As the Confederate flag of South Carolina goes down - literally and figuratively - and others, like Mississippi's and Alabama's, and even previously revered collectibles like the famed Dukes of Hazzard General Lee Confederate Matchbox Car, fall with it in rapid succession, many of us stand in awe that such a change is actually happening. While these moves were unimaginable just two weeks earlier, my thoughts inevitably turn to the nine slain worshipers in the Emanuel AME church of Charleston, who deserve the honor bestowed upon martyrs for racial equality and justice. The fact that President Obama broke out in song during his moving eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney attests to how profoundly he, along with a quiet majority of humanity, have been moved not just by the tragedy of the loss of those innocent worshipers, but also by the faith, fortitude, and forgiveness shown by the victims' families, and by the wider community of Charleston coming together for a greater good that must - absolutely must - be realized.
The sacrifice of too many lives to outright racism, and the loud calls for re-examining the many symbols glorifying overt racism surrounding us in a nation whose mottos include "E pluribus unum" (out of many, one) and "Justice for all," creates a contradiction near a breaking point. It calls for a deeper examination of not just attitudes, but the very structures weaving the fabric of our society. We must continue to question, study, call out, boycott, teach our children, and take any possible stand against the ways racism is perpetuated by the major institutions of our society, like education, immigration, law enforcement, healthcare, and financial systems. And thanks to the discussion prompted by the horrific events in Charleston (and too many other places), we've gone a bit deeper, to look at another "structure of present-day society" -- the Confederate flag that serves as a symbol keeping racism and subjugation alive.
My thinking on this matter of the structures of our society is informed by this emphatic statement from the Baha'i Writings, articulating the principle of the Oneness of Mankind, a central teaching of this Faith:
Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind--the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve --is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cöoperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. It does not constitute merely the enunciation of an ideal, but stands inseparably associated with an institution adequate to embody its truth, demonstrate its validity, and perpetuate its influence. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced. It constitutes a challenge, at once bold and universal, to outworn shibboleths of national creeds--creeds that have had their day and which must, in the ordinary course of events as shaped and controlled by Providence, give way to a new gospel, fundamentally different from, and infinitely superior to, what the world has already conceived. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world--a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units."
Just like the nearly unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall, triggering a rapid collapse of a Communist system, or the just-reached seminal decision by the U.S. Supreme Court granting marriage equality in all fifty states, realization of the Oneness of Mankind "implies an organic change" - change that is organic might seem dormant for a long time, but all of a sudden, thanks to realizations of mind and heart that take place internally, like a germinating seed, they appear, for all to marvel at and adapt to. With rapid communications, sharing of information that stirs hearts, and a growing sense of outrage at injustice and inequality, we are fortunate to see this organic, transformative change in the "essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family."
I had not considered a flag as another structure of present-day society, until I saw the united outcry spurring its downfall, and I thank all those courageous souls who helped me understand that the structures that need to change to support our collective coming together come in all forms - large or small, institutional or symbolic. Similarly, it's going to take all of us, powerful or humble, men and women, of whatever skin tone, faith, sexual orientation, location, and means, to unite around a transformation that is surely possible. Let there be no mistake...
This opinion piece also appears at bahaiteachings.org