I have the two best possible credentials for writing about the recent Don Imus flap. First, I was a regular on his radio show for over 10 years, along with my partner and friend Monsignor Tom Hartman, and, secondly, I have been on the "Imus banned for life list" for almost two years. Imus's recent racist remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team—he called the players "nappy-headed hos"— have ignited the largest and most recent wildfire of criticism calling for him to be fired or resign. He has apologized, and yet the fires still burn hotly around him.
This is what I think about Imus. I think somewhere along his life journey he confused cruelty with satire. Satire is the witty skewering of pretension, arrogance and foolishness. Satire is holding up the actions of the powerful and the famous to the standards of common sense and reason. Satire is iconoclasm, but its focus is on the foolish things people in power do. Cruelty is humiliating people for what they are, and what they cannot change, and what does not have any moral significance whatsoever. Whether a person is fat or black or Jewish or gay or homely just does not matter, but sadly it matters to Imus, and this is the root of his problem now. He has turned mean. This has led him to have little or no sensitivity to racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist statements that creep into the program with annoying frequency. He has forgotten what to make fun of and what to respect.
Even though I have no trouble calling Imus cruel, I would not call him racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or sexist because I generally find it unfair and foolish to take a complex human life and stuff it into a little box with just one label on it. Imus is smart, philanthropic, literate and curious—and most bigots are not. His work to raise money for the rehabilitation of wounded American soldiers was truly laudable. Imus, whose nationally syndicated radio show, "Imus in the Morning" is simulcast on MSNBC TV, helped my friend Tommy raise money for an AIDS hospice in memory of his brother Jerry Hartman without us even asking him to help. I have also seen large checks come into charities we support from Donald with no fanfare and no desire for public acknowledgment. Imus is the best interviewer I have ever heard, and he reads voraciously. He is a complex mosaic of a man with some very good and some very bad pieces in his life's design. How this all adds up is for my Boss to decide, not me. What I do know is that Imus, like most of us, could do better— and now must do better—if he is to keep his job.
The second thing I know is about repentance—and this is the only thing that can save Imus now. Repentance as it has been shaped by the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam involves three spiritual steps, of which Imus has taken only the first. Repentance requires a sincere admission of the sin. Imus has done that now. Repentance then requires a change of behavior. This takes time, but it must begin immediately. Specifically, Imus and Bernie and Charles and Rob and Larry must cut out all their bits that make fun of a person's race or religion or sex or sexual orientation. Bernie must stop his anti-Catholic impersonation of Cardinal Egan. Imus must just stop using crude stereotypes to get a crude laugh. If he cannot get a laugh through wit, he should just pack it up.
The third stage of repentance is to ask God to purify you from the effects of sin. Sin is not just a mistake. It is a mistake that stains us in a way that no apology can ever completely rectify. I teach children about this by pounding a bunch of nails into a board and telling them that each nail stands for something bad we do in our life. Then I pull out the nails, and I tell them that this is like apologizing and changing what we do. I then point to all the nail holes in the board and ask the kids how to make those holes go away. None of them know how to make the holes go away. People who are not religious have their ways to fix the holes, and I respect those ways. However, for people of faith the only healing of the holes we leave in our lives and the lives of those we hurt is to ask God to purify us from the effects of sin, after we have done everything we can do to repent on our own. This third stage of repentance is what the Psalmist intended when he wrote:
I hope that among all the crisis counselors trying to preserve the profit center that is Imus there are also some around him now who know the Psalms—and who know that there is always hope for the true healing of a broken and truly repentant heart.