Full disclosure: I have no real connection with either of these men. My appreciation for basketball has been a very recent phenomenon (so recent that its genesis is post-Kobe), and I have never (not once) tuned in to listen to conservative talk radio. Also, I am swimming in the same news cycle as everyone else. So I was taken how yesterday, as soon as the public learned that Rush Limbaugh has stage-4 lung cancer, the canonization (making him a saint) and demonization began. In our politically polarized moment, it is no longer surprising that someone could be both beloved and scorned. It was another step, however, for some to say that he is “The greatest among Americans” and others to cruelly suggest that given his denial about the carcinogenic nature of cigarettes, he deserved what he got.
It was not unlike when, a week or so ago, the news broke about Kobe’s death, I – like many others – was immediately bombarded by the tributes to this athlete. The NBA and his celebrity friends all but deified him (turned him into a god). A handful of thoughtful people, countered this deification by reminding us about the sexual assault allegations he’d faced in 2003. And while there was some thoughtful dialogue regarding his complex legacy, most of it fell on deaf ears ala “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
The jumbled incoherent dichotomies left me reeling. This past Sunday, young folks at both of my churches lifted up Kobe Bryant and his family during prayers of the people. I heard their truth about the uncertainty of life – Kobe was their hero and the children who died with him were of their generation. After worship, a friend said to me, somewhat bitterly, “Why do we care more about Kobe than anyone else who died in the crash? And why do we care more about people who die in a private helicopter than those who die of exposure?” And I heard her name a different truth: Why do we spend so much of our time and attention on famous people? On wealthy people? Unknown poor people die tragically every day.
For me, our reactions to Kobe’s death and Rush’s diagnosis point to two key tensions in which we live. First, different truths can exist at the same time. This not nihilism (ie there is no truth) – it is multi-facetism. It’s acknowledging that human beings are complicated, and that in the course of our lifetime, most of us do both good and ill. Kobe may have been an inspiration. Kobe was also accused of rape. This is why deifying someone (turning them into a god) is not just problematic, but dangerous. While they are alive, it can add to their delusion that they are above reproach. After they have died, it dismisses those who were harmed by them.
When I lead funeral planning meeting, I always try remind to remind the bereft family that while their loved one is with God, they are not God. It’s okay to remember that the deceased was sometimes impulsive and unhelpful. It’s okay to admit that in arguments the deceased didn’t always fight fair. It’s certainly okay – necessary even – to name if a deceased person harmed you. So, it’s actually okay to speak ill of the dead – if it is the truth, and if it is for the healing of the living.
Second, sympathy and grief are not contingent on worthiness. We grieve the deceased because of our own sadness, and we sympathize with the ill because of our shared humanity. Rush Limbaugh said some terrible things. He dehumanizes immigrants, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and other minorities, and because of the reach of his words, he has done great harm. Not just to people’s feelings, but to our safety. I hear his words in those who have protested my church. I experience his rancor in those who are threatened by my existence. I cannot understand why people would listen to him, let alone canonize (make a saint of) him. (That’s not true – I actually can understand how this happens, but that’s a different can of worms for a different conversation.)
Regardless, I fully understand how those who know him can sympathize with him. Who cares if he was a lifelong smoker? My grandmother smoked most of her life and denied what it was doing to her body. (And if she’d had the opportunity to celebrate smoking on AM radio, she probably would have.) My other grandmother smoked, too – just like yours did (or at least your uncle or somebody). Smoking is not a moral failing – it’s an addiction. And regarding his denial about the danger of cigarettes, who among us can cast the first stone of living under the delusion of immortality?
Most importantly, while I care that Rush has done harm to so many, this does not make him unworthy of sympathy. I have loved those who have done great harm (even those who have harmed me). I have loved racist people and homophobic people. I have sat at their bedsides, I have officiated their funerals, and I have cried at their graves. I did not extend sympathy to them or grieve them because they were “worthy”, but because they were suffering. Because they were mortal. To mock this man at the end of his life by saying “He had it coming” is to deny his humanity at the expense of our own.
Let the dead bury the dead, Jesus says (Matthew 8:22). It’s one of those stories in which no one seems to get what he is saying. Perhaps he means to live life to the fullest. Perhaps he means that mourning is not for the dead or dying after all, but for us who are still alive. Perhaps he means that how we grieve becomes us; that we are shaped by our sympathy (or lack thereof) for the other. Or maybe he was just trying to say that grief is complicated, just like mortality.