Forgiveness & the Flag

Hearing the names of the nine victims in Charleston read at Mass on Sunday, it was hard not to hear as well the statements of forgiveness from their survivors made at last Friday’s bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you” – the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance – became the headline of Saturday’s print edition of The New York Times, but it’s the clips of Collier and others in court that truly convey the power of the moment, the grace of those whose loved ones were taken. It’s impossible not to be moved, or even awed—as a number of pundits admitted to being when the footage was aired.

Inevitably, much has been written and said about “forgiveness” in the days since, some of it by Cornell West. In an appearance Monday on New York public radio he called the survivors’ statements of forgiveness, and the favorable response to them, “bad theology.” The forgiveness, he said, “is premature… We have to put love at the center of this but forgiveness is something that comes further down the line… [This] has remnants of the niggerized Christianity that has been operating in the history of the black church….” Of course, provocation is West’s main mode. But his co-guest on the segment, Amy Butler of Riverside Church, allowed that he was getting at something important. The survivors’ words of forgiveness, she said, “are deeply moving but they call us to something deeper, and they remind us of a sin in our country that cannot be ignored anymore… [A] voice of remorse also needs to come from a system and a nation….”

The possibility of forgiveness from family members is one issue; the possibility (if not the likelihood) of its appropriation and use as absolution from any further responsibility for or concern with the underlying causes of the attack is another.

It may be a little too tempting and too easy to see in the survivors’ statements a way out for the rest of us, a way to avoid, if not evade, confrontation with the real and persisting questions concerning race in this country. Jamelle Bouie of Slate has already invoked Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace” in warning about this. “Evasion” is just the word E. J. Dionne uses in his most recent column, in warning of the tendency in this country to talk about an issue long enough—with calls for “probing dialogues” and “national conversations”—until it goes away, or for not answering a question put directly to you; better that than risk being criticized for “politicizing a tragedy.” See also the circumspection of presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio regarding South Carolina’s flying of the Confederate flag.

“Evasion” is the word that comes to mind too in reading South Carolina Governor Nikki Halley’s statement on Monday calling for the removal of the flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia. Just how direct was she really, in confronting those who would prefer a symbol of racial hatred remain flying on government property, when so many not-so-hard-to-decode signals of reassurance were embedded in her statement?

For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. … The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters of Charleston had a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty....  I want to make two things very clear. First, this is South Carolina’s state house. It is South Carolina’s historic moment. And this will be South Carolina’s decision.

Jeb Lund, writing in The Guardian, calls the statement not courageous but merely political --“a message of healing for the Running-for-President-as-a-Republican community.”

Cheap grace, evasion, or dog whistles -- all seem to be manifestations of something James Baldwin identified more than fifty years ago in “Down at the Cross (Letter from a Region in My Mind)” – an essential lack of self-knowledge among those who possess power in America:

It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

When there’s “astonishment” at the ability to forgive, relief that absolution been granted, praise (and self-congratulation) for the call to remove a symbol so painful to so many black Americans – even as legislative action is still needed to effect it – then has that labyrinth of attitudes been dismantled? Is the voice of remorse that Amy Butler seeks any more imminent?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author
Interregnum report, March 7

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