Governor Ralph Northam is in a political quandary. He did some things thirty years ago that offend people today. They want him to resign.
I have a good bit of sympathy for the governor. About the time he was smearing his face with black, I was saying things that now make me cringe.
I spoke at a church in Florida and, in passing, said some derogatory things about psychiatry (which I recall because it drew a question from the audience). Now, my extended family needs a psychiatrist on retainer.
Earlier I preached (and printed) a series of sermons entitled “Baptists, Catholics, and Christians.” When a local priest was in the building for a wedding, he scanned my work and said, “You have a lot to learn about Catholicism.” Thank God, I did and have!
And a few years before that, during my last year of high school, I wrote a paper condemning what I called “ecumenicalism”. My teacher corrected my word but did not challenge the position that could only be called the exact opposite of what I now believe and practice.
I’m grateful these and other indiscretions of my intellectual and religious pilgrimage are not listed on my resume. I am grateful they have not come up as I have sought and secured employment and ministry.
Maybe the governor has been on the same kind of journey as I have.
Like him, I was raised in a racist culture that shaped my feelings and perceptions without my awareness or assent. I am sure I did things and said things that would cause me unmitigated embarrassment if they were to come to light. Most are hidden from memory.
Paul the great apostle speaks to me when he wrote many years ago, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching for those things ahead, I press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.” He had a lot to forget, including, by his own testimony, arrogance, ignorance, meanness, and violence.
The Bible is full of people who had to forget what was behind them.
Jacob was a scoundrel who swindled his brother out of a blessing. Moses was a murderer who went into hiding to survive. David plotted to kill a man and steal his wife yet became a man after God’s own heart and wrote many of the prayers that shape our spirituality today. The men who eventually became the apostles of Jesus said some pretty snarky things during their formation as founders of the church and, along the way, kept the women from saying anything!
There comes a time when many of us don’t want to be judged on what we used to be, on things we said and things we did and things we wrote. We have changed. We have repented. We have gone in a new way.
That is what the gospel is about, isn’t it? Jesus came preaching the good news and Mark the gospel writer summarized it like this: “Repent of your sins and believe the good news.”
Repentance is a goodly mix of remorse and redirection, of being sorry for something said and finding something new and true to say, of being embarrassed by something done and finding ways to never do it again, of being a new person even if that newness takes decades to be noticed by others.
Even I recall the days when George Wallace, full of vigor and venom, announced the eternal sway of segregation. But later in his life, paralyzed and repentant, he had a different word, one more consistent with both the scriptures and the constitution.
I am not trying to exonerate the current governor of Virginia. I am simply confessing my own sins and suggesting that when Jesus told us not to judge others, he was on to something.
Of all the words in the Bible, none are more powerful to me than these, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
That was Paul again writing to the Ephesians, and also to us.