Happy Independence Day weekend, Americans. What a wonderful holiday – we have the opportunity to celebrate key social values like freedom and justice, values our ancestors rightly regarded as worth fighting and dying for. I am proud to belong to a country that considers these values the pillars of social life. I’ve spent several years paying serious attention to dictatorial regimes around the world, and I’ve come to a deep sense of gratitude that I live and participate in a country that manages transitions in power between political parties and leaders regularly without resort to violence. This is a beautiful thing and never, ever to be taken for granted.
That said, America, we’ve still got some very serious work to do on that whole “liberty and justice for all” thing.
Over the past year from sea to shining sea, we’ve watched horror show after racially-motivated horror show of abuses and injustice committed against the Black citizens of this country. From Ferguson, to Baltimore, to Charleston. Over the past two weeks half a dozen historically Black churches have burned and as you read this the KKK is planning a rally to be held later this month outside the South Carolina statehouse. And there are still plenty of folks who want to keep flying the Confederate flag, though its days seem to be numbered.
The discrete and blatant incidences of racially motivated hatred have also had the effect of uncovering the more regular, institutional forms of racism and white supremacy – the structural inequality that helps explain gaps in wages, housing, education, employment, and incarceration between white and Black American citizens. Over the past year, we’ve seen a massive fissure in the narrative fabric that white America clothes itself in when we tell ourselves that we are a nation of liberty and justice for all. It has been easier and easier to see that the core values of freedom and justice are not adequately shared across America’s color lines. It is getting harder and harder to deny that racism is a serious social problem in the United States.
There are some hopeful signs this Independence Day. There are signs that we are up to the challenge presented by our own stated values; signs that we want more fully to live out our idealistic narrative and embrace liberty and justice for all people of color. There is a renewal of the Civil Rights Movement underway, and I am hopeful that it will be more racially diverse than ever before with white allies listening to Black leaders and helping to foment positive change.
Here are some things to celebrate this Independence Day:
1. The Confederate flag is coming down in public spaces all across this country. There has been some debate as to whether the media focus on the Confederate flag has distracted us from real issues of racial inequality. On the one hand, it would be tragic for anti-racism advocates to place all their energy into the removal of the Confederate flag and none into issues of social, economic, or political inequality across the races. On the other hand, the flag has been a symbol of racially motivated war, treason, violence, and white supremacy. Symbols matter. Dylann Roof flew the Confederate flag. I am pleased to see it go, and consider it a redemptive sign of the times.
2. Civil disobedience is becoming a more widespread tactic in a renewed Civil Rights Movement. The latest icon of civil disobedience is Bree Newsome whose climb up the flag pole at the South Carolina State House is an exciting example of a new generation of activists embracing this powerful strategy of nonviolent resistance. Even more hopeful, in my mind, is the fact that Newsome’s act was motivated by Christian theology. “In the name of Jesus this flag has to come down,” Newsome told police officers as she unclipped the Confederate flag. As she descended the pole with flag in hand she recited Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom should I be afraid. I’m going to comply,” she told police, “I’m prepared to be arrested.” Newsome’s act of civil disobedience is a signpost of a Resurrected people, ultimately redeemed from the evil of racism and freed from its bondage. Like James Cone, Newsome seems to understand that “When connected to the person of Jesus, hope is not an intellectual idea; rather it is the praxis of freedom in the oppressed community.” Civil disobedience against racism and oppression is the praxis of freedom, getting us closer to liberty and justice for all.
3. Powerful people are following the lead of the victims. On last Sunday’s episode of Meet the Press, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham flip-flopped in a way that all Americans can be proud of. Previously an ardent supporter of flying the Confederate flag, Graham now urges his state to take it down. Referring to the statements made by the families of the Charleston slain, Graham remarked: “The people at the A.M.E. church, the families of the victims changed everything by their grace, by their love, by their forgiveness, making it impossible for a guy like me to say, ‘Keep the flag up.’” The families of the Charleston slain offered a word of forgiveness in the face of nauseating evil, in the face of murder and terrorism. I know that their forgiveness is controversial – some say it is too soon to forgive, or that forgiving in this case reinscribes racism. I understand and respect these positions. Forgiveness is personal, and as I wrote a few weeks ago it doesn’t make any sense to tell someone they “should” forgive or to stigmatize someone who does not feel the desire to forgive. Forgiveness after severe trauma is the result of grace. I fully expect the families of the Charleston slain to continue to struggle with forgiveness. I don’t think forgiveness can be a once-and-for-all-now-in-the-past-tense action. (After what happened in Charleston, I think there is only “I am working on forgiving” and rarely, if ever, “I have forgiven.”). Nevertheless, the grace of the members of the A.M.E. Church has washed over many people – from Lindsey Graham, to President Obama in his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The President sounded more like Theologian in Chief, saying:
. . . A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act…An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. . . .
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals…Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.
Powerful people are following the lead of the victims. And that is a good thing, I think, because the victims seem to me to be following the lead of Jesus.
This grace is what I’ll be celebrating on Independence Day. I’ll be thinking less about the Revolutionary War that won independence from Britain only to ensure the continued enslavement of thousands of human beings for several more decades. I’ll be thinking less about the preservation of the Union in 1865. Instead, I’ll being thinking about the emancipation of Black slaves and the celebration of Juneteenth; the end of Jim Crow; and even the DOJ report that validated the citizens of Ferguson, MO, and the indictment of officers that feels like the beginning of justice for Freddie Gray. I’ll be celebrating the lives of liberators and justice-sowers from Abraham Lincoln, to Sojourner Truth; from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bree Newsome. And I’ll be celebrating the social movements intent on providing greater access to healthcare, a higher minimum wage, affirmative action, and opportunities for quality education and all things mean to ensure liberty and justice for all people of color.
Anna Floerke Scheid, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University where she teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with attention to the just war tradition, peacebuilding, and post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation. She is the author of Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation(Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2015). Her work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Horizons, and Teaching Theology and Religion.