Redemption. Restitution. Justice. Forgiveness. Religious and racial justice leaders are straining for the right words as they walk Virginians through a political crisis that they say has revealed the state’s need simultaneously to confess and make amends for its racist past.
A group of Virginia faith leaders held a meeting Thursday night to discuss how clergy can press understanding of racism’s impact. Religious and other leaders said they were struggling with how to broach the topic in weekend sermons, Wednesday-night Bible studies and opening prayers offered in the state General Assembly.
“It’s so hard to get the right balance between recognizing there is just a lot of stuff we need to seek forgiveness for, in our culture and in our personal lives. But we also have to hold onto the hope for transformation,” said the Rev. Keary Kincannon, an Alexandria pastor who is to deliver the opening prayer next Friday in the state Senate. “Are we going to be always a society that is condemning one another? Or are we going to find ways to bring justice, and mercy? We need to deal with [racial] reconciliation. There’s a lot of pain there.”
The drama erupted a week ago with the circulation of a page from the medical school yearbook of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) showing an image of a person wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. The image from the 1984 publication spread rapidly, with Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announcing that he, too, had worn blackface in college, and an article saying the ’60s-era college yearbook co-edited by state Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) is rife with racist words and images. There have been widespread calls for Northam to resign.
The 400-year-old unreconciled sins of white-on-black racism quickly became entangled with political pragmatism. Some people of color who voted for Northam in part because they thought he could be a leader on the issue of racial justice are worried about who would replace him if he resigned. Some conservatives angry when Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was slammed as a nominee for alleged actions during his youth found themselves challenging suggestions that Northam should be given a similar pass.
As conversations and arguments and prayers stretch across social media and neighborhoods, offices and classrooms, an underlying question has come to the surface: Why are we even talking about redemption yet, when all the details around Northam’s case are not yet known and full penance was never done? And what right do white people have to even weigh in?
“This is like Saul becoming Paul without the Damascus Road experience,” said Cornell William Brooks, a past NAACP president, professor and African Methodist Episcopal minister who lives in Northern Virginia. The question of how people should view Northam’s request for forgiveness and his job is secondary, Brooks said.
“It’s an important question, but it’s the penultimate one — not the ultimate one,” Brooks said. “The moral priority shouldn’t be the unforgiven offender. It’s the offended community. What can’t be lost here is the offense itself. The question now is: What was the harm done, then and now? And how do these officeholders make the community whole?”
The concept of redemption is being raised repeatedly.
In an interview with CBS News, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a 2020 presidential candidate, urged Northam to “step down and start his road to redemption."
“I believe in the ideas of redemption, and we should not be judged by the lowest points in our past. But the reality is, this is hurtful, painful; it’s a betrayal of the public trust,” Booker said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former governor of the state, told reporters Thursday in Washington that the state’s Democratic leaders — led by the African American members, he said — were studying what they felt was the relative sincerity of Northam’s and Herring’s apologies. The leaders were calling for Northam’s resignation but were withholding judgment on Herring, he said.
“He is in dialogue with the Legislative Black Caucus and African American leadership in the state, and they have been impressed with his sincerity while they’ve been very disappointed with what happened,” Kaine said of Herring.
For some, the political calculations are separate from what one might call a desperate spiritual need in Virginia and the country to much more directly address the wounds of racism. For many people of color, every new photo of someone in blackface is a fresh slap, as is casual public debate about blackface and minstrel shows. A YouGov poll this week found the percentage of Americans who call blackface “unacceptable” at below 60 percent. Sixteen percent said it was “acceptable” and 26 percent said that they were not sure, YouGov found.
The African Episcopal Methodist Church said in a statement that Northam had damaged his public witness by waiting for the information to come out and then attempting to repent.
“Governor Northam tried to keep hidden from the people [of] his state a choice that could have started a difficult conversation that might have salvaged his political career and challenged the people of his state to deal with the divisive and destructive choices of white privilege, power, and arrogance,” the denomination’s social action commission wrote. “We urge the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray for Governor Northam and his family that this time they choose correctly — to resign and repent. Pray for the Commonwealth of Virginia that the faith communities there will let their voices be heard for the healing that comes only through justice, conversion and then forgiveness.”
Yet to many, the calls for justice, forgiveness and political pragmatism were not easy to separate. Whether staying in office helps or hurts Northam’s redemption path was not cut and dried to some African American leaders, including the Rev. Kelvin Jones, Northam’s pastor in rural Northampton County.
“I think he has the right to prove himself,” Jones told the Salisbury Daily Times. “He has now the opportunity to even be more effective in the sense that he knows what that hurt caused people. But sometimes, I’ve come to learn that we aren’t afforded opportunities to make right on what are our wrongs. Because we live in a society that discards you once you’re wrong.”
Danita Rountree Green is a therapist and an organizer with the Richmond racial reconciliation group Coming to the Table. Green, who is about Northam’s age and a Virginia native, said she was sympathetic toward him and would not herself want to be judged entirely by her actions as a young person. However, she compared the process to being in a 12-step program: One has to go through the steps.
“The first step is to acknowledge what the trauma is, and, yes, this is trauma. The next step is not to expect forgiveness from anyone, but to go back and repair the damage. We always think of reparations as being about money. But it’s about evening the playing field. It’s about a fixing [of] what is broken. Repairing what is broken.”
The Rev. William Barber II, a North Carolina pastor and national civil rights leader, wrote in The Washington Post on Thursday that racism should be understood not as an isolated emotional sin but the result of a “racial caste system” deliberately instituted for economic reasons by the country’s early settlers. It can be addressed, he said, only by looking at racism’s concrete social results and working together to fix them. He called for focusing on issues including voting rights, health care and living wages.
“Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy,” Barber wrote, calling for white people to listen to and follow leaders of color. “At the same time, we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy."
Several white faith leaders in Virginia this week said they felt the specific process of deciding what is needed for Northam and for the state lies in the hands of the injured — people of color. Some offered thoughts on concepts of redemption and the sorting out of guilt from shame.
Danny Zemel, a Reform rabbi who lives in Northern Virginia, said a basic tenet of Judaism is that people can change — “but that doesn’t mean it comes easily,” he said, or fast. Right now, the news cycle is focused on the men’s jobs, and the number counting of the political fallout for the parties — grim math given the state’s history of slavery.
“He should leave the governorship, and that’s maybe a first step, but there are more steps. We live in a very fast-track, transactional society. Forgiveness and atonement don’t come at the snap of the fingers. It’s a process. In some ways this incident highlights the need for national and statewide conversations about the African American experience. It’s a conversation that this country so, so needs.”
Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge, whose Roman Catholic diocese covers areas in Virginia’s north and east, said during a podcast this week that the issue of Northam’s yearbook page also must be tied to the governor’s support for abortion rights — incidents “when the dignity of all human persons is not upheld.” The Post reported this week that the medical school classmate who told a reporter about Northam’s yearbook page did so because of the governor’s comments a few days earlier apparently supporting late-term abortion.
“The governor has to know there are consequences. Not that God doesn’t forgive us — God always forgives us, but there are consequences to past decisions and behaviors,” Burbidge said on the podcast.
How this goes ahead is no small spiritual matter, said Diana Butler Bass, a progressive Christian historian and writer who lives in Virginia. If Northam sinned and feels guilty, he can confess and be redeemed, she said. But if he feels shame and thus cannot face his transgression — he could choose to deflect, or engage in scapegoating, perhaps by making the issue about partisan politics.
“I care about Virginia politics because I live here, but ultimately my calling is to care about people’s spiritual lives,” Bass said. “And that’s where I really worry about this man and the damage he’s causing. A shame-based incident like this has a much larger effect on communities. Be able to confess, and clear the decks and move on. That has the redemptive impact. This shaming and hiding and political calculus just continues the problem into the future and hurts people.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Danita Rountree Green’s name.