I know there’s a lot going on, but I think we witnessed two miracles this week, and public miracles are pretty rare and must be named. These two especially should be noted and remembered because they suggest a way out of the ongoing morass.
The first miracle is now nationally famous. It is that scene of amazing, other-worldy forgiveness shown at the bail hearing for the Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect. You have heard what the victims’ relatives said, but it should be underscored that their words were spontaneous, unscripted, and flowed like water pouring from deep wells. Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, 70, was killed: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. . . . You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Alana Simmons, whose grandfather the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. was killed, told the New York Times she didn’t plan to speak at the hearing but found herself inspired by Ms. Collier. “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions,” she said. “And that is what we want to get out to the world.”
Those of us lucky to watch live, who didn’t know what was coming, got to experience the full force of the event. To me most moving was what Bethane Middleton-Brown said of her murdered sister: “She taught me that we are the family love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.”
That was the first miracle, the amazing grace that pierced the hearers’ hearts—in America, in 2015, at an alleged murderer’s bail hearing in a plain, homely courtroom. Christian churches and their believers are used to being patronized or mocked as silly, ignorant or hypocritical. They often don’t mind, often laugh along with the joke. But these were public statements that laid out the essence of Christianity, unedited and undiluted, and you couldn’t laugh or scoff. You could only feel awe and ask yourself: “If I were that person in those circumstances, would I be great too?”
Within days, something else wholly unexpected happened. A tough old knot became untied. Something people had been fighting about for a long time was suddenly about to be resolved. The murders at the church, and what was said by the relatives of the dead, prompted the rejection of the Confederate battle flag in gentle, kindly, heartfelt words.
The tableau at the South Carolina Capitol surrounding Gov. Nikki Haley was itself moving—both parties, all colors, the Indian-American governor flanked by the African-American U.S. senator, Tim Scott.
Ms. Haley said that immediately after the shootings, “we were hurt and broken and we needed to heal.” South Carolinians began “not by talking about issues that divide us, but by holding vigils, by hugging neighbors, by honoring those we lost and by falling to our knees in prayer.” She spoke of the victims’ relatives: “Their expression of faith and forgiveness took our breath away.”
“On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history,” she acknowledged. “We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives—in the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don’t need reminders.” She turned to the subject of the banner that flies on the statehouse grounds. “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble—traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry.” But “for many others . . . the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” The state can “survive” as home to both viewpoints: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way.”
“But the statehouse is different and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way. . . . Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.”
And that was that. Within 48 hours the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, ordered the flag removed from the statehouse grounds there, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker said his state’s flag, which incorporates the Confederate design, should be altered. Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said they’d do away with vanity license plates that include the banner.
It hardly needs be said American politics doesn’t usually work like this. Our political culture tends to be mean-spirited, shouty, full of moral posing and pointed fingers. In this case, everyone seemed to be laying down arms. This was a miracle not of “justice” but of “mercy.” Justice can be argued about forever, but mercy is just what it is, as the people who spoke at the bail hearing know.
It’s hard to imagine the Confederate battle flag is going to be given prominence on statehouse grounds in the future. Something big changed in this old argument, and it won’t change back.
When I first watched the hearing, I hoped the mourning people of South Carolina would not have political debates forced on them while their throats were full of tears. But as Ms. Haley implied, they went forward on their own, as Southerners and South Carolinians, and made the decision while their throats were full of tears.
This was the South talking to the South.
And it was Christians talking to Christians about what Christianity is.
In Christianity Today, writer Michael Wear, who headed President Obama’s faith outreach efforts in the 2012 campaign, had a strong piece with a strong headline: “Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness.” Mr. Wear bluntly rejected recent essays arguing that the relatives who spoke at the bail hearing were acting out the traditions or survival mechanisms of their race. That, he argued, is an elitist, racist view. The “confounding forgiveness” given voice at the bail hearing, the “radical love” contained in the statements, was not cultural, sociological or political, it was theological. It was about Jesus Christ. “They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.” Black people, he added, have “equal access to Jesus,” and the survivors could forgive “because they believe that fateful night in the upper room of Mother Emanuel was not the end of their loved ones’ stories.” They believed the dead are as they were, “in the Kingdom of God, beloved by him, their greatest longings realized.” He asked: “What other American community today displays less shame, less reservation, less self-awareness about proclaiming the Christian faith?”
That is exactly what I thought as I watched the hearing.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee, if they know it, have some new nominees: the relatives of the dead who offered the mercy that relaxed the hands of those who’d been holding, too tight, to a flag.
Everyone thinks progress depends on indignation, accusation, aggression, demonstration, marching. But we just saw anger lose to love. It’s a huge moment.