life who have been victims of abuse of various kinds, including things worse than any allegation I've ever heard directed at Michael Jackson. These people have taught me that while justice is certainly important to their personal healing and wholeness, grace is at least as important. Their ability to extend true forgiveness to the people who harmed them has utterly destroyed my old conceptions of grace and the Gospel and replaced them with something that is exceedingly more beautiful.
I'm not talking about forgiveness offered begrudgingly or out of religious duty. I'm talking about the kind of grace that could look a child molester in the face and say, "I forgive you. You're free of this. Go live a real and full life."
That is utterly preposterous. Scandalous, even. Which is precisely the point. Grace is not rational.
So back to the questions. If grace were invited to speak at the Staples Center this morning, what would it say about the death of Michael Jackson? And, more to the point, what are we allowing it to say – or keeping it from saying – in the way we engage in a public conversation about his death and his life?
I think it would say that life is priceless. And that lives ruined and lost are tragic. I think it would say that God made Michael Jackson. And that God loves Michael Jackson. And I think it would say that, whether or not Michael ever managed to encounter this reality before he died, there is no one and nothing too weird, bizarre, or sinful for the grace of God expressed through Jesus.
I think the Gospel of grace wants to stand up and beat its chest to get our attention – to let us know that it can decimate any challenge to its ability to forgive. And then, just because that's what grace does, I think it wants to hug the vilest offender.