Cindi Ross Scoppe

State of grace? Not at the State House

Legislators, family and friends gathered to honor the late state Sen Clementa Pinckney with an unveiling of his portrait inside the Senate chambers last month. Then they returned to business as usual.
Legislators, family and friends gathered to honor the late state Sen Clementa Pinckney with an unveiling of his portrait inside the Senate chambers last month. Then they returned to business as usual.

IT FELT, FOR a too-brief time, like everything truly had changed.

After we were shocked by the horror of a pastor and eight members of his flock massacred in their church, for the sin of being black. After we stared into the face of pure evil — and then were bathed in redeeming grace as we witnessed, in those forgiving family members, deep and abiding faith. After our horror turned into compassion as we realized the faith that unites us is stronger than race or ideology or class or anything else that divides us.

After white South Carolina, inspired by that newly recognized kinship, was horrified anew to realize that out of our ignorance or indifference, we had caused pain to our fellow Christians, and our political leaders responded by removing the Confederate flag — the one the evil killer had wrapped himself in — from the grounds of our State House.

After all of that, we thought we were a new people.

People who understand the politics of South Carolina said they had to act immediately to remove the flag because waiting until January would be too long. This wouldn’t last, at least not inside the State House. And a year after the massacre, it seems all too clear that they were right.

It was never realistic to think there would be policy changes beyond the flag, at least not in the short term. Even the politician who seemed the most deeply moved by the massacre, Gov. Nikki Haley, drew a very bright line between symbolism and tone on the one hand and public policy on the other.

She could have great empathy for the families of the Emanuel innocents; she could condemn a presidential candidate’s inflammatory and divisive rhetoric. But in her worldview, expanding Medicaid was simply throwing good money after a bad program. Mourning the death of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who considered expanding Medicaid a top political priority, would never change that.

In her worldview, the most dangerous thing about guns is that there aren’t enough people carrying them. Her compassion for people whose loved ones were massacred with a gun that couldn’t have been bought but for a loophole in federal gun laws wasn’t going to change that. Nor would it change her support for tax cuts that Sen. Pinckney saw as stealing resources that could have helped the poor in other ways.

What did seem realistic following the massacre and the flag removal — a Kumbaya period that was extended by the grace-filled response to the October floods — was that we might have a different kind of relationships and a different kind of dialogue. Relationships built on a willingness to consider the experiences and expectations and opinions of people who have very different life experiences than we do. Dialogues that begin with looking afresh at assumptions we never really questioned.

After all, in the days after the Emanuel tragedy, our legislators reached across racial divides and talked and listened to each other in ways most of them never had before.

If that continued into 2016, it was subtle and sporadic at best. If white Republicans recognized that they had pursued policies that disproportionately injured black people, and rejected policies that would have offered a helping hand to those who need it most, they didn’t let on. If black Democrats recognized that they had been too quick to assume deliberate racial motives on the part of Republicans, they didn’t say so. If white and black, Republican and Democrat recognized that race is not always the motivation for others’ actions, if they were willing to listen more openly and try harder to come to agreement on making South Carolina a better place for us all, it didn’t show.

I don’t suggest that lawmakers were extra divisive or went out of their way to give or take offense. I mean they did not go out of their way to not give or take offense. There were no moments of insight, when they understood each other in ways they never imagined they could, no surprising new consensuses. They are no worse than they were a year ago. They are simply no better.

And what of the rest of us? Have we done any better than our leaders? Have we changed? Or have we scurried back to our safe places, where we have our opinions and assumptions affirmed by people who think like us and look like us and exist in the same echo-chamber as we do?

If we truly are people of faith and of good will, then the challenge remains as it ever has been: to love our neighbors as ourselves. To become people who are willing to apologize when we are wrong — and forgive when we are wronged. To become people who recognize that we sometimes do harm even when we mean no harm — and that others sometimes mean no injury even when they injure us.

We need to insist our elected leaders do the same — or else replace them with leaders who already have.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.