Things took an unexpected turn at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday night. Whilst presenting the award for best documentary film, actor and comedian Chris Rock made a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved hair, joking that he was “excited to watch her in G.I Jane 2.” To add insult to this injury, Pinkett-Smith has been public about her struggle with alopecia, an autoimmune disease, which has led to her hair loss and subsequent shaved head.
After Rock’s comment, actor Will Smith, Jada’s husband, rushed to the stage and slapped Rock, demanding that he “keep [his] wife’s name out of his [expletive] mouth.”
To make things more awkward, Smith later won the award for best actor for his performance in the film “King Richard.”Upon receiving his reward, a teary Smith apologized to the Academy and his co-nominees. Smith later wrote a more thorough apology on his Instagram, calling his actions “unacceptable and inexcusable.”
The whole Rock-Smith incident was so strange and unforeseen that many in the audience wondered if the altercation was a staged part of the show.
Alas, it was not. Rock’s dehumanizing joke, Smith’s inappropriate display of anger, and the conflict that ensued are as real as it gets when it comes to seeing the outworking of human sin in our everyday life… or when we see it front and center on the biggest night in Hollywood.
The Good News:
Undoubtedly, everyone you know is talking about this incident right now, especially your social media inundated teenager. On the one hand, we can regard it as petty Hollywood drama that will live in infamy along with Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the Taylor-Kanye debacle. The Will Smith slap story might be front page right now, but inevitably, a new Hollywood scandal will hit the press soon enough and confine this story to the backburner.
And yet—there seems to be more here than just juicy celebrity drama. Perhaps this story presents a prime opportunity for helping teenagers consider where we see Jesus in this mess.
If we’re being honest, we all know at one some point or other our child has made an inappropriate joke at someone’s expense, or lashed out inappropriately when their anger got the best of them If the good news of the grace of Jesus is big enough to meet them in these moments, it certainly has the power to meet Rock and Smith as well.
Maybe you felt shocked and a little confused when you saw Smith’s physical confrontation with Rock. But maybe you also felt a little satisfied? As humans, we love to see wrong made right. We love to see justice served. We love to see the bully get a slap in the face. After all, we bear the image of a perfectly just God who is deeply concerned about righting every wrong.
In some ways, Smith’s anger was not unjustified. Jokes made at someone’s expense are never okay and are never funny, especially when they are made against people we love. Smith loves his wife, so to see her publicly humiliated for her medical condition understandably made him angry enough to hit Rock.
God knows a thing or two about justified anger. The Bible makes it clear God gets angry about injustice, sin, and evil. Our perfectly holy, perfectly just, perfectly righteous God cannot sit idly by and let the bully have the last word. When God tells us “Vengeance is mine,” he means it (Deut. 32:35).
Our teens exist in a world that seems dominated by bullies: in the cafeteria, hiding behind social media, or displayed on the nightly news. While it seems that bullies have the final say, teenagers can take comfort in the fact that God is always committed to standing up for, protecting, and fiercely loving the bullied. With God on their side, our teens have a guaranteed and final upper hand against even the nastiest of bullies.
There is a vast difference, however, between God’s holy anger against sin and evil and the kind of anger we watched unfold between Rock and Smith. Scripture tells us that a hallmark of God’s character is that he is slow to anger; he doesn’t throw a punch in a heated moment, but is patient and gracious in dealing with the realities of sin and evil.
Smith, it seems, was quick to anger. He felt wronged and needed to do something about it immediately, not considering the vast consequences of his actions or the hurt it would bring to Rock or his own family.
In his acceptance-turned-apology speech, Smith notes that “love will make you do crazy things,” indicating that his love for his wife led him to this rash act against Rock. Again, there are glimpses of God’s good imprint in Smith here: it’s a good thing to love our spouses, family, and friends and to defend them when they are wronged.
But it’s worth asking our teenagers: was what Smith did a display of love according to God’s standard? If we hold Smith’s actions up to the rubric of love found in 1 Corinthians 13, that answer is no. As Christians, we are called to a love that is patient and kind. A love that is neither arrogant or rude. A love that is not irritable or resentful. When we model love in this way, we point others to love incarnate, Jesus Christ; the man who turned over tables in righteous anger, but refused to lash out in anger against the very people who nailed him to the cross.
Let us remember that it was this same Jesus who bore God’s justified anger against our sin on that same cross. The good news of the gospel reminds us that though we have been as unkind as Rock and as intensely angry as Smith, Jesus took the deserved blow for us. He stood in our place and took on the punishment our sin deserved. This frees us from needing to take justice into our own hands—injustice has been perfectly addressed on the cross. When we see our loved ones chastised or a bully get his way, we have the freedom in Christ to be angry and yet not to sin (Eph 4:26).
Smith’s Instagram apology is worth a read; it is humble, heartfelt, and a redemptive model of how we can approach God and our neighbor when we have sinned against them. In it, he reminds us that he is a “work in progress.” Us too, Will. And thanks be to God, he never abandons a work he has started.