Miracles and Grace

I read an article this morning in The State, the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., describing the process of how the Confederate flag came finally to be removed from the Statehouse complex there in the South Carolina capital. Speaker of the S.C. House Jay Lucas, incidentally in the role because of the indictment and conviction of his predecessor for fraudulent use of campaign funds, was quoted as saying that passing the bill in only one day was “miraculous and a testimony to the House.”

The removal of the flag from the government complex is symbolic of a first step, but only a first step, in repairing—no, check that—a first step toward establishing for the first time in South Carolina’s history the long overdue respectful and mutually-beneficial public discourse that befits a state in a nation that claims to protect the liberties of all its citizens.

But Speaker Lucas is wrong. Saying that it was a “testimony to the House” is tantamount to patting someone on the back for actually doing the bare minimums of a job he contracted to do.

I was discouraged, also, by the audacity of some of the House members asking for “grace,” which translated to ensuring a place of honor for the flag itself. I was thankful, though, that, in the article, the writer had encased the word in quotes, as I do here.

Lucas was right in calling the feat “miraculous” and there is most definitely a place for the word “grace” in this conversation, but neither word applies to actions of the members of the South Carolina House or even the Senate. There should be no attempt for those who have finally done the thing they should have done myriad times before to claim accolades for themselves. It pollutes the very air around the event. No, it was the grace of the families of the Mother Emanuel 9, indeed, spawned by the grace of the nine murdered individuals themselves that brought this “miracle,” the unhardening of hearts, about.

From the day of the public expression of forgiveness of the cold-blooded murder of their loved ones, I have been thinking of St. Paul. I have always thought it a failure in the Christian churches in which I have worshiped not to spend more time in contemplation of his conversion. Here was a young man brought up in his “church,” a member not of the wealthy majority political party in the Sanhedrin, but their rivals, the upper middle class Pharisees. Young Saul, as he’d been known then, had assumed the mantle of vigilante, representing the Pharisees’ condemnation of those Jews who had proclaimed allegiance to the words of the Rabbi Jesus. He had stood by, holding the extra clothes of those compatriots who stoned a gentle man to death who reminded them—all the while he was dying—of the history of their faith, the giants of their heritage, and the goodness of the God they all supposedly worshiped.

I can guess that the hairline crack appeared in Saul’s reserve that day, that the pricking of his conscience—the rising up of the truth from behind practiced years of denial—began then, else we wouldn’t know that story in particular. In the Book of Acts, where the story is told, what follows as a bookend on the other side of a mention of St. Philip’s ministry, is the story of the Damascus Road, the beginning of epiphany for the man handpicked by God to deliver the message to the Gentiles, those ancestors from which the majority of us Americans are descended. Without him, we might never have known the story of Jesus at all.

But it doesn’t stop there, in my opinion. The coup de grace (notice the word) came later, when, blinded by the light he had seen, Saul was sitting, shaken, in Damascus, not sure at all of what had happened to him. It was when Ananias, who, knowing full well that Saul and his band had been terrorizing those like him and Stephen and the others the apostles had ordained, obeyed the instruction of the Holy Spirit and went to him. It was when, knowing that Saul’s betrayal of the very men he had faithfully represented had sealed his fate, the community of believers protected him, ensuring his safe passage from Damascus, that the rest of his denial fell away.

Now renamed, it was as if Paul had been reborn. And it had been at the hands of grace. Nothing more, nothing less. He knew he was guilty as an accessory to murder of innocent men. He knew that he deserved nothing less than death himself, according to the dictates of the Commandments he had grown up studying. He accepted the responsibility of that, would live the rest of his life knowing he was stained with the blood of men who had done nothing at all to him—especially the fellow who’d started it all by walking peacefully, unresistingly, forgivingly, to his death at the hands of the Sanhedrin.

It has been said that mercy is not getting what we deserve and grace is getting what we don’t deserve. I am inclined to agree. Those of us who both cracked the whips and those of us who stood by holding their clothes and said nothing deserve nothing. No credit for suddenly coming to our senses, having the scales fall from our eyes, and then doing the right thing. The flag should remain in prominence somewhere—if it is a reminder of heritage, it is a heritage that will never be unstained by the wickedness of man’s inhumanity to man. It will not stop it, but keeping it in front of our eyes will, perhaps, slow it down.

Throughout history, it has never been war, conquest, violence that has changed the world. It has always been grace. We saw its effect in Gov. Nikki Haley’s eyes on June 22 as she called for the flag to be removed. We heard it in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s explanation of the change in his position on the flying of the Confederate flag at the state’s capitol. We witnessed it in the emotional words of S.C. Rep. Jenny Horne, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy himself, in the halls of the South Carolina House. Grace that began in the forgiveness of a misguided young man like Saul.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

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