By now most Americans are aware of former Seinfield star Michael Richards melt-down on stage at the Laugh Factory comedy club in West Hollywood. Incensed by two African-American hecklers in the audience who said the comedians act was not funny, Richards launches into a tirade of racial slurs and obscenities including the racially super-charged n-word.
How could this happen? In the first decade of the 21st century, how could someone with the cultural sophistication and pluralistic societal exposure of a television star like Michael Richards harbor such vile and hateful feelings and thoughts in his heart and soul? Can anyone say Mel Gibson? Mel Gibson, super-star extraordinaire, under the influence of alcohol, launched into a vicious anti-Semitic rant a few months ago.
The answer is the depravity of the human heart. The Bible tells us that The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9).
Thankfully, far fewer children in America are being taught racist prejudices at home or in society, but only an extremely naïve person would say racism does not continue to exist in American culture. Thanks to some remarkably brave people, black and white, who confronted the evils of racism and segregation in the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the 20th century, Segregation and White Supremacy have been largely eradicated from American society.
However, racism and the ugly destructive prejudices it spawns are still with us, and will continue to be. Why? Fallen, sinful human hearts are always going to be subject to the temptation to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3), which is the root of all prejudice.
Are Michael Richards and Mel Gibson racist bigots? At some level they must have been contaminated by the noxious poison of racism or else it would not have spewed out of them when enraged or inebriated. They themselves may have been shocked at the fires of racial hatred that resided in the deepest recesses of their beings. In the midst of his rant, Richards refers to what lays buried. One simply cannot imagine that such foul, hateful language could be produced by anger and alcohol alone, rather than simply provoking what was already present in the darkest places of their hearts.
As Christians we have a divinely mandated obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt. 22:39), which means allowing the Holy Spirit to eliminate all prejudice and bigotry and to produce the agape love which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of yielded believers (Gal. 5:22).
The Michael Richards and Mel Gibson episodes remind us that racism will always be with us. We must be ever vigilant to its presence within our fallen natures and our fallen society, as well as mindful of our Christian duty to renounce and denounce it whenever and wherever it appears.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2006.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.