By now, the entire country has taken in the tragic events at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. And most, if not all, have been deeply moved by the incredible strength and grace with which the Charleston community has responded.
For me, it has been terribly surreal. To be so far from my home state, to see it so stricken by tragedy, and to watch it rise up in such an overwhelming show of solidarity.
The circumstances of last Thursday’s attack have spurred a number of reactions in me, most of them muddled, confused, and overlapping.
It’s partly because it happened in church — an environment that defined most of my childhood, and which I’m slowly reacquainting myself with as an adult. And it’s partly because it involves the very real menace of white supremacist thought — the sort of which also defined a good deal of my childhood.
Because the killer’s motives were so clearly rooted in racial hatred, the country’s focus has quickly moved to the myriad sources of that hatred, both substantive and symbolic.
In the latter case, there’s been a renewed awareness of the Confederate Battle Flag and its presence on the South Carolina State House grounds. That flag has a long, complicated history with the SC State House, and I’m not fully equipped at the moment to give a full recounting. But it reached a new peak today as Gov. Nikki Haley — flanked by prominent members of the state’s Congressional delegation and others — declared, clearly and unequivocally, that the flag should come down.
In no time, the Internet has exploded with reasons why the governor is all but re-surrendering at Appamattox Courthouse. The usual refrains — “It’s Heritage, not Hate!” — are all there, and they’re just as unconvincing as before.
I say “before”, because I’ve already seen this movie. In fact, I was an extra.
Tensions over the battle flag erupted in the mid-1990’s when then-governor David Beasley surprised his Republican supporters by declaring that the flag — which at that point had flown, along with the US and state flags, atop the capitol dome — needed to go.
There were protests. Acrimonious debates. Rallies upon rallies upon rallies — several of which I attended with my grandfather. I would stand there at the State House, my own small Confederate Battle Flag in hand, as I listened to one speaker after another extol the virtues of Southern heritage and decry the governor’s duplicity (he had campaigned on support for the flag… not surprisingly, he did not win re-election in 1998).
I was an ardent Confederate apologist in those days. Largely under the influence of my grandfather, I took every opportunity to assert my identity as a proud, white Southerner. I embraced the doctrine of states’ rights (which is what the Civil War… ahem, war of Northern Aggression… was really about). I regularly pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t really freed anyone. I believed, deep down, that slavery had, in the end, been beneficial for Africans — it not only provided them a greater degree of civilization than anything they’d enjoyed in their primitive native land, it also, more importantly, exposed them to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ironically, at this same point in my life, I was also an ardent evangelical Christian. I was the kid carrying his Bible from class to class, and never missing a chance to quote a Bible verse or two (often in judgment of someone else’s behavior). Raised in the “born-again” tradition, I knew it was my mission to “save” as many of my lost friends as I could — to bring them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so that they would not know the torment of an eternity in hell. Every moment of every day was an opportunity to “witness” — to display, through words and actions, the deep, profound change that my own relationship with Jesus had wrought in my life. Ultimately, with faith and persistence, my witness would spur others to want to know this Jesus as well.
Witnessing was a vital aspect of mine and my peers’ experience as young Christians. It wasn’t just about being prepared to give testimony — that is, share our own personal conversion story — though that was certainly a part of it. But being a witness also meant monitoring our behavior. Did we cuss? Did we drink? Did we guard our sexual purity strongly enough? Essentially, were we engaging in the same sort of activities as those who were not “saved”, or were we living lives set apart.
Many times, when tempted to act counter to our faith, we’d say to ourselves — “What kind of witness is that?”
I bring this up because I know — from experience, more than anything — that the vast majority of Southerners defending the Confederate battle flag’s place at the State House are also professed Christians. In fact, the handful of folks voicing support for the flag on my Facebook feed are mostly guys that I grew up with, attended Sunday School with, and was baptized with.
They defend the flag as a symbol of their Southern heritage, as a tribute to the fact that they are — as the saying goes — American by birth, and Southern by the grace of God.
At the same time, there are so many of their fellow Southerners — black Southerners primarily, also mostly Christian — who see in that flag a brutal history of violence, enslavement, and systemic oppression. To see the flag officially sanctioned, flown in a position of honor on public ground, brings them only anguish.
They keep saying, again and again: “This is hurtful to me.”
But the flag’s supporters are effectively saying in response: “That’s too bad. My pride is more important than your pain.”
And I have to ask — “What kind of witness is that?”