“He was a son of a bitch. God rest his soul.” This was my beloved late grandfather’s standard take on anyone who was A) a son of a bitch and B) dead. The former category made up a great number of people in my grandfather’s mind. Donald Trump would have inevitably fallen into it, particularly after attacking Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner.
Bullies and the braggadocious almost always qualified. But, Papou was a Christian in a sense that has been lost in the swaggering certainty of Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham. He took seriously the command to “judge not.” Hence Part Deux. This was a position that expressed an honesty about someone’s character while also acknowledging the reality that death does change things. Respect for the dead, he taught me, is not so much about an individual dead person, but is instead a recognition of the fact that no human life, taken in its totality, is defined by a person’s worst (or best) actions.
One fact does not erase nor exclude the other.
And that includes, despite what the moralizers on both the left and right might think, Hugh Hefner. If social media is any indication, Hefner’s death inspired the same response from evangelical ministers and the prophets of social justice. What can unite this divided world? Apparently gloating over the death of an old man. And that does not speak well of us. But it does speak to the Zeitgeist: Ours is the Age of Fundamentalism, in which no concession can be made to the complexity of the individual human life, never mind the fraught battle being waged in each human heart.
Hugh Hefner was an unrepentant misogynist who made a fortune on the exploitation of women’s bodies. Hugh Hefner was an unapologetic warrior for sexual liberation who helped to create the cultural climate in which women took control of their bodies in ways never before seen in human history. Both these things are true. One fact does not erase nor exclude the other. And that’s a good thing, not just for The Hef, but for all of us.
We don’t have enough grace for others.
I grew up in Colorado before pot and microbreweries made Colorado cool. This was back when Amendment 2nd had won my Rocky Mountain home the “Hate State” moniker and James Dobson held court in palatial digs in Colorado Springs. Back then, I was a girl from a progressive family among a sea of megachurch attendees who slipped anti-abortion tracts into my math book and threw rocks at the rainbow flag bumper sticker on my uncle’s car. I learned early that moral absolutism robbed you of all the best people, the most fun parties and the dirtiest jokes. And it would also, inevitably, expose you as a hypocrite: either when your wife showed up to that traditional marriage rally with a black eye or your daughter, the president of the high school Abstinence Club, went into labor during her algebra final.
I escaped just as things were turning around culturally for the Centennial State. In Berkeley, I began what has been a life lived among over-educated liberal types. People who, at least ostensibly, share my politics. These people love kale and recycling and hate binary thinking. Except, it would appear, when it comes to good and evil. While the crimes are different, there is the same angry rage at those who offend their sentiments that I saw in the eyes of my classmate’s Southern Baptist preacher father. They too forgo heartbreakingly lovable people, dazzling parties, and plenty of jokes in the name of their own purity. And they are just as frequently exposed as hypocrites: Multiculturalism ends when Whole Foods drives out the bodega in someone’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and a concern for the poor never extends to the woman sleeping in the library.
Is it exactly the same? Of course not. I think there’s little doubt on which side the real physical danger lies. But there are dangers other than physical ones. What I have experienced in both these worldviews is a lack of something else I learned from that aforementioned grandfather: grace. Grace is a funny, old-fashion word. It’s abused by the religious and ignored by the secular. Everyone can hum a few bars of “Amazing Grace,” and it was a popular, hipster-y name for baby girls for a brief period about a decade ago. The English word comes from the Latin gratia — meaning favor or thanks. From the earliest centuries of Christian theology, gratia (and its Greek counterpart charis) have referred to the unearned, unmerited favor of God. The undeserved love and forgiveness that flows from God, but is actualized in its transfer from person to person. This is the “amazing grace” to which John Newton wrote his ode. We do not deserve it. In fact, it is precisely because we do not deserve it that we need it. It is a concession to the inevitable problem of being human in a world that is broken in ways that manage to surprise even the most hardened cynic.
Grace is, as a notion, wild and reckless. It is always a problem for the fundamentalist. That is why Calvin tried to transform grace into saint making fairy dust that made the righteous so. That is why “forgiveness” has become an increasingly contested word in the world of social justice. But I believe that it is the antidote to what plagues our time. I have been horrified on more than one occasion at the vitriol that rains down upon the basically good for a misspoken word or an off-the-cuff remark that, while ill-advised, is probably not much more than a mistake. Only when we release our rigid belief that we can pry into other’s hearts and know their contents with absolute knowledge sufficient for judgement will be able to do anything other than scream and scold.
And I want to start with Mr. Playboy himself. Hugh Hefner was a human being. Like all human beings he made choices and was swept along by chance. Just like you and me. Now he is dead. And one day you and I will also die. And perhaps the best that we can ask for is that when our names are recalled someone will say, “He or she (or they or zie) was a son of a bitch. God rest his/her/their/zhier soul.”