The premeditated murders in bible class at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina have shocked our collective conscience. We recoil to imagine such an unholy horror in a holy place. The premeditated forgiveness, offered to the perpetrator by the victims’ families less than 48 hours after the crimes, has challenged our collective sensibilities as well. How could these grieving families speak such words of grace with grief so fresh? Even African American observers have been puzzled, and some angered, by the families offering a forgiveness that was not sought by the murderer. For many, they seem to have absolved an unresolved legacy of racism and oppression. They seem naive and illogically grief struck.

To understand the history and culture that produces these kinds of gracious spirits, we would have to reflect upon the continuing saga of racism in the American south. The black experience in places like South Carolina, through several centuries of chattel slavery and state supported terrorism and systematic dehumanization, has been an inhumane hell on earth. Racism at its core is about economic exploitation and social control. It creates the pseudo-science of racial divisions for the purposes of oppression and domination. While personal and structural racisms remain an integral part of America at large, the south has very peculiar, perfected ways of blending government, paramilitary, and cultural symbols in the attack against back humanity. Of course, the Confederate flag reemerged in the mid-1960’s as an emblem of resistance and resolve of tyrannical terrorism against black citizens.

In the face of the dehumanizing horrors in the American South, African Americans developed powerful ways to assert their humanity. What we witnessed with the Charleston victimized families’ rush to forgiveness is a reflection of that black resistance. Many blacks under the severest forms of oppression made some conscience choices to challenge the narratives of racism by using their faith to achieve higher, even transcendent, forms of humanity. Along the way, they have nurtured some of the purest practitioners of the Christian faith in the world. Frankly, many African Americans from this experience do not set their sights on being just as good as white folks. Their heartfelt spiritual goal is to be like Christ; that is, the best human being they can be.

We could all learn a lot from the examples of these families, especially us urbane and acculturated African Americans. Too often I hear urban blacks speak of a generic white folk as if their understanding of proverbial white folk is standard human behavior. If we perceive that they bend rules, or justify wrong, or project aggression — we assume so should we. We often fail to see the bondage of longing to mimic what we perceive as a dominant white culture. The nobility of families of Charleston reflect an African American culture of excellence that emerged apart from the immoralities of oppression. The nobility of embracing unearned suffering with grace is a burden few people would want to bear. The grieving families of Charleston know intuitively that the greatest honor we can pay to the memory of our suffering ancestors is to offer up a superior humanity. Forgiveness of racists does not mean surrender to racism. It’s a more sophisticated way to fight insidious evil. The forgiveness of the Charleston families belittled the racist and enlarged their own humanity.

Truthfully, the Christian nobility of these families has captured the human imagination and disarmed their enemies in ways an angry response could never do. As small of a victory as it seems, state sanctioned display of the offensive Confederate flag will end in large measure because of the moral force and powerful witness of these families. In that these small measures of civility across the south in 2015 required nine massacred martyrs and the extraordinary grace of their grief stricken loved ones, we must admit that we are far from overcoming sins of our past. In that we are still compelled to chant “black lives matter” all over the nation; we admit that the tragic myths of race and the dastardly motives of racism remain at the core of American life. The qualities of life and access to opportunities remain unequal and separated by classifications of race and skin color caste. Thanks to the extraordinary good graces of the Charleston families, the burden to perfect the union rest afresh upon all of us. We can and we must all do better.

— Rev. Marshall Hatch

The American flag is America’s symbol of hope and a symbol of the promise of America’s future. July 4, Independence Day, is a perfect time to raise the American flag in honor of the South Carolina Nine, to show the strength of our nation and its endless possibilities of which our flag so boldly reminds us. The American flag stands for liberty. Red signifies hardiness and valor; white signifies purity and innocence; and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. Americans, let’s renew the hope for which our flag stands and let us raise our flags for liberty, justice and freedom for all —both in Illinois and throughout our country.

— State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford (8th)