While death is a part of life and cancer shouldn’t be wished on anyone (no matter what they have done), does death erase the racism of the one who dies or is dying? We ask these questions in the midst of the conversations around confederate monuments. We confront these questions when it comes to street names, buildings, and parks whose names are dedicated to slave owners and white supremacists. But now, as we watched on live television, the president of the United States, in a reality style formulation, awarded the Medal of Freedom to the radical right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh during the State of the Union. Rush stood up with a thumbs up, tears coming down his face, and accepted the award from the First Lady.
But sitting in the same space was the 100 year old, Tuskegee airman, Charles McGee who was honored by the president with the statement of his name and a short bio. 100 years of existence and fighting for his country in a segregated military squadron all the while a man who has spouted racism and other forms of hate for his career is awarded one of the highest honors our government can provide.
We can get caught up in the showmanship of the State of the Union and may be fired up by Nancy Pelosi’s mighty rip of the speech, but when it comes to awarding a dying racist, people have not shown the same amount of disgust or outrage. Is it because Rush is dying of cancer? Does death automatically erase the harm, the damage, the scape-goating oppression that someone with such a big platform can induce?
I say that death does not give you an automatic “out” for the things that we have done, nor does it automatically wipe our slates clean. Is cancer a punishment from God for what Rush said? I don’t believe that either… but it surely does not make it okay to reward his racist and bullying broadcasting.
As a person of faith, it is my calling to try to find God in each person that we come across no matter the condition. But Christ did not teach us to give the evil a pass, as if it would pass away with the person who is “passing.” Not speaking ill of the dead is certainly good courtesy at a funeral, but it is a superstition if it obliges us to pretend the person is or was something they were not. Christ taught us to not fear death. When we whitewash the histories of people in the midst of death, we are fearing death because death is in control. Death, instead of life, is controlling our narratives, our actions, our perpetuations of systemic racism and oppressions, and our ability to fully live into the teachings of a justice driven God.
To live into life, into the resurrection where life overcomes death, we must love yet keep each other accountable. As the medal was placed on a dying man, death won again. As people stood up with a thumbs up, they were praising both the fear of death and the death induced by centuries of white supremacy. As we watched on national television, we saw death doing its work not only in this moment but throughout the rhetoric and the selfish moments of idol worship.
I will pray for Rush Limbaugh through his cancer journey. I will pray that during the remaining time of his life … he will see how death has ruled it, just as it can rule all of our lives. But, in the midst of this prayer, I will not let death win. Nor will I let it distort the histories of our black and brown siblings or the histories of our white siblings that have involved oppression and spread the cancer of polarizing falsehood on our airwaves which have oppressed and continue to do so.
Lee Catoe is the Managing Editor of Unbound and the Associate for Young Adult Social Witness for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy in the Presbyterian Church USA.