Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: This Confederate flag debate is strikingly different from the ones before

A worker gestures to a colleague as they hang a banner from a local business near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
A worker gestures to a colleague as they hang a banner from a local business near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. AP

Columbia, SC

WE HAVE always had passionate, even extremist defenders and opponents of the Confederate flag, but most South Carolinians have been ambivalent about the banner, at least since the Legislature removed it from the dome of the State House in 2000 and hoisted it at a prominent Confederate monument staring down Columbia’s Main Street.

But when we saw the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and we saw the extraordinary grace of the victims’ families, and we saw the killer wrapped in the Confederate flag and spewing white-supremacist venom, and we saw that flag waving defiantly in front of our State House, while the U.S. and state flags hung mournfully at half staff, something snapped.

Even some of the most ardent and important defenders of the flag concluded with breathtaking speed that it was time to retire it from the State House grounds.

Erecting straw men

The remaining defenders were caught flat-footed by the sudden and dramatic shift in public sentiment. They were left sputtering that the flag didn’t slaughter those people, and the flag didn’t make the killer go on a rampage — as if anyone ever even implied that it had. Mostly, they were left arguing that the Confederate flag isn’t really about the Civil War — it’s about honoring the brave sacrifices of our ancestors — and that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery

It’s a striking argument not because of its accuracy or lack thereof, but because its relevance — or lack thereof. The best way to find people talking about slavery these days is to listen to those who want the flag to stay up. They are generals fighting the last war.

Last time, the decisive argument concerned sovereignty. A flag flying on the dome of a capitol building represents a sovereign government, and no one could possibly argue that the Confederate flag did that. But that was just one of many, many arguments, and those of us who worked so hard to remove the flag allowed ourselves to get dragged into a debate about the causes of the Civil War, and flag supporters were able to hold their own despite the historic record, because the story they told was one that every one of us white Southerners would prefer to believe.

Certainly there are individuals who will cite slavery as reason to move the flag, and even the occasional leader will make reference to it, but that’s not what this debate is about. That’s not what the governor and legislators and pretty much every business and civic and religious organization in the state is talking about.

A religious argument

This time, we’re talking about how hurtful that flag is, how it has been used for a century and a half to accompany and illustrate the vilest racial hatred. We’re talking about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and doing that in thought and word and deed. We’re talking about grace. That was always part of the argument. Today, it is the argument.

In the end, that’s what makes the argument for moving the flag so powerful. It touches the hearts of who we are as South Carolinians: a deeply religious people.

In the end, that’s what makes the argument for moving the flag so difficult to fight. If you call yourself a Christian — and the flag’s defenders certainly do, probably to a much greater degree than society in general — there’s simply no argument against “we should stop doing things to hurt our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

The only way to deal with that argument is to change the subject. To talk about the honor of soldiers and to say that the Civil War was about states’ rights. To pretend that the argument for removing the flag is that the flag caused the Charleston church massacre. To make the absurd argument, as one leading flag defender did on Thursday, that the slaughtered innocents wouldn’t have wanted the flag removed from the State House grounds. Seriously.

But the subject can’t be changed. It won’t be changed.

Charity and grace

On Tuesday in the state Senate, Charleston Republican Chip Campsen cited a quote from one of my favorite theologians, C.S. Lewis: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

He told his fellow senators that the response of the victims’ families “flows from the gospel’s message of sin separating us from a holy God, of Christ paying the penalty for these sins and offering reconciliation with God. Having been forgiven of much empowers the forgiven to liberally forgive in kind.”

Sen. Campsen told everyone listening to the live-streamed Senate session that the directive found in Romans 14:19 — “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” — constitutes common ground that transcends race and heritage.

He called on his colleagues to follow the example set by the people of Emanuel — and by the congregants at St. Michael’s, St. Philip’s, First Baptist and other Charleston churches, who “literally encircled the church Sunday morning, bathing it in prayer.”

“If the Confederate flag on our State House grounds upsets a significant number of citizens, let’s remove it in the name of peace and mutual upbuilding,” he said. “Let’s do this as a reciprocal act of charity and grace extended to the fallen, their families and the congregants of my friend and colleague, Senator Clementa Pinckney. They have demonstrated inimitable forgiveness, charity and grace before God and a watching world. Both in life and in death, they have shown us how to love, forgive and pursue peace and mutual upbuilding. It is our turn to follow their example.”

Do unto others …

The Confederate flag is still flying at the intersection of Gervais and Main. Those who think that’s wonderful are contacting legislators, likely reminding them of what they did to then-Gov. David Beasley when he suggested moving the flag. We still have a potentially difficult debate ahead of us, one in which some legislators will speak ominously of “Stalinist purges” and perhaps even “cultural genocide,” and almost certainly of the proposition that the flag isn’t an issue.

We can’t take for granted that what feels at this moment like a fait accompli will actually be accomplished. Instead, we must insist, over and over again, that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That’s a powerful demand that cannot be rebutted.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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