Past Transgressions by Esther Nelson

Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat in the state of Virginia, has many people calling for his resignation after a picture from a 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced showing what some people assert to be Northam wearing blackface or a KKK costume.  (Northam insists he is neither one of the people in the photograph and he, as I write this, vows to fulfill his term in office.) This is a link to the recent firestorm along with other people in the public eye who have been censored due to their racial insensitivity. 

Recently I posted an essay on this blog (FAR) titled, “All Are Welcome—Even Tom.”  One of the broad questions I raise in the piece dealing with sexual assault surrounds our shared human dignity.  “If we are all one (as many people assert), do we not hurt and diminish our own selves when we seek revenge or become embittered instead of practicing compassion towards both parties—the one who has inflicted an injury as well as the one who has been injured? [Here is the link].

Of course, “digging up dirt” against a political opponent or seeking revenge after a sexual assault has been inflicted is nothing new.  What I’m observing these days, though, is an intolerance in much of the public arena for any deviant (or even questionable) behavior no matter what the alleged perpetrator has to say.  “Off with their head!” Which seems so strange, on the one hand, given our current president’s crude, insensitive behavior and disparaging remarks towards women and immigrants. How is it that some people get a free pass?   

I did send a copy of my essay, “All Are Welcome—Even Tom,” to Xolani Kacela, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces.  This is his reply:

“Thanks for the inquiry. I read the blogpost and appreciate the questions raised. I also passed it along to Dr. Packard for his awareness and to our board president.

Our congregation follows “Safe Congregation” policies and best practices that are based on UUA guidelines. As appropriate, we strive for transparency and discuss such policies with persons with difficult pasts that seek membership and participation in our community. I personally emphasize treating all persons respectfully and with love. Of course, it is on the persons with the troubled pasts to seek account for their actions and make amends.”

I think there is something positive and forward-looking to the minister’s sentence, “…it is on the persons with the troubled pasts to seek account for their actions and make amends.”  In today’s climate, we don’t seem to allow for reflection, restoration, and ultimate redemption.

Who of us is not guilty of past behavior that we are now ashamed of and sorry about?  All of us swim in polluted waters, absorbing a good deal of filth from our particular environments.  It’s difficult at times to see (or imagine) that our swimming area is not pristine. But sometimes we DO see and learn.  And learning is a process that usually takes time.

I grew up immersed in Bible stories.  The story of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida became meaningful to me at an early age.  “Then He came to Bethsaida, and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town.  And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, ‘I see men like trees, walking.’ Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up.  And he was restored and saw everyone clearly” (Mark 8: 22-25).

“I see men like trees, walking” is an apt metaphor demonstrating that seeing with 20/20 vision doesn’t happen all at once.  A White person in America with its history of slavery and Jim Crow legislation swims in racist waters. Those particular waters seem “right.”  In other words, White people in America are complicit with structured and institutionalized racism. There’s little reason to think about the entitlement and privilege of White lives within the racist social system that uplifts White people while denigrating Black people.   Jamelle Bouie (New York Times, 2/5/19) wrote: “American society is still structured by color. Your health, your wealth — your ability to live and act freely — still turns to a large degree on whether you were born white.”  

Some White people have come to understand their privilege, however, that always involves a process.  When one does eventually “see,” must past transgressions continue to define who one has become?

The same principle works when we speak of men and sexism.  Our social system—patriarchy—gives greater privilege and entitlement to men than it does to women.  It’s “normal” for men to grow up sexist because the waters where we swim are infested with patriarchy where men feel entitled to help themselves to women’s bodies as well as their labor.  Some men do gradually learn to “see” their sexism and transform, but it is something men have to learn.

Interesting to me is that people seem much more likely to “see” and understand the effects and ramifications of racism than sexism—at least, that’s been my experience.

Muddying the waters is the fact that both Black people and women swim in the polluted waters of patriarchy.  It’s not uncommon to find Black people who have internalized self-hatred based on their race just like it’s not uncommon to find women who have internalized self-hatred based on their sex.  Racism and sexism are widespread, but people can (and do) learn to clean up the waters where they swim.

Treating everybody with respect and love as the minister, Xolani Kacela, wrote in his letter to me is a lovely and noble undertaking.  The question that raises with me is: What does love and respect look like when people have transgressed—gone outside accepted boundaries?  


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Categories: abuse, Racism, Redemption, Reform, Sexism

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14 replies

  1. Esther, what a brilliant and timely post… for all of us who know the muddy waters… thank you, and bless you.


  2. Thanks for this post. There is no doubt that most white people have done, said, or looked away from racist acts.

    I also agree with you that in liberal contexts people are more willing to see racist acts as racist than sexist acts as sexist. I think of male friends” of mine who dressed up in women’s clothes for carnival in Greece. Is this funny? Not to me. Nor are the black face “arapis” representing Turkish or Arab overlords OK.

    I am not so thrilled with your minister’s response. “Of course, it is on the persons with the troubled pasts to seek account for their actions and make amends.”

    What does this mean in the context of your church–that women who have been abused have to wait for Tom to tell the congregation that he lied to them or to the court and even if he did so to accept his apology with even if it is not sincere or implies no obligation for reparations?

    And for the 3 Virginians? Are we supposed to wait for them to make amends?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Carol, for your thoughtful contribution to the current conversation. I also was “underwhelmed” with the minister’s response mainly because it seemed vague and amorphous. I’m not sure how the Tom saga (church context) and the three Virginians (Northam, Fairfax, and Herring in government context) go forward in order for us to obtain justice all the way around. No doubt there’s a “messiness” to living life given our human foibles and fallibilities. But, am looking for a positive way forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have such mixed feelings on this topic! I think just about everybody has awful things in their past, but if everybody has a shameful past, what can anybody do in the present? Part of me wants to, as the saying goes, “forgive and forget.” But how can the KKK or the Red Shirts or the Jim Crow laws be forgotten? What is forgiveable about a lynching or colonialism or other racist crimes? Black lives really do matter. So do other lives, from monarch butterflies to whales to coyotes and wolves, and our forests, too. And when can rape or other sexual assault be forgiven? I’d love to see a positive way forward.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Barbara, I so agree with you when you write about the value of all living things. What I would like to see “unpacked” (if you will) is that phrase that so often gets tossed around–“forgive and forget.” What does it mean to forgive? There are dozens and dozens of books on the topic–some better than others. Forgiveness has its complexities. And how is it possible to forget the many atrocities human beings have inflicted on one another? You mention some of them. And, if it is as you say that “if everybody has a shameful past, what can anybody do in the present?” what CAN be done and where DO we go? That’s what I’m asking. We need to imagine a just way forward and think/work it into existence. Thank you for commenting.


  6. Esther… as you say, we all have been immersed in muddy waters… and it is necessary for each and every one of us to reflect upon what we have done, and to become accountable.

    “In today’s climate, we don’t seem to allow for reflection, restoration, and ultimate redemption.’

    Well some of us do… I hold myself accountable for what I have done either with or without awareness… There are some mistakes we simply have to live with – the consequences of our actions speaking for themselves. I see no place for “ultimate redemption” in this conversation. But, I am aware that this is simply my opinion too.


    • Thank you so much, Sara, for commenting. I want to believe we can all hold ourselves accountable for past transgressions and at the same time move forward in the world enjoying it as well as contributing to it. What I’ve noticed is that once somebody (often in the public eye) gets “called out” for past indiscretions, their life diminishes immediately no matter what they have to say about themselves, their intentions, etc. It seems like such a waste to me.


  7. Esther, thank you as always for a thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I have been pondering off and on throughout a hectic day. Nothing to add to the conversation yet. Just wanted to say thank you.


  8. I echo everything everyone else has said, but wanted to say thank you for asking the question. I, too, have wondered how we deal with the fact that we (as you so rightly stated) “swim in the polluted waters of patriarchy.” I hope we keep talking about it.


  9. I remember as a kid, thinking it was funny to let the air out of car tires. Who is free of stupid, cruel acts, committed decades ago, or even later? What bothers me about these acts being publicized now, after 10-20-30 years, is that they absorb attention and action away from the sins of today. All this publicity and upset takes attention away from the present reality of US bombs killing people, including children, in other Countries. Of US support for civilians being shot in Palestine. Of families being separated at the US southern border and again, children dying or being “lost”. Of a President who calls people “animals”, charges refugees with drug dealing, violence, etc. Police shooting and killing people whose only crime seems to be not having White skin. Will it take 20 years before Trump and his minions are brought to justice? A stupid college kid dressing up in blackface or as kkk decades ago is reprehensible, but I wonder if it is being used to distract people from present atrocities.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks, Barbara. I think the world of politics in government is full of twists and turns and impossible to follow accurately. How can DT be “caught on tape” disparaging women and still get elected president? Why is it that Ralph Northam has an old yearbook picture surface which may or may not be him (although he DID admit to wearing blackface and doing the moonwalk at another time) and the proverbial sh** hits the fan? Perhaps he’s learned something from DT–going forward (refusing to resign) in spite of it all. I’m sure we don’t know all what goes on in back rooms except that yes, things DO go on in back rooms. It’s why I find politics so exhausting and frustrating and so tend to focus my energies elsewhere. Appreciate your comment.

    Liked by 1 person

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