Youthful Indiscretions, Blackface, Yearbooks, and Redemption (Part 1) February 02 2019

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia was in the news twice this past week. The first was from this past Wednesday when the Governor was defending a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have significantly loosened restrictions on abortion in the third trimester, to the extent that the bill’s sponsor, in response to a question from the legislative committee, indicated that there was nothing in the bill that would prevent an abortion being performed while a woman was in active labor.

I grew up in Virginia, went to college in Virginia, and worked in Virginia for 13 years. So I still pay a little bit of attention to Virginia politics. This story was so shocking, even though the bill ultimately failed to get out of committee, that it was hard to believe it could be something considered in my home state. So I looked up the actual language in House Bill No. 2491, Section 18.2-74 to see for myself. The section title is: “When abortion or termination of pregnancy lawful after second trimester of pregnancy” and the relevant paragraph is:

The physician certifies  and so  enters  in the hospital record of the woman,  that in the physician's  medical opinion, based upon  the physician's  best clinical judgment, the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

This gives a single doctor an incredible amount of discretion, particularly with respect to the mother’s “mental health.” No words at all about a viable baby’s health. As I’ve said many times, this is not a political blog, but the Scriptures are clear about God’s hand in our formation: “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13 and read through verse 16, as an example). Do we care about all the moms that go through difficult pregnancies? Of course we do. But we cannot escape the responsibility society has to preserve life, both mom and baby.

A similar bill was recently passed in New York State, where I was born (Schenectady). It made me think, “Hmm, it’s a good thing this bill did not exist when I was born,” because my mother started hemorrhaging during delivery. It was at that very point on the delivery table, according to her testimony, that she gave her life to Christ. It would not have been difficult under current New York law to have terminated me right then and there.

But this blog is not primarily about abortion, as important as that topic is. The abortion topic was quickly overshadowed by what was revealed about the Governor on Friday. A photo became public from Governor Northam’s yearbook from medical school (when he was 25 years old) of a person dressed up in “blackface” standing next to another person dressed up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. According to Wikipedia, blackface is a form of  theatrical make-up used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. It was generally used by performers in the mid 1800s and early 1900s, but also lingered into the mid-1900s. It represented a sad era of racial stereotyping.

Governor Northam initially admitted to being in that photo. But as I check the news once more before publishing this on Saturday, the Governor is questioning his own admission, saying he does remember darkening his face to represent Michael Jackson in a dance contest. We may never know the truth about these matters, but that’s beside the point. Either way, the Governor’s yearbook was from 1984, when a supposedly sophisticated 25-year old medical student should have known better. It was hardly a “youthful indiscretion,” and the political frenzy is certainly emblematic of our times.

Whatever the outcome, it is actually refreshing to step back and get a biblical perspective on all this. That is one of the objectives these blogs were originally meant to achieve – to help us see through the chaos of society, politics, and the media, to what God says about so many of the issues we face today. And the Scriptures are still amazingly relevant and contemporary!

Let’s start with Jesus Himself. The beautiful thing about Jesus’ example when He walked on the earth is that He shattered the prejudices of His day against women (He talked with them when others thought He shouldn’t), race (He affiliated with the Samaritans and even used them as one of the greatest examples of love), and the so called “lower classes” of society (lepers, the blind, servants, the poor). Racial prejudices lasted far too long in the U.S., and we have come a long way since then, though remnants still exist. And Paul reminded us that God is no respecter of persons, in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But the Northam revelation has triggered a number of thoughts, including:

  1. How relentless political posturing, maneuvering, and attempts at public shaming have become in the U.S.
  2. How amazing God’s redemption really is. Our God is a God of patience, love, and forgiveness, a God of second chances, third, fourth …
  3. How much the world needs Jesus. The world needs hope, and people are searching in all the wrong places.

I would love to address all of these in one blog, but I ran out of space, so we’ll only get to the first point here and cover the other two next time.

First, political posturing, maneuvering, and public shaming is an unmistakable trend, being accelerated and amplified by social media. Even rational conversations about important issues are squelched because of how much we are all walking on eggshells, out of concern for being taken the wrong way or being shamed for a legitimate, and even loving, point of view.

We may not have dressed up in blackface for our yearbook or Halloween at any point in our lives, but there are plenty of “youthful indiscretions” (a euphemism for the biblical word “sin”) in our backgrounds. Just ask our parents, or our siblings. Or maybe even our children!

I wonder how many politicians are going back to check their yearbooks at this point. I could understand that, if all we cared about is earthly success and positioning. Do we care about our testimony? Of course. Are there things in our background that we regret? Certainly. Can we make our words and actions from the past disappear? No. But the difference between the world’s view and God’s truth is that the world (at least the political world) seems to be focused on the “gotcha moment.”

As believers, we understand that there are plenty of “gotchas” in our backgrounds, things we wish we could take back, where our sinfulness was exposed. The difference is that, as a Christian, we not only understand how sinful we are, but by God’s grace have seen the power of redemption. BCF has been privileged to see this many, many times over - how transformational God and His Word really are in the lives of people who were once hopeless.

Much of the world will never understand this, and we should not be surprised, because “… a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14). As believers, we are privileged to understand (and are still learning) the reality of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, but also the even greater reality that God has made forgiveness freely available. Paul captured the struggle very well in Romans 7:18-20:

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh, for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Paul is not making an excuse here for his actions. But he has aptly captured the daily struggle that goes on in our lives, even as believers. And if we left it there, it would be very discouraging and hopeless. But that is why there are the other two points. More about those next time, but until then, just ponder the end of Romans Chapter 7: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verses 24 and 25a). We’ll pick up at that point.

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Steve Smith