The news that the legislature in my native state has voted to haul down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the legislature caps one of the most consequential months in South Carolina’s history in a very long time. When I was born in Columbia back in 1952, every child in the state by law had to have his or her race identified on the birth certificate; that classification was intended to follow you for the rest of your life, determining where you went to school, what neighborhoods you could live in, what restaurants and hotels you could visit, what jobs you could have—even what bathrooms and water fountains you could use.
When you went to sporting events in those days, the bands were ecumenical. They played both the Star Spangled Banner and Dixie; people stood, hands on hearts, for both. This was progress. In my grandfather’s day only one of those anthems would have been played.
This week, South Carolina takes another long step away from a shadowed past. The Confederate flag, which means many things to many people but has a long association with segregationist ideas and Jim Crow laws, will be coming down. Like most symbolic actions, this ratifies a change that has already taken place. South Carolina’s citizens had moved on from Jim Crow long ago. If Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner had heard that a black Republican senator and a nonwhite female Republican governor played key roles in the movement to disestablish the Confederate emblem they would have sung hosannahs to the Lord.
That today’s Republican Party in South Carolina mostly represents the white majority who once voted Dixiecrat and Democrat makes the change more consequential, not less. South Carolina Republicans may not be the NAACP’s favorite American political organization, and the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still hang heavily over the state, but my native state has turned an important page.
My father remembers a moment when he first believed that things could really change there. He was at a football game between the University of South Carolina and Clemson soon after African-Americans were first allowed to compete in varsity sports at these previously segregated schools. When two of the black Clemson players teamed up to deliver a particularly hard and effective hit to a black South Carolina linebacker, my father heard one of the white fans in the row in front of him say to his friends, “Damn! Look at what those (N-word)s did to our colored boy!”
Maybe not the greatest moment in racial brotherhood in modern times, but in that time and in that place it was a sign that at least some South Carolinians were developing the ability to look past the color line to see individual differences, however faintly.
Now things have come much, much farther. Those good old boys in the football stands probably voted both for Tim Scott and for Niki Hailey. It wouldn’t be surprising if one or both of them supports Ben Carson for the GOP nomination. The color line hasn’t faded away, but where I come from anyway, it ain’t what it used to be.
The flag story, of course, started with a massacre. I was in Berlin last month to speak at a conference sponsored by the Heinrich Boell Foundation when the murders took place. They put us up at the Albrechtshof, a small Berlin hotel that served as a kind of Christian refuge during the GDR times. Martin Luther King stayed there on his visit to East Germany and the lobby has photographs of the civil rights leader taken during his stay. It was a good place to be as the news from Charleston gradually sank in; it was a reminder that the contributions of African American Christianity and the black church to this world are so much greater and more important than vicious eruptions of hate like the one that led poor Dylann Roof to his terrible crime.
It was also a good time to be out of the United States for a few days, to watch the media frenzy from a distance and to reflect on the continuing American tragedy of racial hate and political violence. Race, violence, and religion don’t bring out the best in our national discourse. Facebook, Twitter, and much of the regular media seemed even more shrill and contentious than usual as Left and Right tried to turn the massacre to political account. I was glad to have some time to walk the streets of Berlin, past streets named for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hannah Arendt, around the rebuilt Reichstag building and the Brandenburg Gate, to retrace the route of the old Berlin Wall in the city core, and to watch crowds of tourists from all over the world explore the Holocaust memorial across the street from the American Embassy, just a short distance from the underground bunker where Adolf Hitler killed himself as his empire collapsed around him.
But beyond all the yapping and the buzzing about gun control, the Confederate flag, and whether Dylann Roof was a terrorist or not, a very powerful truth emerged from the horror in Charleston: that the African-American church remains one of America’s great national blessings. Yet again the African American church in the United States bore steadfast witness to the boundless, the infinite, the compassionate love of God. When the families of the murdered, martyred saints told Dylann Roof that they forgave him, when they prayed that he in his darkness might somehow find the light and the love of God, they reminded us what heroism truly is, and they showed us all what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Too often the worst people in the religious world dominate the headlines: hucksters and hustlers, money grubbing televangelists, preacher-politicians, judgmental hypocrites, and sanctimonious snake oil peddlers. But every now and then something happens to show us what Christianity really is, and when it does the world stops in awe. President Obama was right to make grace the focus of his riveting eulogy; grace is always amazing, and without it no person, no family, and no nation can stand.
Watching the news from Berlin, I was reminded yet again that if the United States can be said to be an exceptional nation, it is the black church that has helped to make us one. Beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, blacks (often after suffering rejection by white churches) organized their own congregations and denominations. Black churches were the first serious social institutions that African Americans were free to shape and control in their own way, and the spiritual and cultural blessings that have come to Americans of all races and indeed to the whole world from the witness and work of the black church are greater than most of us have ever understood.
I could see a little bit of this in my hotel in the former East Berlin last month. Martin Luther King’s life and career made it that much harder for the East German police state to drive Christianity from the public square, and helped keep this center of Christian witness open. The tradition of non-violent protest that he did so much to shape would be crucial as Communism fell; not only in Germany but across central and eastern Europe, non-violent, peaceful protest played the key role in the democratic transitions that have brought freedom, prosperity, and peace to so many people in our time.
But it is America, more than any other country, that has been blessed by the African American church and the vibrant faith at its core. The black church gave generations of enslaved people spiritual comfort and a sense of self worth, comforting the afflicted and affirming the dignity of those the world held in contempt. Slavery was brutal and dehumanizing; the black church was a healing and civilizing presence. It was in the black church that African Americans developed political organizations, traditions of self government, experience managing their own affairs, and a sense of group solidarity and strength that helped these Americans rise and grow despite all the forces that sought to hold them down.
All that is a spiritual legacy rich enough and deep enough to make any faith stand tall in world history, but the black church has done more. It is easy in America today to decry the state of racial feeling, and in no way do I want to minimize the pain and the trouble and the sorrow that our racial divisions and racist legacies bring to the country. But they are so much less than they could be and perhaps should be given our history. Look at the ethnic and nationalist hatreds overseas: at the hatreds between Shi’a and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Hutu and Tutsi, Bosnian and Serb – and so many more around the world.
Whatever we have in the United States, it is not that. And despite the nasty, evil actions of people like poor Dylann Roof and the crazy haters among us, we are as a people unlikely to go there. Our racial divisions are painful and they are bitter and they cause all kinds of injustice and hurt. But we have not gone the way of Old World, where tribal and racial divisions lead to all out wars, large scale ethnic cleansing, and ugly blood feuds that simmer for generations.
There are several important factors that have helped keep us from experiencing the full ugly consequences of the hatred, prejudice, and bitterness with which so much of American history is so tragically marked. But the one that looms largest in my mind, and that gets the least respect and attention, is the constant Christian witness and gracious, forgiving love that has been the gift of the African American church and of its loving savior first to American blacks and then to the whole country.
Americans of all races owe much more to the steadfast witness of the black church than most of us understand. We read in the Bible about God’s love for the poor and the oppressed, about his capacity to redeem and transform, and about the transfiguring power of forgiveness and grace. We hear these things and we nod our heads sagely, but we fail to grasp just how much our daily lives are blessed by this power. As a nation, we have seen and done many hateful and horrible things, but hate and horror have been met, as they were met last month in Charleston, by something greater, higher, better.
If there is one thing that the history of South Carolina may have to teach the rest of the country it is this: that nothing is more exceptional about American history than the way that the African American church has helped make us a nation that is better, happier, and more united than we have any right to expect. The grace of God’s forgiving love, poured out over the black church for so long, is reshaping our country, softening our hearts, and making us better people than we deserve to be.
That is what grace is, that is what grace does. It is amazing, as it is amazing that a song written by a repentant slave trader could become an anthem that unites the descendants of slaves and of slave owners, of the victims and the perpetrators of segregation.
As the Confederate flag comes down for the last time from a government building in the city where I was born, I will be giving thanks to God for the miracles of grace that have brought us all so far.