The most talked-about moment at last night’s Academy Awards involved an act of violence and a defense of that act that invoked God’s name… two things that seem to go together all too often.
I made the mistake of putting my kids to bed—and stepping away from the Oscars broadcast—just as all hell broke loose onstage. When I finally sat back down and tuned in, what I saw was Will Smith winning the Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard.
I knew nothing about what happened earlier. What I saw was a man apologizing for reasons I didn’t quite understand and a man doing his best to credit God for whatever he was “called” to do.
Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world…
I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse, you got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business you got to be able to have people disrespecting you, and you got to smile and pretend like that’s OK. But Richard Williams, and what I loved — thank you, D. — Denzel [Washington] said to me a few minutes ago, he said, “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.”
It’s like, I want to be a vessel for love…
I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees… Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.
By itself, it wasn’t all that unusual for an Academy Award winner to talk about the importance of God in their lives. (A 2015 analysis found that God was the sixth most-thanked person in Academy Award acceptance speeches, only coming behind a slew of famous directors and predator producer Harvey Weinstein.) It actually sounded inspirational, out of context; here was an actor saying this moment was bigger than him and he feels called to represent and defend a much larger community of people.
It was only after the speech ended that I had pieced together what occurred just moments earlier. Comedian Chris Rock had made a joke at Smith’s wife’s expense—not a particular funny one, and even less funny when you realize Jada Pinkett Smith is bald due to alopecia—only to see Smith get up out of his seat to smack Rock in an apparently unscripted moment.
Chronologically, then, Will Smith committed an act of violence before taking the stage to defend his actions as justified due to his beliefs about what God wanted him to do.
He wasn’t assaulting someone. He was protecting someone.
He wasn’t acting out of hate. He was acting out of love.
He wasn’t slapping Rock for selfish reasons. He was doing it because God called on him for that moment.
Will Smith was on stage for portraying a domineering but well-intentioned father, but he ultimately channeled a man who justifies acts of abuse by citing God’s wishes. That wasn’t an apology, either, no matter how many times he used the word; it was a rationalization. It’s a story we’ve heard so many times whenever there’s a pastor covering up or downplaying acts of abuse. Hell, Smith even invoked the Devil. There’s nothing more godly than blaming the devil for your own bad decisions.
These situations aren’t comparable, but my mind immediately jumped to the impact statement delivered by a woman who was a victim of the late Christian apologist and sex predator Ravi Zacharias. At one point, she said:
I tried to tell a Christian counsellor what was happening to me. He told me not to tell anyone, especially not my husband, that he could see RZ’s draw to me, and that if anyone ever found out, the kingdom of God would be irreparably damaged...
In other words, don’t make a big deal about the abuse because you’re getting in the way of something meaningful for so many others. Isn’t that what Smith was getting at? He had to throw a punch because God has big expectations for him. To focus on the attack was to take focus away from Smith’s bigger purpose in life.
It’s the same story when it comes to fundamentalist Christian communities with defined gender roles that are often hotbeds of abuse, both physical and spiritual. Women are told to accept their situations, no matter how awful they are, because speaking out against it would be a defiance of God’s expectations for them.
None of this is to say Smith’s spontaneous reaction to a joke is akin to faith-based abuse, only that his defense of it was eerily similar. Instead of just apologizing for his outburst, he defended it by saying he was just doing what he believed God wanted him to do. God wanted him to protect his wife and defend his colleagues, and any “crazy” actions were simply the result of Smith loving them too damn much. If he really wanted to follow God’s example, he could easily have turned the other cheek, but that never seems to be in the toolbox for thin-skinned believers, does it?
The people who genuinely believe they are a “vessel” of God are always the ones you have to watch out for. They always cause the most damage.