“The slaughter at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has reignited the debate over the state’s flying of the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the capitol. It’s an old debate, but this tragedy offers a new way to look at it — through the lens of Christian values.
The man charged with killing nine black worshipers is a white youth who has been pictured wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. Another picture shows the 21-year-old, who told friends of his racist beliefs, sitting on a car with a vanity license plate depicting Confederate flags. The racial nature of the attack demands a united response from people of every creed, but its location — and the church’s long connection to the civil rights movement — demands an especially strong response from white Christians.
South Carolina is one of the most Christian states in the country: More than three of every four state residents identify as Christian, and only five other states have higher rates of weekly church attendance. If any good is to come of this tragedy, it is unlikely to be new legislation making it harder for dangerous people to acquire guns. While that is worth fighting for, a more modest hope is that white Christians will see the anguish and ask: What does our faith call us to do?
It does not require a theology degree to recognize that Christian teaching suggests more than just prayer for the victims and condemnation of the act are warranted. The shootings are also an opportunity to demonstrate neighborly love through action, as Jesus taught and lived. Christians are called to place the needs of others, particularly the poor and powerless, above their own: to bind up wounds, comfort the suffering and approach others with humility.
If white Christians in South Carolina are looking for a way to live out their faith during this time of mourning — if they want to offer an expression of selfless Christian love that goes beyond words — they could remove a long-standing source of pain in the African-American community, and one that is implicated in this atrocity: the Confederate flag that flies in front of the statehouse. Not as an admission of defeat, or even a sign of cultural retreat. The flag should come down as act of Christian kindness.
No Confederate flags were displayed on the capitol grounds for nearly a century, but in 1961, the battle flag reappeared to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War, while also serving as a symbol of state government’s opposition to the civil rights movement. A year later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the A.M.E. Church in Charleston. Much has changed since then, but old hatreds linger — even among those, like the A.M.E. shooter, born in the 1990s.
Today, those who believe that the Confederate flag stands for Southern honor and nobility, not racism, need not cede their case. They need only acknowledge that that the African-American community’s discomfort with that flag is understandable and, in the wake of this tragedy, likely to grow. They need only put the pain of others ahead of their own pride.
Christianity’s call to act with unselfish and humble compassion toward strangers is often a struggle against human nature. Usually human nature wins, and what’s true for ordinary mortals is doubly true for elected officials, who must answer to us. South Carolina Senator and Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham has admirably expressed openness to revisiting the debate over the flag. Plenty of others will resist, arguing that the flag did not cause the tragedy. They’re right about that. But for many, every day that it flies is a reminder of the hatred that did.
Elected officials shouldn’t let religion dictate their position on laws. But when a heinous crime occurs in a church that has been a citadel for African-American emancipation and equality, it shouldn’t be too much to ask of one of the most Christian states in the nation to offer a response that reflects charity and humility.”