Before October of last year, if we were to reflect on the legacy of Bill Cosby, almost all of us would agree that there was great cause to celebrate his life. A picture of black American success, Cosby had reached the highest echelon of the entertainment industry. The reputation he developed while playing Cliff Huxtable on the hit sitcom The Cosby Show earned him the title “America’s favorite dad.” Cosby was viewed as a father figure in the black community; his famous, yet highly controversial, Pound Cake speech was a testament to Cosby’s willingness to play the role.
However, ten years after that speech, devastating accusations of misconduct would resurface and lead America to question if his fatherly demeanor was indeed just an act. As of this writing, nearly sixty women have accused Cosby of sexual abuse—many of them claiming that they were drugged and raped. As more women come forward with gripping accounts of Cosby’s misconduct, his defenders shrink in number, and those who still wish to defend him have lost all credibility.
I recently got a chance to watch Dateline’s interview with a number of Cosby’s accusers. It was heart wrenching listening to woman after woman give details of sexual abuse. It was clear that Cosby used his fame and influence to lure these women into trusting him, only to sexually assault and subsequently threaten them into silence. Fearing that no one would believe them over an icon like Cosby, many of these women chose to be silent. Even more tragic is that none of the women who did come forward at the time with accusations received justice. Cosby never was convicted of a crime, and, until recently, never faced any serious public scrutiny.
How did Bill Cosby escape having to answer for his crimes for so long?
As I thought about this, two things came to mind: 1) powerful, wealthy people oftentimes find ways to transcend the legal system; 2) strong public perception can hide the reality of a person’s character.
Early on, two women pursued legal action but had their cases thrown out by a district attorney. I am not a legal expert, but I can’t help but wonder if Bill Cosby was not a superstar, would he have survived these initial legal threats. While we can find examples of the justice system dealing fairly with those of a higher socioeconomic status, I think most people recognize that celebrities and wealthy, affluent people have an easier time avoiding criminal penalties. Justice can be avoided oftentimes simply due to the quality of lawyers that wealthy people can afford.
Scripture tells us, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15). As Christians, we must ensure that we are an accurate judge of character. We can never let our admiration for a person skew our ability to discern whether they may have been guilty of wrongdoing. I saw many people rush to defend Cosby and dismiss the claims of these women. It’s one thing to want to uphold due process before forming an opinion, it’s another to blindly defend someone because we respect their accomplishments. The Biblical view of human depravity should cause us to abandon the naïve sentiment that a person’s pristine appearance reveals who they really are. A person’s public persona is often not an accurate reflection of how they conduct themselves privately.
Moreover, Christians must push for a social order that judges people solely by their character. In a sinful world, perfect justice can never be achieved. However, this truth does not allow us to resign ourselves to apathy. We must seek a more just society. This includes opening up our mouths and calling to repentance our legal system when we see it failing to judge fairly.
We must also foster an environment where vulnerable victims feel empowered to accuse powerful people. Many of Cosby’s accusers remained silent because they were afraid of the fallout. We should not be dismissive if someone does let us know that they are being victimized. As Christians, our love for people should be so evident that those who are suffering feel safe to tell us.
Additionally, the church can’t be a place that feeds intimidation. Are our churches safe places for victims of sexual abuse? Do women feel comfortable accusing their husbands of sin should they find themselves in an abusive situation? Do congregants feel safe accusing an elder of abuse? Sometimes our churches can develop a celebrity culture that protects its leaders from charges and intimidates congregants.
As a black person who celebrated what Bill Cosby accomplished for my community, I am disappointed to have learned these things about him. His legacy is no doubt irreparably tarnished. Nevertheless, I am glad that what he did in secret has finally come to the light. We can never let a person’s success overshadow crimes they have committed. God will judge the motives of the heart and the deeds of men righteously, regardless of their societal status. Let us imitate God and judge rightly.