What We’re Missing in the Ralph Northam Scandal

Virginia State Capitol building

The scandals around Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam are, of course, virtually everywhere in the media atmospheres around us. The governor first sparked alarm with his comments on late-term abortion/infanticide, arguing that a born-alive infant would be “kept comfortable” while the doctors and family decided next steps. Then, reporters found a yearbook from his medical school with Northam depicted either in blackface or as a Ku Klux Klansman. Many—on both the political Right and the political Left—are calling on the governor to resign. I agree with that call. Still, we shouldn’t let this moment pass by without sensing the underlying crisis. Abortion culture and racial injustice are not two separate impulses. They are one.

Both seek to make invisible the vulnerable neighbor one’s group wishes to sacrifice for their own ends. Both use a spectrum of ways to get around the human conscience, which, when functioning, would recoil at smothering a baby on a table or lynching an African-American man. At one spectrum, there’s making the inconvenient neighbor invisible through euphemism. We can speak of “choice,” without speaking of what’s being chosen. We can speak of terminating “pregnancies” without asking, “pregnant with what?” We can act as though we don’t understand what’s being said when people use racist themes and memes and sometimes even flags in order to use racism without being directly implicated in it.

And then, there are times when both aspects of this impulse are working with consciences seared enough to be direct. Gov. Northam in his comments about late-term abortion didn’t speak of clumps of cells or of embryos or fetuses but of “infants.” Earlier, when New York passed a law similarly removing all protections from late-term infants between womb and the air outside the birth canal lawmakers cheered their legislation, and the governor lit up a building in celebration. Likewise, often on questions of racial injustice the euphemisms are often unveiled directly, with, for instance, the white supremacists and Nazis marching with Tiki torches through Charlottesville.

Both of these aspects are rooted in the counter-Christ idolatry that sees human dignity and lives worth living defined by power. And that power is always defined by those who have power. This is the spirit of Cain (1 Jn. 3:11-15). When we encounter this spirit, we should call it what it is. We shouldn’t look around to see if the crowd around us will give us permission to serve the vulnerable neighbor before us, whether that neighbor is unborn, elderly, poor, racially oppressed, sexually assaulted, an immigrant, a refugee.

The tribal permission-seeking can be seen whenever racial injustice is mentioned—in terms of personal attitudes or structural systems—and those with racially uneasy consciences say, “Well, what about abortion? That’s a bigger issue.” It can also be seen when others, with equally uneasy consciences, speak directly and rightly to issues of helping children but then suddenly go quiet when the child is surrounded in amniotic fluid. We speak coherently on one set of issues, defined as “safe” by our “tribe,” and go silent on those that don’t. When questions come out about the issues one’s “side” doesn’t want to address, even when those are rooted in the very issues of human dignity and solidarity being trumpeted by that side, one is told not to “distract” from the main issue. That, being interpreted, is the message “Don’t go outside the lines the crowd around you has set because it will upset our political or social or economic interests.” That itself is a manifestation of the power-as-dignity idolatry. Both are of the reign of death.

For those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, his lordship means that we don’t pick and choose who what he defines as justice. We don’t get to tell him what “neighbor” or “person” or “relevant issue” means. His voice says “Come, follow me.” He doesn’t adjust his definition of justice to our ideological “tribes,” especially as they seek to make invisible whatever image-bearers are inconvenient to their movements.

Abortion and racial injustice are alike an affront to human dignity, and to the image of God. We should say so, in every context, whether favorable to “our side” or not, because our lives are lived not by the approval of the crowd but before the face of God.

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Originally published February 04, 2019.