[NOTE: Please keep reading to see why I am not using profanity in the title]
A Confederate flag draped my bedroom wall growing up.
The maddest I ever got in college was when my Illinois-born history professor gave me a D on a paper critiquing the mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln.
I say War Between the States. There was nothing civil about it.
I came of age during the controversy surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag flying atop the South Carolina Statehouse. Like many a South Carolinian, I didn’t like me nor mine being lied about—we weren’t all racists, nor motivated by racism; not everybody in antebellum South Carolina was wicked. Nor did we appreciate the likes of Al Sharpton and his shrieking band of hatchets trying to strong-arm us.
And so it was that I hung that flag in my bedroom. Partly out of pride, partly out of protest.
But now, fifteen years after the compromise that moved the Battle Flag off the Capitol dome and onto an adjacent Confederate Memorial and just days after nine African-American brothers and sisters were slaughtered at prayer at the hands of a white supremacist in our holy city of Charleston, the time has come:
Take the damned flag down.
I am not cussing here. I’ve just come to see that it is a cursed flag, a condemned flag—a “damned” flag in the strictly dictionary sense of the term.
I do not say this because I believe everything about the Confederacy was wicked. It was not. But chattel slavery, racial superiority, man-stealing, and theft were and are unquestionably wicked. I do not believe that slavery was the solitary reason for the war, but I also do not pretend that it was neither a significant reason for the war, nor a significant reason for God’s judgment on the South: hundreds of thousands of men dead.
Further, the Confederate flag has a particular meaning for our African-American neighbors and that meaning is not States’ Rights, limited government, or genteel society. It means hate, strife, oppression, and death. Why can’t we understand that? Even if the flag has another meaning for some, why should we honor a symbol with a horrendously different meaning for others?
I am speculating here, but I think it is possible that the repulsive meaning of the flag for today’s African-Americans is tangentially connected to the Confederacy and more directly connected to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (those sins being more recent, the pain felt more acutely). Incidentally, that was the context for the flag being raised atop the South Carolina Statehouse in 1962. It had the affect of a flapping-in-the-wind middle finger to the black community.
When we talk about the meaning of symbols we must realize two things: 1) symbols can mean different things to different people; 2) meanings can change over time.
In the first instance, if the flag represents hate to our African-American brothers and sisters (and it does, by the way), it is the duty of white Christians to defer. We are to love our neighbors. Love is self-sacrificial. Love gives preference to the one loved.
In the second instance, Christians must be honest about the current meaning of any particular symbol. Aaron Earls helpfully pointed out yesterday that the swastika was in use for thousands of years before Hitler appropriated it and was a popular good luck symbol across Europe in the early 20th century. No one today would be so foolish as to fly a swastika flag in honor of early 20th century good fortune. The meaning changed to one of hate. So has the Confederate flag.
Earlier I said to take down the damned flag and insisted that I was not using profanity in the comment. Here’s what I mean. Hatred, racism, man-stealing, theft, pride, family-breaking, anger, malice, and folly are all judged by God in Scripture. They are condemned to hell. Damned. And when the Stars and Bars were appropriated by supporters of chattel slavery and, later, by the Jim Crow civil rights resisters, the flag inherited their condemnation. It is a damned flag, made unholy by the sins of those who flew it in defiance of God’s law.
And when saints who uphold God’s law—by grace, through faith—are gunned down at prayer by a white supremacist, the time is past ripe to pull the flag down for good.
We have museums for such relics.