(RNS) On the evening of June 17, 2015, a white man joined a prayer group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. After talking with the African-American group for an hour, he pulled out a handgun and systematically shot 10 people, killing nine, including the senior pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a state senator. According to news accounts, the killer waited for the members to pray before shooting them. The brutality of this crime — and the racial hatred the killer announced online and spewed at his victims — galvanized Americans everywhere.
Because the killer had earlier posed with a Confederate battle flag and affiliated with racist groups, numerous people urged the South Carolina governor to ban the flag from the Legislature, where it had flown since 1962. On June 22, five days after the church killings, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed from the Capitol.
Two questions emerge from this story:
1. Why was the Confederate States of America flag flying at a state capitol?
It seems strange that a battle flag from a rebellion against the United States would be celebrated by an American state 150 years after that rebellion failed. No American state flew Union Jacks 150 years after the English lost their war with the American Colonies. Stranger still is that many Americans, loudly proclaiming their love of country, also love a battle flag used to rally those who wished to destroy that country. How can we understand this oddity?
The answer is that raising the battle flag in Charleston portrayed the Confederacy as a fledgling state that sought freedom. According to this story, the bombardment of Union forces at Fort Sumter in 1861 was like the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That sentiment fuels the delusion that the Civil War was about an abstract idea — states’ rights — rather than the defense of a material advantage — the ownership of human beings.
A delusion cannot be maintained without obsessively proclaiming its truth. In 1861, before the Civil War, Southern authorities made themselves clear: President-elect Abraham Lincoln threatened to curtail the spread of slavery, the mainstay of their wealth. That was intolerable, and so secession and war were justified.
In 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other Southerners fabricated a propaganda masterpiece, arguing that slavery was not the major cause of the rebellion. Their centerpiece was the idealization of Southern soldiers and Southern leaders, especially Robert E. Lee. Endless discussions of battles, guns and tactics have flowed since then. Immersed in this tide of brilliant evocations, one could come to love the men (and the flag) under which they fought and died with such courage.
2. Why did it take the murder of innocent people — at prayer, in a church — to motivate South Carolina authorities to remove the flag?
Hypnotized by the lost cause of the Civil War, those under its spell could not awaken without the shock of wanton cruelty inflicted on innocent victims. The murders at Emanuel AME Church provided that shock. A deranged young man, who wrapped himself in a Confederate flag, chose to murder people who were black and who were praying, in a famous black church to which he was invited.
For Christians, this attack on the perfectly innocent is identical to the attack on Moses as an infant, the threats against Jesus as a young child and the crucifixion of the perfectly innocent Christ. The idealization of Southern heroes was so strong it required the sacrifice of innocent blood to break it.
That fact is part of our continuing American tragedy.
(Volney Gay is professor of religious studies, psychiatry and anthropology at Vanderbilt University. His new book, On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: The Hidden Face of American Slavery, is scheduled for release this summer)