By Patrick Miller
I don’t watch the Bachelor. Personally, I find the idea of giving a man or a woman a harem to toy with, fondle, and ultimately reject (all but one) perverse. So I can say, with complete integrity, that I am not writing about the latest Bachelor controversy to defend the show or anyone in it.
I’m writing because the controversy offers us a window into our polarized cultural moment, and many Christians aren’t sure how to respond.
Plantation-Themed Party Photos and the First Black Bachelor
In June of 2020, over 150,000 fans signed a petition urging ABC to pick a Black man as the star of the 25th season of The Bachelor. ABC answered the call with Matt James, the first Black bachelor in the show’s history. Among his favorite contestants was Rachael Kirkconnell, a 24-year-old alum of Georgia College & State University.
In mid-January, people found college photos of Kirkconnell at a plantation-themed “Old South” party. After seeing the images, both Matt James and Chris Harrison, the show’s host, urged America to show Kirkconnell grace.
James said, “Rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people’s lives. So I would give people the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully she will have her time to speak on that.”
Neither person defended the party, her pictures, or her choices. But both called America to withhold judgment until she spoke—which she did, apologizing for her racist actions.
A few weeks later, Matt James made an about-face. He condemned Kirkconnell, Chris Harrison, and the entire Bachelor institution as racist. Chris Harrison, for his part, apologized for perpetuating racism. Shortly after this, Harrison announced that he’s taking a leave of absence from the Bachelor franchise.
Will you accept this culture?
In response to this news, dual sirens are sounding. America is as polarized as ever.
One side is shouting about cancel culture. They’re shrilly warning that if the woke police can take down Chris Harrison for urging patience and then pressure the bachelor into condemning the institution that made him famous—well, who’s next? Kirkconnell did something wrong, but her intent was not to celebrate racism. Doesn’t intent matter more than impact? Should we ruin people’s lives in the name of impact?
The other side is saying that Rachael Kirkconnell and Chris Harrison’s intentions do not matter. The simple truth is that they participated in a system that subjects Black Americans to ongoing psychological harm. The impact is what matters. They both perpetuated racism, and they must be held accountable through internet shaming and the loss of jobs and prospects. Matt James, who initially defended Kirkconnell, should be given space to evolve and learn.
Our culture forces us to pick sides. But does either side have it right?
Is it possible that both tribes relish the self-righteous glory of winning the higher moral ground more than they value the complex, mentally demanding work required to think through what’s actually right and wrong here?
Are we here for the right reasons?
How should Christians respond? Well, one option is to stop watching The Bachelor. Keith explores some reasons to quit in this episode of Ten Minute Bible Talks.
But if you’re still committed to it, here are a few propositions I think Christians on both sides should wrestle with:
1. Antebellum parties are racist, and impact does matter.
Just imagine a Black woman in one of those “Gone with Wind” dresses, and you will quickly understand why. People who looked like her were enslaved and sexually abused on plantations in the “glory days” of the “Old South.” Partygoers probably realize this, but they do not fear offending anyone because they assume that no one black will be in attendance to be offended. This is implicit segregationist thinking.
As Rachel Lindsay, who is herself, Black, correctly pointed out in her interview with Chris Harrison, her attendance at a party like that would mean something totally different than Kirkconnell’s. She would understandably experience profound psychological pain by being there or by seeing the pictures.
2. Rachael Kirkconnell’s intent also matters.
Why did Rachael Kirkconnell attend a banned plantation party? No one knows entirely. But we can be reasonably confident she attended for the same reason she (and millions of others) generally attend frat parties: to wear an outfit that would make her “Old South” forebears blush, to drink too much alcohol, and to dance. She probably put very little thought into the implications of attending. Her friends went, so she went. This hardly justifies her actions, but it does contextualize them. Why is anyone surprised that an individual who thought it was wise to date one guy alongside 36 other women also lacked the self-reflective faculties necessary to identify why a plantation party is so wretched?
Did Kirkconnell do something wrong? Yes. She was right to apologize. And she should be held accountable in proportion to her intent. In the same way that we treat premeditated murder differently than we treat non-premeditated murder or accidental manslaughter, intent does matter. It impacts the severity of the punishment. That’s not just United States law. It’s a Biblical law. Christians should apply the general principle that both impact and intent matter in all cases of wrongdoing, including this one.
3. Forgiveness, enemy love, and mercy are Christian virtues.
Chris Harrison’s words (and Matt James’s before he changed his stance) about showing Rachael Kirkconnell forgiveness and grace sound an awful lot like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
And, for the record, people tried to cancel Jesus for saying things like this, too:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
4. Self-righteousness looks ugly on you.
35 out of 36 of Rachael Kirkconnell’s fellow contestants shared the same Instagram post attacking Chris Harrison for defending racism. The minute I saw it, I wondered whether all of them could honestly claim they’d never done anything like what Rachael Kirkconnell did.
I am sure that many woke millennials (I was once a “woke millennial,” so I’m not judging) are hiding their own skeletons behind slogans, social media posts, lawn ornaments, and protests. Ask yourself: if someone filmed your entire life and then scrutinized it, would you come out squeaky clean? Are you demanding condemnation for others where you need grace and forgiveness?
Why I’m convinced that most people, including myself, should lose their heads.
When I was in high school, I had a group of friends who regularly made fun of me for looking Jewish (which I am). When I walked into a room, they would fake sneeze and say “a-Jew” instead of “achoo.” They made fun of my nose and recycled a panoply of anti-Semitic tropes in my presence. I wanted to be liked, so I pretended not to be bothered. But the truth was that their jokes were painful, demeaning, and not funny.
Fast forward to college. I remember three stark instances of white people using racist words or defending their personal use of racist symbols. In all three cases, I confronted them. In all three cases, they mocked me in return.
Why do these stories matter?
Why do these stories matter? Because I’ve watched some of these same people post their outrage against the very behavior I know they committed themselves. I’ve watched them marry people who are now vocal activists—activists saying that Matt James shouldn’t marry someone who did what their own spouse did in college.
When I see these people post their woke slogans, I’m tempted to respond, “Remember when you…?” But, ultimately, that’s not what I really want for them. I am sure that all of them regret their words. All of them would apologize.
In the moment, judgment may make me feel good, but it changes nothing. Jesus calls me to forgive, as I’ve been forgiven. Why? Because, according to Jesus, forgiveness alone has the power to heal the world. This insight fueled the most transformational leaders of the last century, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Nelson Mandela.
No one is pure, not even you.
Here is the tragic truth of racism: none of us are clean. None of us are pure.
I remember a Black friend going to a toga party in college. I asked if it was strange to celebrate Graeco-Roman culture. He laughed and said he was going to get drunk.
Of course, the truth is that Romans brutally oppressed and enslaved people across the Mediterranean basin. Their military police “legally” humiliated and executed hundreds to thousands of Jews every year. The Greeks before them were even worse—only Nazi Germany exceeded their brutality.
Moreover, Egyptians enslaved my Semitic ancestors. Most people wrongly believe that ancient Egyptians looked like modern Egyptians of Arabic descent. But ancient Egyptians were Africans whose skin tones likely ranged from light to dark brown.
For example, Aaron and Miriam, Moses’s brother and sister, believed Moses thought himself better than them because he married a “Cushite” (read dark-skinned) woman. Why would this marriage make Moses “better”? His wife, though not Egyptian herself, had darker skin and looked more like the Egyptian ruling class than Moses and his olive-toned siblings.
I’m not equating toga parties and Old South parties. Nor am I suggesting that Black people in America have any responsibility for Egyptian chattel slavery. The white ancestors of slave owners celebrating a very near past is radically different than dressing up in bedsheets for a toga party.
What I am trying to do is turn the mirror on us all. I have thought racist thoughts. I have said racist things. I have done racist acts. Some of them I intended. Many I did not.
Impact matters. And so does intent. Grace is Christlike. Forgiveness cures cultures.
You are, most likely, just like me. So, before you call for heads to roll, maybe take a look in the mirror and see your own need for forgiveness? Or, before you start shouting about cancel culture, maybe bring the same longing for justice to bear on what’s broken in your own life?
Then you can do the golden rule thing: give people the same forgiveness you want for yourself.
Looking for a more thoughtful way to engage with media?
Digital media has changed the way we consume stories. Get some practical ideas about how to thoughtfully approach shows and movies in our post: How to Actively Engage with What You’re Watching.