I’ve been thinking a lot about shame in the last few days, since news of the Ralph Northam med school yearbook picture broke.
And specifically as a Christian and an Episcopal priest, I’ve been thinking about what faith calls us to do in these moments. And here is what I have come up with.
Our faith calls us to be accountable for our past, and to be more than the things that we have done. In some moments, and this is one of them, our faith requires us to be honest and vulnerable about the choices we have made and the actions we have (or have not) taken.
If I were Governor Northam, or on his team, I would have stood up and said: the world was different in 1984; I was different in 1984. I did something for a joke that in this modern world, and with who I am in this world, I now know to have been wrong, racist, and horribly offensive. I am sorry and ashamed for what I did. Here is who I am today. Here is what I did to become who I am today. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, and that I lied about it, I am deeply ashamed of who I was back then.
I’m using Gov. Northam as an example, but I think a lot of us have things like this in our past. And I know that we as a church, both all of Christendom and specifically as the Episcopal Church, have things in our past that we are deeply ashamed of.
Maybe Gov. Northam isn’t going to do this, but we as a churchare. But much of what we are focusing on is just trying to figure out how to move forward from the past.
But it is an absolute folly to skip the admission of being wrong, and to further skip the genuine apology that allows you to show you have changed and are different.
In many ways, I think we as a society have forgotten how to genuine apologize for having hurt someone. And so instead of having to be vulnerable enough to say we were wrong, or apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, we just avoid having difficult conversations.
In Church we talk about God’s love, but skip over the fact that God called us all to be in community with one another, not even if we disagree, but BECAUSE we disagree. God calls us to be vulnerable in relationship, and to be willing to stand up for what is right, even if we know others will disagree.
For example, I’m pro-choice, but I understand the position of being pro-life, and appreciate that those who are ardently pro-life are willing to stand up and say so. I disagree with many of the tactics and think they could show God’s love for all involved much better, but there’s no denying that pro-life protestors will show up even though they know there will be dissent.
I’m doing this because it is what God calls me to do. I am deeply ashamed, but if we as denomination are to lead towards reconciliation, we must first be willing to stand up and atone for what we have done. We must atone for our role in the sin of slavery and the sin of racism. Atonement is not merely saying I’m sorry and moving on. True, deep, repentance, a true return to God, requires owning what we have done.
But first, I’m going to start with myself.
I’m from a small town in Maryland. So small, that generally, I share the county I’m from (Calvert) instead of the town. Now, when we think of Maryland, many people think of a very liberal state, and parts of it are. But not my part.
There were still a lot of tobacco farms when I was growing up, and a huge amount of racial division. It’s a very conservative area. Where “Southern Pride” is as ingrained in us as the acceptability of the name of the Washington Football Team.
I was not immune to this. I grew up thinking the Confederate Flag was cool, and not thinking twice about it, because that’s just it was like where I grew up. I was taught state’s rights as being part of the basis for the Civil War (to be fair, slavery was also taught as part of the basis).
I was never overtly or intentionally racist, but I was absolutely blinded by my own privilege and the way that race plays a role in everyday life.
And then I grew up. I learned a little about the civil war, and the civil rights movement, and then I made an effort to learn. I educated myself on the truth of the myths I had been taught. I started talking to others about what I learned. I started to say that the civil war was fought over the state’s rights to an economic system predicated on owning humans.
I became ashamed of my former embracing of the confederate flag and of my blindness to the reality of racial inequality in this world.
I was awoken, my eyes were opened, and I have never let them shut again.
I understand the role of privilege and accessibility in racism and how I have both benefited and played a part.
I am different from the teenager and young woman I was. Today I engage in difficult conversations and am doing my best to teach others to do so. I use my privilege to help those with less or without.
I make an effort to understand all sides of an issue. I use my faith to guide my beliefs instead of my beliefs to guide my faith. I stand up for what I believe in. Even if I know it will offend others. Even if I know there will be real life repercussions for my actions, and believe me, there have been repercussions.
I call others to do the same. To know what they believe, to know why they believe, but to be certain it is what they believe, and not what some person, some culture, some society, some church, has told them to believe.
I am sorry for some of the things I did. Truly. I am sorry enough that I made a genuine effort to change.
It’s time for us as individuals, as Christians, and as Episcopalians to do the same.
Let us be more than our history, by first knowing what our history is. And then finding ways to show we have changed, and engage in the difficult work of being different.