- - Monday, July 27, 2015

There is reason behind the fact that some hate groups in Europe where the swastika has been banned use the Confederate flag as a rallying symbol. They have an underlying shared value: white supremacy, buttress of our country’s own original sin.

It is easy to say of any flag, “It’s only a symbol; it’s what’s in your heart that matters.” But symbols do matter. Symbols awaken responses of fear, loyalty, love, passion that can immediately stop thought, and not only in the ignorant and unthinking. After all, you, as a sophisticated reader, can probably think of at least one symbol that can bring tears to your eyes. A flag? A cross? A flaming cross? A Star of David? A star and crescent? It is likely that most of us don’t stop to analyze our feelings at such a moment, however. It’s more likely that people, especially in large groups, can be roused to action for good or evil by emotion that wells up at the sight of a symbol.

Can we dig way beneath the many surfaces of the tragedy of June 17 at the Bible study session in the basement of a famous church in Charleston, South Carolina? Taking down that flag is a starting point. Can we, for the purpose of this discussion, put aside romantic myth, tearful remembrances of all the sacrifice of blood and tradition in its cause, pride in what became known as history and stare point-blank at our country’s original sin? Can we agree for the purpose of this discussion that taking it down does matter? Unless we do, and unless we focus honestly on the way we keep whitewashing history in our country, the “Amazing Grace” of the murdered ones’ survivors loses its meaning.

It is so easy to keep shifting the conversation. As soon as it begins, the focus is blurred or forgotten: But the conflict was really about states’ rights! Economic interests! More sensitive souls will downplay some “attractive” aspects that might have been deemed worth fighting for: A gracious way of life. Happy servants, some even living in the house and beloved by their masters. Tradition. The original sin is obscured, justified (even, horrifically, in churches), glossed over, forgotten.

Or the conversation will shift, instead, to all the other sins of which we, as Americans, are guilty. Or never can say we’re guilty. Or think we’re guilty. Let’s talk, instead, about Manifest Destiny, modern wars, politics, the American Dream, my country right or wrong, immigration or “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way I did?” There always seems to be an excellent reason for getting off the point of that original sin.

To the astonishment of most of public who were aware of the tragedy in Charleston, instead of rioting, acts of violence, and screams for blood and revenge, the murderer’s immediate arrest was met by near silence followed by words of prayer, gratitude for the victims’ lives and forgiveness. Most were stunned into silence by the stark contrast of the victims, people joined together in midweek Bible study and worship, welcoming a stranger, and the stranger himself, able to accept the group’s welcome, to look into their faces, hear their words as they sought to enrich their spirits before killing each one.

The forgiveness is the grace. The lesson the families teach us is the grace. The realization that the surviving families can acknowledge the hatred that drove the murderer and the ideas, influences, garbled notions of history, and, yes, the symbols that stirred him and incited his need to kill and then to forgive him stops us in our tracks. Their forgiveness is a deeply Christian act, which one need not be a Christian to appreciate. The deepest truths come in many shapes and forms.

One needn’t be Catholic to recognize words of wisdom from Pope Francis or a Baptist to hear the voice of Martin Luther King, or a Hindu to recognize Gandhi’s truths. Nor do the human flaws of any of the wise people among us obscure their message. Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, could “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And James Newton was a slave-trader before he wrote “Amazing Grace.”

Obfuscating the underlying meaning of the Confederate flag (its designer, William Thompson explained the white in the flag as emblematic of “the heaven ordained supremacy over the inferior or colored race”) is the same as lying, intentionally or not. Adopting textbooks, as is done in Texas, that downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War and omit mention of Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan, is depriving generations of the information they need to truly understand our history. The way history is told by deniers gives new meaning to the term “whitewash” and cheats our children. Knowing the reality is knowing which parts we can be proud of and enable us to take pride in how far we have come.

Grace! Can we know it, earn it, practice it if we don’t know what we are forgiving or for what we ask forgiveness? The Charleston families, by their examples, show us grace. The banishment of a symbol is an important piece of a beginning of understanding.

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