Friday, July 24, 2015

The Horrifying Cost Paid for the Removal of One Flag

Almost a month to the day that nine people were murdered by a white supremacist, lone wolf terrorist in South Carolina, a confederate flag flying over that state's capitol grounds was lowered and moved to their historical archives. It was removed by an honor guard in a service of solemn prayers, contrite speeches and live media coverage. Governor Nikki Haley spoke and said:

“It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state.”

There was a part of me that was relieved. The flag debate dominated the headlines for days. The longer it went on, the longer my own discomforting white liberal embarrassment continued.  Once the vote happened, it felt like "the days of cringing" were finally at an end. Whew.

One step closer to a freer, more just and colorblind America...

Or not. 

I recognize that removing this flag is no small thing but the value of its removal has been grossly overinflated. The vote was far from unanimous (94 to 20) and took almost a month of debate. It was taken down by an honor guard with more pomp and circumstance that some visiting presidents have received. This was a symbolic act that, realistically, will have little impact on most people's day to day lives. The damned flag will still fly. Just not there.

I keep doing the math and its clarity horrifies me. There were nine African American church members who were killed during a church service. Among them were several ministers, a librarian, a new college graduate, a college administrator, a pastor's spouse, trusted community elders, a coach, a church sexton and a state senator. They were all loved by the families and communities they loved and served. The nation and the world generally seemed shocked, horrified and appalled. The President condemned these murders and spoke at the funeral of one those slaughtered. There was already the growing, strong and mobilized Black Lives Matter movement that had the ability to quickly integrate the fight against the flying of a confederate flag and loan it momentum. 

Yes, the removal of this flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol was a win but I keep doing the math. It took the death of these nine as well as years of actions and strategies to make this one significant symbolic action happen.

Dear God. By that same math, what's it really going to take to end - or even just reduce - legally justified racist practices? How widely spread does suffering have to be to bring the societal discomfort level up to a point that change is insisted on? When moments make the problem clear we default to symbolic actions. When movements try and make it clear, the movements are critiqued and blamed for somehow causing the pain.

One of the most repeated quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”
Considering the removal of this one flag as the answer to this particular act of white supremacy based terrorism is cheap justice, an effort at cheap reconciliation, and an effort at cheap atonement.  The fact that the removal of a flag is being lifted up as somehow equal to the cost of 9 lives and years of activism makes it clear, in horrifyingly stark terms, the incredible amount of work and the number of lives it is going to take to change anything in any meaningful way.  
The horrifying reality is how many deaths it’s taken to get a significant number of people to really pay attention - with more than a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head - about police brutality against African Americans, alone.  Think about it. It took graphic pictures of dead bodies being left in the middle of the street, videos of people being beat, videos of people being choked to death, videos of people being shot dead by police - and brutality against thousands of people whose names before them whose names we’ll never know - for police brutality to get significant national and international attention and even then, as the Sandra Bland video illustrates, it continues.  

What, in God’s name, is it going to take to begin to address discriminatory hiring practices, intentionally underfunded educational systems, biased criminal sentencing, etc.?  What, in God’s name, is it really going to take to begin to address similar and worse experiences for other racial ethnic groups? What, in God’s name, is it going to take to meaningfully address the victimization of those with mental illness? What, in God’s name, is it going to take for us to address a financial system that needs impoverished folks for it to function?
The Black Lives Matter movement has been critiqued by many for pushing too hard, too loudly and too insistently. As the cost paid for the removal of one flag has become clearer, it’s also becoming clearer that, compared to what will really be needed, the most recent actions have been tame.
Many of those who are part of Black Lives Matter movement gather this week in Cleveland and my prayers are with them. When I say that I am not talking about cheap prayer in the same type of the cheap grace mentioned above.  The late Walter Wink wrote of prayer in his book Engaging the Powers:

“Prayer is rattling God's cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God's hands and the manacles off God's feet and washing the caked sweat from God's eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. When we pray we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House, where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged, rather, in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory centre of power that radiates the power of the universe. History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.”
This kind of prayer is a commitment. 
Let us pray...