At the bond hearing, grieving loved ones forgave Dylann Roof. This was reported as news, but it was so much more than that. It was the light embracing the darkness.
And white America absorbed this forgiveness through the eyes of the 21-year-old terrorist who watched the proceedings on a video screen from his jail cell. Whatever he heard and felt is unknown, but beyond him, in the world he believed he was saving, something gave. The solidarity of whiteness — the quiet assumption of white supremacy — shuddered ever so slightly.
The flag, the flag….
The fate of this symbolic relic of the slave era is now the big story in the aftermath of Roof’s murder of nine African Americans. He acted in such clear allegiance to the Confederate flag that politicians everywhere — even Republican presidential candidates — are demanding, or at least acquiescing to, its removal from public and official locations, such as in front of the South Carolina State House.
Not only that but “Walmart and Sears, two of the country’s largest retailers, will remove all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores,” CNN reported.
This is what atonement looks like in a consumer culture.
“The announcements,” according to CNN, “are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic in the aftermath of a shooting last week at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.”
A few days later, Amazon and eBay also announced that they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their sites. No longer available, CNN reported, would be such flag-decorated items as folding knives, T-shirts, blankets or (God help us) shower curtains.
Oh, Lord. The news so quickly becomes theater of the absurd. Roof’s act of terror has forced mainstream America to begin consciously disassociating itself from the lethal margins of white solidarity, to wake up to what it really means. But this waking up, so far, seems limited to the symbolism of Confederate paraphernalia. All our guilt is being dumped here while the pain that Roof’s act of terror has caused ebbs and slowly vanishes from the social mainstream.
In fact, an undead racism still stalks the American consciousness, and it will, once again, regroup, Confederate flag or no Confederate flag. What this moment of awareness calls for is true atonement for our history.
“I forgive you.” These are the words of Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Atonement begins with cradling the pain.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, who was not only present in the church during the murders but is the mother of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest of those killed. As we cradle the pain, we must cradle this as well: the open souls of the murder victims.
What do we value as a nation? Do we value such openness? The killer — who was, as he entered the church, simply an unknown young man — did not go through security clearance as he walked through the open door. He had complete freedom of movement as he entered the historic African-American church, where he was accepted simply for his humanity. Yes, such openness and acceptance are also part of who we are as a nation, but do we value these qualities? Do we have the least faith that they matter now more than ever, now that they’ve been so violated?
A participant at one of the vigils last week for the murder victims “noted how a church’s doors are always open, especially to those in need,” a Daily Beast story reported. “She wonders now how churches can square their mission of public service, charity and acceptance with security concerns.”
Roof’s act of terror has opened a gaping hole in the social fabric. Can we no longer pray together?
But all such questions lead back into the depth of American history and the need for atonement and transformation. A Reuters story, addressing the segregated nature of most American churches (11 a.m. Sunday is “the most segregated hour in the nation,” Martin Luther King once said), pointed out, “The story of this division began in America’s earliest moments, when slaves and freed African-Americans alike were often expected to pray in the same churches as whites, but in areas cordoned off, often called ‘slave galleries.'”
Imagine praying in a setting that defines you as semi-human. Now imagine Dylann Roof walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a gun in his backpack. Roof was the self-defined semi-human in the church that night, his soul wrapped in a Confederate flag.
The U.S. is enslaved by its past. That’s what no one has said yet. One hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to lower the flag that symbolizes this enslavement.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his website at commonwonders.com.