As I read news reports this week about past conduct in which Gov. Bill Lee and Rep. David Byrd had engaged, my mind recalled something I witnessed a couple of weeks ago for only the second time in my life. That combination changed what I was going to write today about Tennessee’s attorney general, Herbert Slatery, and an opinion he issued last week.
Yesterday, The Tennessean ran a story about Gov. Lee’s participation 40-plus years ago in a college fraternity that hosted “Old South parties” and showed a picture of him in a Confederate uniform. Rep. Byrd remained in the news this week because he did at least something with a female minor 35 years ago about which he’s still haunted and for which he said he’d sought God’s forgiveness.
At the end of last week, Attorney General Slatery, a Republican, issued an opinion about how a statute should be interpreted. I strongly disagree with his analysis in a number of significant respects.
Nothing about the first two situations is unique to Republicans. Virginia’s governor has been accused of racism and Sen. Corey Booker has admitted to inappropriate sexual activity with a minor while he was a minor. And I have sure had sharp disagreements with opinions issued by Attorney General Slatery’s predecessors who were Democrats.
So, my comments should be understood to apply to all of these situations regardless of party affiliation.
Moreover, and most importantly, they apply to everyone reading this, including me. That’s because all of us, like Gov. Lee and Rep. Byrd, have done things, maybe as recently as this morning, that in hindsight we deeply regret. Most likely we’ve done some things in our past about which we would now be ashamed if they were on the front page of The Tennessean. No doubt, we’ve all expressed an opinion about which we’d now be embarrassed if its folly had been publicly exposed for all to see after being trumpeted by media outlets across the state.
But, when these things come out, we can’t just say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and wink at what’s been done, particularly when we’re speaking of public officials, no matter how long ago. So what do we do?
Two Similar Situations With Different Results
That’s what brings me to the two situations I’ve witnessed within the church during the last twenty years. In both situations, individual members of the church had engaged in actions that were clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
In one situation, the individuals acknowledged their actions and repented of them when approached privately and confidentially by the minister. They submitted to a lengthy discipleship and accountability relationship with some of the church’s elders. In time, healing and restoration took place. Few in the church even knew what happened because the goal was not to bring reproach upon them, but restoration.
The other situation came to my attention more recently. Year-long attempts by pastors and elders to have a person address actions contrary to Scripture were to no avail, so the pastors and elders told the congregation that a person had been removed from the church’s membership and would be excluded from taking communion should he or she attend the service.
No name was mentioned, because, again, their goal was not to bring reproach upon the person, but restoration. Breaking fellowship and exclusion from communion are called for in Scripture in order that the person might take seriously what he or she is doing, repent, and be brought back into a right relationship with God. Though punitive in a sense, its fundamental purpose is restoration.
Applying These Two Situations to Politics
These two instances are foreign to the world in general and to the world of politics in particular. In my experience, when we’ve never taken seriously just how far short we fall of the moral perfection of God and how correspondingly amazing the grace of a God who offers restoration is, we don’t know how to extend grace to others.
I suspect that may explain why some seem to take delight in looking for and bringing up things from 30 and 40 years ago and then go around asking what people think, implying (if not outright saying) people who have done “that” aren’t fit to hold office.
Oh, I can hear the voices now saying, “Sure, people can change, but that doesn’t mean they should hold office now.” And in that statement, I would submit that their lack of grace and understanding of grace is made manifest.
I suspect they would demand that God forget what they did decades ago (and even perhaps this morning), because it would be unjust and unloving of God if He did not do so, forgetting that they are doing to others exactly what they would indict and impugn God for doing.
Applying These Situations to Attorney General Slatery
I know what I am talking about, because I have had a woefully inadequate comprehension of both sin and God’s grace most of my Christian life, and even now that lack of comprehension raises its ugly head when I’m seriously wronged or someone does something I think is seriously wrong.
For example, I really wanted to rip into Attorney General Slatery and, to be honest, write in such a way as to intentionally make him look incompetent in your eyes for ulterior reasons that were mostly, if not entirely, political. But that’s what the world of politics would have me do; you know the saying, It’s nothing personal, it’s just politics.
However, God has a different, higher standard. He expects more from me, and as I’ve come to better understand God’s grace toward me, both my head and my heart increasingly want to give Him that more. So, I needed to hold off and rethink my goal in commenting on Attorney General Slatery’s opinion.
The Consequences of Graceless Politics
I close with the words of the Apostle Paul that prompted the change in my topic for today:
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another’ (Galatians 5:14-15 NKJV).
It seems to me that searching out a person’s distant past to make it current news or writing commentaries intended to tear down a person for the sake of political or partisan gain, particularly one who is clearly not what they once were, is pushing us toward a cultural cannibalism that will consume us all.
May God grant me the grace to push away from the table.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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