What's Tony Thinking

Should Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, Resign?


Conventional wisdom says “yes.” Out with racist Northam — we all agree. Certainly Virginia Democrats, who hope to capture their state’s legislative branch, would like Northam to exit stage left asap. Not to mention Democrats who want to run for President in 2020.

I think Northam ought to stay put.

Terrible, I know.

Here’s my reasoning. Short term, tactical considerations: Northam will be so eager to prove he is changed man that he may do some remarkable things in the once-time capitol of the Confederacy. (I was in Richmond, Virginia to preach at some big Presbyterian church a decade ago. They referred to the Civil War, only partly tongue-in-cheek, as “the recent unpleasantness.”)

But the long term is more important.

Long term, a Northam resignation allows Virginia, and to some extent the rest of us, to say, “out damn spot.” And then pretend that having eradicated this loathsome blight and his offensive yearbook photos, we have conquered the beast.

What if we lived with Northam? More importantly, what if we lived with our own racist history? And lived with, that is faced, our own racism?

What if we, to use Christian language, confessed our sin and sought forgiveness and made repentance?

Northam could be like the sore that we wish would go away but won’t. A sore that reminds us that something is wrong. The pain that says we got a problem.

We haven’t gotten over racism. Well, yes, I do think we have made progress. But we still have a lot to face up to, to own up to and to learn from rather than deny.

The photo of two people in Northam’s med school yearbook, one in black face, the other in KKK regalia, is a reminder of a history we would rather forget and ignore but need to face. It is our history. A history we need to own up to and from which we need to learn.

The Christian doctrine of sin is helpful here. “All have sinned,” wrote St. Paul, “and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not some, all. Racism is not just an individual bad act. It is a system.

Our best hope is not to cast out all the obvious sinners and then tell ourselves we are a company of the virtuous, of PC saints. Our hope is to be a people who face into our sin, confess it and seek forgiveness.

Excising Ralph Northam is too easy. Send the scapegoat into the wilderness. Pretend we have no part in him.

And to Northam’s credit, he has said as much. That resignation is the easy way out.

The history of America in the era of reconstruction and Jim Crow is by and large unknown and unacknowledged in mainstream America culture. It is riddled with black face stereotypes and with KKK terrorism.

And by the way, you don’t need to go to the Middle East to find a terrorist organization. The KKK was/ is a terrorist organization. Their’s was as reign of terror across the south for decades. If terrorism means attacks on civilian non-combatants in an effort to generate paralyzing fear, the KKK wrote the book.

So I would vote to have Ralph Northam continue in office. By his presence he would remind us of the skeleton in our collective closet, of how much we have yet to come to grips with.

In the meantime, I’m guessing that the current generation may be re-thinking the whole “yearbook” genre — if they haven’t bagged it already.

But, one way or another, the past, our past, does come back to haunt us. The only way to exorcise the ghosts is to face them.

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