Column: Don’t confuse forgiveness in Charleston with forgiveness for racism

It was an honor to be asked to participate in the America After Charleston forum on PBS. While I visited Charleston the week after the shootings, I really appreciated having the opportunity to return and see how things had changed and to hear how those directly affected by the shootings were coping.

For me, two themes emerged from the discussion: forgiveness and reconciliation. While the national narrative about Charleston has been one of instant forgiveness, it was clear from the discussion that many people are troubled by that narrative. I wish we had had more time to unpack that multi-layered concept.

As a Christian, I was certainly moved by the forgiveness that the families of the Charleston victims extended to the shooter at his arraignment. I believe — as they likely do — that Christ requires His disciples to personally forgive those who harm them. But I also understand the frustration of family members like Malcolm Graham, the brother of Cynthia Hurd, who admit their struggle to forgive and who wish to be able to struggle openly with their hurt.

And I also understand the frustration of people like Willie Glee, a member of Mother Emanuel. We had a chance to talk in the green room before the taping. He told me that he was very concerned that the broader community was hiding behind the families’ forgiveness as a way to deflect dealing with centuries of racial division and hierarchy.

If the legacy of Charleston is that a few flags came down and few streets got renamed, then the Emanuel Nine died in vain.Mr. Glee makes an important observation about racial reconciliation on the cheap. The media frames that were deployed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting did sometimes have a troubling subtext that often went unexamined. For instance, when people praised Charlestonians for not rioting after the shootings, they were making implicit comparisons to Ferguson and Baltimore. While I was very glad that Charleston did not erupt in violence, the implicit juxtaposition made me wonder if the Emanuel Nine would have been deemed less worthy by the media if there had been a riot? Or would the Confederate flag issue not have risen to the top of the political agenda in the wake of civil unrest? In raising these questions, I do not mean to support or condone violence. However, we really need to ask ourselves whether we as a country were more sympathetic with the victims of the Mother Emanuel shooting because they were socially upstanding and because the reaction of the townspeople was more palatable? And once we discover that answer, we need to go deeper and ask what that says about us — not those who were directly affected by the tragedy.

This type of introspection should also extend to policy discussions in at the local, state and national level. The shooting served as a triggering event, the type of exogenous shock that can help clarify a public policy debate. We have to come to grips with the fact that it took the savage murder of nine innocent people to jumpstart a symbolic policy debate that had stalled for decades. Don’t get me wrong — I am happy to see the Confederate flag leave the South Carolina State Capitol, and I am happy that nationally, people are much more conscious of the ways that memorializing Confederate sympathizers and segregationists is painful to many people. However, if the legacy of Charleston is that a few flags came down and few streets got renamed, then the Emanuel Nine died in vain.

The best way for us as a nation to honor the victims of the Mother Emanuel shooting is to do more than just pat ourselves on the back because their relatives took the bold, courageous and painful step of publicly starting their personal healing process. Their personal journey is not our collective journey. Our task is to interrogate the systems, institutions and practices that taught Dylann Roof that he should be superior to blacks because of the color of his skin. Our task is to reform an educational system that failed Roof and many others by not teaching them to be more discerning of historical perspectives that fail to tell the truth or the whole story.

And our task is to have a better national conversation about race: one that doesn’t assume that every racial critique of America is unpatriotic; one that doesn’t hide behind party lines, class divisions or outdated racial assumptions; and one that doesn’t ignore evidence of obvious racial inequality or automatically dismiss such evidence on the grounds that inequality stems from bad “culture.” This is the only way to promote real racial reconciliation. If we don’t have this kind of raw, authentic conversation now, then sadly, we doom ourselves to have to repeat this kind of forum later.