An Ethical Musings' reader sent me this question:
Reflecting on the recent public outrage over Bill Cosby's many sexual encounters, I made the comment that "the line would be very long if all men who wined, dined, then had unmarried sex came forward. Sin happens. Jesus said "you hypocrites yea who are without sin, cast the first stone". I being accused of being flippant remarks when I quoted Jesus, an outraged lady said, "There is a huge difference between drugging a woman and 'wining and dining.'" Obviously, Bill Cosby, a great entertainer and a product of the "Playboy" lifestyle, is in serious trouble. Question- Jesus would forgive him. But, would the American people?
God's forgiveness of human sin is certain. Bill Cosby may be guilty of rape or sexual harassment, if current allegations are correct. In any case, he – like the rest of us – is a sinner who sometimes chooses to do evil. Will the American people forgive him?
That apparently simple "yes or no" question actually deserves a carefully nuanced answer.
First, a majority of Americans had enshrined Cosby on a pedestal, admiring his humanity and his humor. To the extent that he had become an icon, or even an idol, people will find it easier to condemn him than to forgive him. Both excessive respect and condemnation are forms of judgment. Jesus encouraged us not to judge others but to love them as one's self. Unfortunately, we generally interpret Jesus' teaching about judgment strictly in negative terms, ignoring that judgment can also result in adulation, infatuation, and idolatry.
Second, an inability to forgive another person often points to the presence of the same sin in one's own life, as Jesus highlighted in his teaching about criticizing the mote in another's eye while ignoring the log in one's own eye. Sexism and its correlates of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation permeate the American culture. (For example, a recent Washington Post article reported men harassing a woman 108 times while she walked around New York City; exploitative sexual images – male and female – dominate advertising.) Sexism is wrong because it reduces another person to an object instead of valuing that person for him or herself. Truly forgiving Cosby would require people to confront the ugliness and pervasiveness of sexism in their own lives.
Third, a prerequisite for forgiveness is the one offering forgiveness recognizing that s/he has been hurt or harmed by the other person's actions. Few Americans will recognize that Cosby's alleged actions – if he committed them, and I am studiously avoiding taking a stance on that issue because this is not a court of law and the court of public opinion is notoriously fallible – hurt or harmed them. Anytime one person in a community is harmed or diminished, all members of the community suffer a loss. When the person doing the hurting or harming is a prominent and respected community leader (this is very different than enshrining the person on a pedestal), then the loss is proportionately greater.
Fourth, forgiving Cosby (if forgiveness is required) would highlight our culpability in his actions. Our celebrity culture, our sexism, and our extreme individualism all contribute to creating and perpetuating social dynamics that make inappropriate or illegal behavior more prevalent. This does not excuse the behavior of anyone who commits inappropriate or illegal acts. This does recognize that bad behavior occurs within a broader context society constructs collaboratively. For example, to the extent that one's actions directly or indirectly hold celebrities to a different standard than everyone else (think of star football players who receive a traffic ticket for a hit-and-run accident), then one is culpable when celebrities sin; forgiveness is impossible until one repents of that personal culpability.
Will Americans forgive Cosby? I suspect that most will answer the question superficially, giving little thought to the spiritual dynamics of forgiveness. His new TV has been cancelled; in an appearance on National Public Radio to promote his new book, he declined to comment about the allegations. Given his age and race (always a factor in the US), I'm guessing that in the eyes of most Cosby fans he has irretrievably fallen off his pedestal. Sadly for Americans and Cosby, this incident appears unlikely to become a moment of grace in which the guilty repent of their sin and experience the transformative power of forgiving and forgiveness.