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Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers\' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Thoughts & Prayers

For the past year or two the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been a source of derision. After horrific mass shootings, some politicians offer “thoughts and prayers” but are unwilling to support any sort of gun restrictions or universal background checks. Critics claim that offering “thoughts and prayers” without corresponding action is empty and hypocritical spirituality. In many cases, it probably is.

But let us not lose or be embarrassed by the offer of “thoughts and prayers.” It is a beautiful and invaluable offer that cannot be replaced.

For instance, when a friend if going through a difficult time–problems at work, or a chronic illness, or the recent death of a family member–we often feel helpless. There may not be any hands-on assistance that we can reasonably provide. What then can we offer? In such situations it is a great gift to let our friend know that we are sharing their pain and suffering, and that we are consciously turning this situation over to God so that God’s Spirit will bring needed strength and comfort and guidance.

When I was thirteen, I broke my leg (for the second time) and the surgeon inserted a pin to hold together my shattered femur. Over the course of the next several months that pin caused me tremendous, continuous pain. Aspirin made no dent in the agony. My mother was upset that there was nothing she could do to alleviate my suffering. Several times, with tears in her eyes, she held me and said, “I wish I could take away your pain and place it in me.” Whether she realized it or not, that is exactly what she was doing. She was sharing my pain, and by doing so, I was comforted. When we offer someone our heart-felt “thoughts and prayers,” we are taking on some of the suffering, and by doing so we are bringing the comfort of genuine love.

So “thoughts” are not so useless after all. Thoughts–in the form of sympathy, empathy, and shared tears–are a principle way for us to show and share love.

Prayers are not useless either. Prayers transform us into more sensitive and loving people. We set aside our time and productivity to focus on the distress and needs of another person, lifting those needs up to God. This, in itself, internally shifts us from self-interest to other-interest.

But prayer does more than open up greater love in the person who prays, it is also opens up a spiritual field between the person praying and the person being prayed for so that God’s Spirit may be more fully present. We are all deeply interconnected in ways both physical and spiritual, and prayer strengthens this connectivity. This is not something empirical that can be measured by science; this is an intuition that lives deep within us. The only evidence of its truth is that communities of people that pray experience greater wholeness.

If we are using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” to avoid our responsibility to take action, then it is indeed an empty and hypocritical phrase. But if it is accompanied by action, or if it is the only action we can offer, then thoughts and prayers are the bedrock of our healing.

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Marrying a Muslim

Last week one of my former college roommates posted on Facebook that “there are NO peaceful Muslims.” He went on to claim that every Muslim is susceptible to joining violent jihad and will kill off their infidel neighbors. This is a man I have known and loved for over forty years. I was dismayed–but not surprised–that he was spewing this hate-filled nonsense. For years he lived in Israel soaking up hatred for Palestinians and claiming all Muslims around the world are want-to-be murderers. A few days after his Facebook post, an anti-Muslim fanatic murdered fifty Muslims as they worshiped in their mosques in New Zealand.

I’m not sure whether my former roommate even knows any actual Muslims. I do. Many years ago a man connected with my congregation in Indianapolis asked me if I would officiate his wedding to a young Muslim woman. As it turned out, I could not perform the ceremony because of a schedule conflict, but I did meet with the couple for premarital counseling over the course of several months. One of the subjects we talked about was how their two faiths would work together, and how they planned to nurture faith in their hoped-for children. Their plan was that their children would grow up feeling at home and involved in both faiths, free to make their own faith decisions when they were old enough. They recognized the difficulties involved in trying to do this. I affirmed their hopes and plans and their marriage.

The day after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, I called the local mosque  near my church. I left a message on their answering machine telling them that I and my congregation were available if they needed any help. A year later I got a call from the imam. He told me that my phone call was the only supportive phone call that they received that day. He asked if he could meet with me. We got together. He was a delightful man–an African-American who had grown up Baptist but who had then become Muslim. He shared with me his intriguing spiritual journey. He was one of the most decent, open-minded, peaceful persons I have ever met. Our two congregations arranged several joint events to work at peacemaking and understanding.

My personal encounters with a variety of Muslims have enriched me. All of them have been opposed to terrorism. None of them was seeking to impose sharia law on the United States or demonstrated any intolerance toward non-Muslims.

Do observant Muslims live by and support sharia law? Of course–just as observant Jews live by and support Mosaic law. Does the Koran include some passages that, on the surface, appear intolerant, even violent, toward non-Muslims? Yes–and the Old Testament contains many such passages directed toward non-Jews; and the New Testament contains some hate-filled passages directed toward Jews. The scriptures of all religions–being the product of many cultures from many time periods–contain passages that cannot be applied literally or directly today. All scripture must be interpreted through the lens of its deepest themes–yielding to the Spirit of a merciful and loving God.

I admire certain aspects of Islam. I admire the intensity of its spiritual disciplines: prayer five times a day, a month of fasting once a year, contributing 2.5% of one’s wealth and assets (not just income!) each year to charity, and a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if feasible. The rigor of these disciplines gives Islam tremendous spiritual strength. I am also pleased that Islam holds Jesus in high regard as a great and miraculous prophet.

There are also aspects of Islam that do not appeal to me. Although Jesus is held in high esteem, his message contained in the four Gospels is obscured and sometimes discounted; and whereas the cross–God’s ultimate vulnerability and self-sacrifice for humanity–is at the center of Christian faith (and the basis of Christian nonviolence), the crucifixion of Jesus holds no such significance for Islam.

I am also disappointed in what looks to me to be a sort of fundamentalism that pervades  Islam. Whereas Christian theologians (at least in the West) have spent the last few centuries finding fruitful and honest ways to integrate the facts and truths of scientific and historical knowledge and analysis, Islamic theologians in recent centuries do not appear to be doing this; indeed, a few have even passed death sentences on those who try to do so. (To be fair, a lot of Christians have not done this integration either.)

Another problem Islam has is a political one: it is centered in nations that are often autocratic. For instance, Saudi Arabia administers Islam’s most sacred sites, including the pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi Arabia is an autocratic, somewhat secularized, monarchy whose wealth and power derive from oil. In order to keep religious leaders happy and the population under control, the monarchy has protected and encouraged some of the most conservative and fanatical strains of Islam. Osama Bin Laden, we should remember, came from Saudi Arabia.

Political resentment and fanaticism are a significant problem in several Muslim-majority countries, and sometimes the government even fans those flames for its own political purposes. (One might wonder whether the current administration in Washington is doing something similar with white conservative Christians.)

All religions, including the Christian religion, need to be critiqued in order to help them become more healthy and spiritual. Each religion has its weaknesses as well as strengths. But regardless of our own assessments of various religions, it is wrong to then impose that assessment on all of the adherents of that religion. Individuals must be treated as individuals, based on their own merits and character and intrinsic value as equal human beings made in God’s image. So let us stop stereotyping and promoting distrust and hate. Instead, build relationships of love.

Why I Love the Government

I was never unpatriotic, but neither was I patriotic. I loved the physical beauty of the United States and admired the rights promised in the Constitution, but I mostly ignored the government. Instead, I dedicated myself to the church–a kind of alternative-government which I believed was better than the government because it did not rely on coercion, the threat of violence, or the use of war. I didn’t think I, or others committed to Christ’s way of nonviolent love, should be involved in the levers of government.

This was my position during my young adult years. But I gradually shifted my viewpoint and eventually found myself deeply committed to our representative democracy.

I still dedicate myself to the church, and I still think the “government” of the church is superior to the government of the state, but I now see that the national government is indispensable for all of us, and it is (or can be), in a way different from the church, God’s beautiful instrument for making the world a better place.

We all need a society based on enforced laws. Even sincere Christians will drive over the speed limit, or sometimes cheat on their taxes, or do other selfish and harmful things without the deterrence of laws and law enforcement. Even if all Christians were paragons of virtue needing no threat of punishment, we would still need the government to apprehend those who do harm to others, and we would still want some sort of protection for our lives and property. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, the formation of governments has had the greatest impact on reducing violence in the world.

But the government does more than prevent us from doing harm to one another; it also provides services on a scale the church would find impossible to do by itself. Only the government has the organization, power, and capacity to build roads and provide a free education for all children through high school; only the government can assure a minimum pension for retired persons (Social Security) or provide adequate medical care for the poor; only the government can oversee a system of food safety, clean drinking water, environmental protection, and fair markets. Only the government can make treaties and trade agreements with other governments.

As my attitudes toward the government shifted, I wondered if my biblical interpretations were too narrowly focused on the evil of government as expressed in 1 Samuel 8:10-18, Luke 4:6 and the Book of Revelation. I have paid more attention to Jeremiah’s advice to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Book of Daniel has also been instructive. Though it portrays pagan empires in the darkest terms, its counsel is that Jews can work faithfully within the system—as dangerous as that may be.

In classical Anabaptist theology (at least as I was taught it), the state is incapable of exhibiting Christ’s way of love. The Quakers, on the other hand, believe that the light of Christ is in everyone and everything, and we can appeal to that light and help make it shine. I think American history has shown the Anabaptists to have been right about how self-serving and violent a government can be, but it has also shown the Quakers to be right about how much better a government can become. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the United States to live up to its own highest ideals of liberty and equality. He blended his appeal with biblical allusions to justice, and he called on the conscience of all Americans to demand a change in the laws. Through the heroic nonviolent sacrifice of tens of thousands of boycotters and protesters, civil rights legislation was finally enacted. Here we see an ironic combination: nonviolent action for the sake of the passage of just laws which will be enforced by the coercive power of the government.

The current presidency has motivated me to become even more committed to preserving our form of government and its ideals. The United States government had become a morass of special interests controlled by big business and the rich, endless and expensive bureaucracy, and political insider corruption. This growing monster made me and many other citizens desperate for bold action. But the answer is not deep tax cuts for the rich, eliminating safety and environmental regulations, demonizing the press, scapegoating immigrants, undermining trust in the judiciary, polarizing the citizenry, and exerting dictatorial presidential powers. Now more than ever many of us see just how precious–and fragile–our republic is.

So now I am committed to both: the church and the government. Each possesses a crucial mission that the other cannot achieve, and each is God’s instrument.

Why No Baptisms?

Despite serving a growing congregation, I have a concern: I have not performed a single baptism for a middle school, high school, or college-aged person in over five years.

Granted, my current congregation has a limited number of youth. Nevertheless, the last two baptism and membership preparation classes I taught resulted in no one expressing any interest in joining the church or being baptized. Is this simply a fluke, or is there a bigger problem going on? From what I’ve heard from other Mennonite pastors, my experience is in no way unique. Youth, by and large, are not joining the church.

What’s going on? Why are so few young people getting baptized? I have conducted no surveys, so I can only speculate. But here a few possible factors that come to my mind:

  • The current zeitgeist is that institutions cannot be trusted. This is true of all institutions: government, political parties, schools, the medical establishment, the media establishment, and churches.
  • Religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, is under attack as anti-science, anti-reason, and anti-tolerance.
  • Faith in Jesus as the “only way” to a right relationship with God is viewed as unfair and preposterous.

Is there anything we can or should do to enhance the faith formation of our youth, making baptism a more meaningful and desired outcome? I think so:

  • Produce an appropriate baptism curriculum for youth. I have pastored in the Mennonite Church for decades, and I’m still waiting for our publishing house to come out with a decent youth baptism curriculum. Our denomination has either relied on woefully out-of-date material, or had no material at all, or relied on material that was not truly geared for youth. As a result, I have had to create and rework my own curriculum throughout all the years of my ministry. (There is now a youth curriculum for studying the “Confession of Faith” which I have not yet reviewed, though I cannot imagine my youth class wading through that document.)
  • Develop an appropriate Mennonite-style “Christian apologetic.” Rather than relying on merely explaining (or enacting) the Christian faith, we also need to proactively argue for it in a convincing way. Conservative evangelical Christian colleges frequently offer courses in Christian apologetics. Mennonite colleges (of which I am familiar) do not. This is likely because we have an aversion to arguing for our own faith (we’d rather let our actions speak for themselves), and we reject a rationalist (and often fundamentalist) approach to faith presupposed by much of evangelical apologetics. But just because others are doing it badly doesn’t mean it ought not to be done. In particular, we need to make a convincing case that the philosophy of materialism (only what is empirically observable is real) is inadequate and myopic. Until we can win–or at least come to a draw–in this philosophical battle, the Christian faith will continue to decline in Western culture. And this debate must begin in the teen years before philosophical presuppositions get fixed. I would suggest a conviction in the equal value of all humans as a basis for theism and a beginning point in undermining materialism.
  • Create a new confession of faith that is much shorter and simpler than the one we use now. Centered on following Jesus rather than affirming propositions about Jesus as the basis of faith, it could thus fold faith and love together completely, resolving the contentious issue of salvation being only for those who make a particular Christian confession. Such a confession of faith does not need to replace the one we have but may serve as an updated supplement that is more accessible and attractive to youth and newcomers.

Even if we do all of these things, I would guess we will still see few youth baptisms in the years ahead. We are caught in a cultural current and we will need to wait for it to play itself out. But in the meantime, we need to keep the candle burning, and we can be laying the groundwork for a redefining and resurgence of the Christian faith.

It could also be argued that baptism doesn’t really matter–it’s only a ritual. What really matters is what God’s Spirit is doing inside our youth and the kinds of lives they will live as a result. That is partly true. The Quakers, for instance, make no use of baptism or communion rituals at all. But a rejection of ritual is an embrace of rationalism, and the Christian faith is ultimately much deeper than rationalism. These are not “only” rituals. These are embodiments that root faith. I’m convinced that more emphasis on ritual will be our future. But it may be that baptism will be more suited to those in their twenties, or even thirties, than those in their teens.

I Am A Racist

Recently Liam Neeson revealed that when he was in his twenties, a friend of his was raped. He asked her what color the rapist was, and when she said he was black, Neeson was filled with rage and spent the next week walking various streets hoping that some “black bastard” would “have a go” at him so that he could kill the person. Now, nearly forty years later, he feels ashamed and says, “I am not a racist.”

This response reminded me of a controversy from 2006 in which comedian Michael Richards was heckled by a black man during a stand-up comedy routine, and Richards responded by calling the man the n-word and then made crude comments about lynching and Jim Crow. Richards later said, “I am not a racist.”

“I am not a racist” has become the frequent and predictable response from a wide range of people–from a black student at Dickinson College last week to the President of the United States–who have made derogatory comments about people of another race. People keep insisting “I am not a racist” because being a racist is, at this point in time in our society, the unpardonable sin.

Well let me make a confession: I am a racist.

I discovered I was a racist when I was twenty-five. Someone told me that a woman had been stabbed to death at a local restaurant. I was horrified. Then the person added, “She was black”–and my sense of outrage decreased. I was stunned by my own emotional response. Up until that moment, I had not realized that black lives mattered less to me than white lives.

Disturbed by this discovery, I took various steps to address my racial attitudes. I decided to live in multiracial or predominantly black neighborhoods; I sent my kids to schools where they were in the racial minority; I chose racial diversity in the people I hired to work with me (and replace me); I read books and watched movies from black, Asian and Latinx perspectives; I engaged in racial dialogue programs; I promoted racial justice in my public writings. I have been doing this for over thirty-five years.

And yet, I know I am still a racist.

In the 1980s I first heard racism defined as prejudice plus power. The implication was that since African Americans lack the cultural and political power of white Americans, African Americans may sometimes be prejudiced, but they are not racist. I have always found this definition of racism to be artificial, misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. All but the most helpless persons exercise power of some kind, therefore nearly everyone is capable of empowering their prejudice in some way. Furthermore, there are many communities and organizations in which African Americans exercise more power than whites do, and in those situations, my observation is that African Americans are just as prone to display racism. Many years ago I was invited to preach at a black church. When I was introduced prior to giving my sermon, the black minister told his congregation, “Now I don’t want you to hate this man for being white.” Nevertheless, the racism of white Americans is more devastating than the racism of African Americans because of the greater power whites have to exercise their prejudices.

I’m a racist. But then, I think everyone is a racist. We are all racist because we are all conscious of race; we are all aware of racial and ethnic categories, and we all carry within us conscious and unconscious assumptions, stereotypes, and attitudes about the people in each of those categories. We may make a point of treating everyone the same (a commendable thing to do), but we still harbor interior emotions that we may have little control over.

Racism is part of a broader mental and emotional phenomenon that I do not believe we can entirely escape. When a building collapses somewhere in the world, killing dozens of people, the strength of my emotional response is affected by how much I can identify with the persons involved. If the tragedy happens in India, it emotionally affects me less than if the same tragedy happens in Indiana. If the tragedy happens to people who speak French, it emotionally affects me less than if it happens to people who speak English. The more I can identify with the people involved–through a shared culture or language or race or lived experience or proximity–the more I tend to care. I don’t think this is a learned response; I assume it is a biological response that came about through human evolution.

But regardless of why this response persists in me (and, I assume, in everyone), I am still committed to minimizing its impact, and I can do so by continuing to immerse myself in other cultures and races. The more I can identify with them, the more I will care.

So let’s advance our conversation on race by all of us admitting we are racist and exploring our often hidden assumptions and stereotypes and different levels of caring. Then let us immerse ourselves in another race’s culture by living, working, playing, socializing, and reading with that race. Anglo-Americans in particular need to make a stronger commitment to do this. Minority cultures and races are already automatically immersed in the predominant white culture–and do so as a matter of survival.

This mutual immersion is happening all around us. For instance, television shows are becoming increasingly diverse in their racial and cultural depictions, and I think this is resulting in us becoming more empathetic. But there are also cultural forces that are pushing back, afraid of multiculturalism, and wishing to go back to an earlier tribalism and preeminence. Avoid attacking those who are afraid–it just makes them more afraid. Instead, just keep the immersion going.

The Bible does not address racism as such, but it is certainly aware of ethnic, cultural and religious division, and the biblical vision is for these divisions to be overcome. Perhaps the most radical words of the prophet Isaiah are these: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage'” (Isaiah 20:24-25).

Why Racial History Matters

This past week continued to be an education in Virginia’s complicated and painful cultural history. Last week Governor Northam admitted wearing blackface while in medical school. Later we learned the Attorney General wore blackface at a college party. Then came the 1980 photo from the University of Richmond’s yearbook showing a laughing African American student, drink in hand, with a noose around his neck and surrounded by other students in Klan hoods. Finally, Governor Northam, refusing to resign and saying the rest of his tenure will focus on racial equality, stirred up controversy again yesterday by referring to Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.” (Historical research from the past twenty years indicates they were slaves, not indentured servants.)

As a white person originally from Chicago who moved to Richmond five years ago, this is all puzzling and eye-opening for me. Which reinforces for me the importance of all of us learning America’s racial history in much more depth.

I find it ironic that many white Virginians want to display the Confederate flag as a symbol of pride in Southern heritage, but at the same time they do not want the public schools to spend a lot of time examining the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and lynching and systemic racial discrimination because “that was all a long time ago and all you’re doing is stirring up anger.” You can’t have it both ways: we either ignore and cover up the painful past because it’s embarrassing and we think it’s no longer relevant, or we study and remember the details of the painful past so we understand the present and have a better sense of how to move into the future. (Just this past week several students at a Virginia school dressed up in Confederate battle flags as part of “school-spirit day.”)

You can’t accuse those who wish to remove monuments celebrating the Confederacy of trying to “white-wash history” while at the same time not tell the truth of what caused the Civil War and what has been going on in our ugly racial history right up to the present. The desire to remove those monuments is not an attempt to erase history, but to stop glorifying the parts that ought rather to be mourned. (Personally, I’d rather keep some of the monuments, move some, add some, and give accurate historical context to all of them.)

Remembering the past includes examining our complicated and controversial ways of trying to deal with or exorcise the demons of racial prejudice. For instance, watch again (if you dare) Mel Brooks’s hugely popular 1974 movie Blazing Saddles. By today’s standards it is hugely offensive and would face universal condemnation. The n-word is used relentlessly by white characters. Klansmen are portrayed in comic ways. (And gays are outrageously stereotyped and used as a source of humor.) And yet, in its own day, this movie was a radical attempt to undermine racial prejudice. Its strategy was to face racial prejudice head on and make fun of it. Might this help explain why many white students in 1980s’ Virginia used blackface as a source of humor, or why an African American student in 1980 laughed for a posed picture of a Klan lynching? Was this, in its own foolish way, an attempt by the culture to exorcise the demon of prejudice by demeaning it through humor? I don’t know. I’m an outsider to this culture. But let’s first try to understand the context of these actions before automatically condemning them based on our current approaches and sensibilities.

Which is not a criticism of our current approaches and sensibilities. We’re making progress on matters of race (I think). Thank goodness we would no longer make a movie like Blazing Saddles. Thank goodness we no longer support the use of blackface or any caricaturizing of other ethnicities as a source of entertainment. Thank goodness Klan robes are not legitimate costumes for any purpose other than the accurate depiction of history. Thank goodness lynching is no longer an appropriate laugh line (despite its recent use by Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi).

Twenty years from now I think our own activities and efforts to exorcise the demons of racial prejudice will also come under attack as naive or inappropriate. We will never know for sure “the right way” to do this. Maybe there is no one right way; maybe every cultural moment needs its own approaches.

But we can never go wrong studying history. We must study and teach honest history, not ignore it, even if it makes some people uncomfortable; even if it means reigniting some old animosities. Without bringing everything to the light, the demons of prejudice and discrimination will hide in unseen gaps, like an infection that never quite goes away. Light is the best disinfectant.

 

Blackface

I was shocked and horrified when I saw the photo on Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page: one person in blackface and another hooded in a Klan costume. Governor Northam initially admitted he was one of those in the photo; later he claimed he was not in the photo but admitted he had once worn blackface to look like Michael Jackson in a dancing contest.

The 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School Yearbook contains other racist and disturbing images. One photo shows a male student in blackface impersonating Diana Ross; another shows three male students in blackface depicting black women; another shows a medical student groping a female mannequin with the words, “I try never to divulge my true feelings while examining my patients”; and another shows a man with a coffee mug that reads, “We can’t get fired! Slaves have to be sold.” Clearly, Ralph Northam attended a medical school in which racist and sexist humor were common and acceptable.

Blackface and Klan robes are not part of my cultural background. As a person who grew up in the Chicago area in the 1960s and 70s, I never encountered anyone wearing blackface, and I was unfamiliar with the history of minstrel shows and white performers using blackface. When I first saw blackface depicted in an old movie, it struck me as simply odd. Similarly, I knew nothing about the Klan until, as a teenager, I was watching a movie that depicted the Klan (rightly) as a racist terrorist group that thrived (and still exists) in the South. (When I later became a pastor in Indianapolis, I learned the Klan had once held immense political power in Indiana as well.)

So for me, it is shocking that a medical student in 1984 would have considered it appropriate entertainment to wear blackface or a Klan costume. Clearly it was not shocking to those particular students or to the yearbook editors at that time. But today Governor Northam, as well as the Eastern Virginia Medical School, are deeply apologetic and ashamed. Cultural attitudes have shifted significantly in the last three decades in Virginia.

Lest we become self-righteous in our indignation, we all ought to reflect on how our own attitudes and behaviors have changed in the last thirty-five or more years. In the late sixties, “Polak” jokes were popular among my friends. In the eighties it was lawyer jokes, and in the late nineties and early 2000s it was “dumb blond” jokes. All of this humor was based on negative–often outrageous–stereotypes, and it undermined the dignity of those represented. In the late seventies and mid-eighties I heard several black jokes whose “humor” depended on negative racial stereotypes, undermining the dignity of African Americans. I remember repeating one of those jokes when I was in college. When I think about that joke now, I am appalled.

It’s not that I was racially prejudiced then, and am not now. Rather, I was ignorant and insensitive then, and am more aware and sensitive now. I did not have an in-depth knowledge of just how awful life has been for African Americans in this country. I had no idea of the scope of indignities and prejudice and systematized unfair and unequal treatment that has persisted even to this day. But what is most disturbing to me now is not the persistence of racial prejudice in our society, but how pervasive ignorance and insensitivity continue to be among white people of goodwill.

For this to change, those in the dominant white culture are going to have to do a lot more reading about (and spending time with) the minority cultures. For instance, I recently read The Warmth of Other Suns, a history that follows several families who were part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities during the twentieth century. It was an eye-opener for me. I now have a much better understanding of the Jim Crow South, as well as the devious and destructive prejudices of the North.

We are right to be outraged and deeply disappointed by the images in Governor Northam’s yearbook. But our condemnation falls on all of us, and in a few more decades I have no doubt that society will be equally outraged by what we accept now.

I think it may be wise for Governor Northam to resign. It would be a valuable public gesture repudiating forever the ignorant racism manifested through blackface and Klan costumes a few decades ago. But ignorant insensitivity is in all of our pasts, and is in all of our present. Let us practice a bit of humility.