Jemar Tisby Says It’s Time for Christian Leaders to Check Their Own Yearbooks for Past Racist Actions

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam, speaks during a news conference in the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Resisting widespread calls for his resignation, Northam on Saturday vowed to remain in office after disavowing a racist photograph that appeared under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Christians believe in forgiveness and restoration.

The ultimate goal of church discipline — the methods by which a congregation addresses and corrects improper behavior among its members — should properly be aimed at making the person and the ones harmed whole again.

That does not mean, however, that there are no consequences for our sins and failings — as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has learned recently.

A yearbook photo from 1984 recently surfaced, allegedly showing Northam dressed in blackface — makeup done in a caricature of black features originally used during the Jim Crow era to reinforce harmful stereotypes and poke fun at people of African descent.

At first, Northam admitted that he was in the photo.

Then he denied it but admitted that he once put shoe polish on his face when he dressed up for a Michael Jackson dance contest.

The admission that Northam had used blackface elicited immediate calls for his resignation.

This image shows Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The page shows a picture of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood next to different pictures of the governor. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Others have advocated for leniency and understanding, citing the fact that it was more than 30 years ago, and he seems to have changed his views. Although Virginia’s Congressional Black Caucus has not rescinded its calls for his resignation, leaders said they were willing to work with Northam on policy solutions to racial inequity.

Gov. Northam’s history of racism does not place him beyond redemption.

It may, however, put him out of office.

The goal of restoration does not mean a person does not face negative consequences for breaches of trust. It simply means that the final word on a person’s humanity should not be based solely on the worst act he or she has ever committed.

Ultimately, the citizens of the state of Virginia have to decide whether they want Northam to continue in his role as governor or step down — a choice made more complicated by the fact that his immediate successor, Justin Fairfax, has been accused of sexual assault, and the next person in line, Attorney General Mark Herring, also admitted to dressing in blackface.

As the debacle in Virginia unfolds, Christians have an opportunity to examine their own individual and institutional histories in order to bring their own stories of racism to light.

What would a yearbook audit of today’s prominent Christian leaders reveal? Have megachurch pastors, seminary presidents, committee heads, authors, professors, missionaries or theologians painted their faces black in a degrading pantomime of black people? Have they associated with people who flaunt racial bigotry? Do they have embarrassing racist incidents that they hope no one discovers?

Given the close associations with segments of the American church and racism, the answer to these questions is almost certainly “yes.”

The move with the most integrity would be for Christian leaders, especially those with large public platforms, to proactively admit the places where they got it wrong on race and commit to anti-racist action right now.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has already set a precedent.

Click here to read more.
Source: Religion News Service