“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” —C.S. Lewis
Sunday evening while participating in the Bridge to Peace event, my sister witnessed an act that encapsulates Charleston’s reaction to the brutal Emanuel AME Church murders. While an estimated 15,000 people held hands in unity across the Ravenel Bridge, a man stretched his hands toward heaven and declared at the top of his lungs, “This is how we riot in Charleston!”
This man personifies why we should be proud of how Charleston has dealt with this unspeakable tragedy—as do the victims’ families with their statements of forgiveness and charity toward their loved ones’ murderer. In human terms, the families’ responses are inexplicable. It is not until I reflect upon the above quote by atheist-turned-Christian-philosopher C.S. Lewis that it makes any sense at all.
Their response is a Christian response. It flows from the gospel’s message of sin separating us from a holy God, 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.
When the debate leading up to the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol dome in 2000 erupted, I was one of only two Republican members of the General Assembly that supported its removal. I did so for one simple reason: It did not meet the criterion flags must meet to fly over a capitol. The timeless and universal criterion for a flag to fly over a capitol dome is that it represent an existing government that has jurisdiction over the people. I was captive to that logic. The flag failed the test, so I argued for its removal on those grounds.
My late father, George Campsen Jr., was in the General Assembly when the flag was first placed over the dome in 1962. In 2000, he organized more than 90 percent of the surviving members of the 1962 General Assembly, along with several former South Carolina governors, to sign a petition he drafted. It indicated they placed the flag over the dome to commemorate the four-year centennial of the Civil War and had simply neglected to include a date to take it down. Their intention was never to fly the flag indefinitely. They petitioned the General Assembly to remove the flag from the dome, which happened later that year.
National columnist George Will referred to these arguments as “a Solomonic solution” to the flag debate.
This history is relevant because it constituted common ground to remove the flag from the dome in 2000. In light of Charleston’s reaction to the Emanuel AME Church shootings, I suggest common ground likewise exists today for removal of the flag from the statehouse grounds.
The common ground of which I speak transcends and is more powerful than issues of race and heritage. It is yet another biblical principle found in Romans 14:19: “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.”
The witness of Emanuel AME Church pursuing peace and mutual upbuilding demonstrates that love is greater than hate. Congregants from St. Michael’s, St. Philip’s, First Baptist, and other Charleston churches followed their lead when they literally encircled the church Sunday morning, bathing it in prayer as the Emanuel congregation courageously refused to allow evil to keep them from worshiping. Sunday night the Charleston community demonstrated an outpouring of unity when thousands held hands on the Ravenel Bridge. The unknown man who declared, “This is how we riot in Charleston,” and many others, have followed suit.
In responding to this tragedy, South Carolinians should not focus on what outsiders say. We should focus on the relationships here in our communities and state. We should follow the examples set before us. If the Confederate flag on our statehouse grounds upsets a significant number of citizens, let’s remove it in the name of of peace and mutual understanding. 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 Clementa Pinckney. They have demonstrated 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 now our turn to follow their example.