To be clear, the confederate flag should come down. In the wake of the shootings in Charleston that killed nine, it is absolutely horrific to think that both the American flag and the South Carolina state flag were lowered to half mast while the Confederate flag that flies above the State House flew proudly; as if it had no reason to mourn, no reason not to be seen, no reason for shame.
The flag that led thousands in battle as they fought to continue slavery, that became a symbol for those who believed in the continued subjugation of a people thought of as less than fully human is not a flag that should raised anywhere, much less over a state house in America. When it comes to race, our history is too tender to let such a symbol, with so much meaning and so much hatred, continue to be recognized.
“But the Civil War wasn’t about slavery! It was about state’s rights,” says the white guy from the South.
The Civil War was about state’s rights just like selling heroin is about free market enterprise. You can argue your case, there may even be some evidence that what you say is true, but in the end, it’s an asinine argument. The Civil war, much like every war, was about maintaining way of life and a worldview. That worldview and way of life for the Southern states was one where whites were thought of superior to every other race. Thus, designer of the Confederate flag, William Tappan Thompson, says the Confederate states were fighting to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” In fact, many argued that in order for there to be equality between whites, African-Americans had to be treated as inferior.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you cut it. The flag represents white supremacy. State’s rights were a secondary issue that would allow for the perpetuation of the primary issue: slavery. That’s why the flag needs to come down.
Yet, if the flag comes down, I’m afraid of what will happen. You see, the flag is a symptom, it’s not the disease. Every human heart has a monster, often dormant, who, given the chance, will destroy the humanity of a person or people group in order to satisfy its hunger for power. Racism is one way that monster lives. And in America, in the brutal, merciless, horrid actions of Dylann Roof, we can see that the monster is alive and well in our hearts.
If you were to travel to Germany you would find evidence of the Nazi crimes still standing. Concentration camps provide vivid reminders to all who visit of the silent monster that resides within them. The monster that strips a person of their humanity because of race, religion, and any other trait deemed inferior. Looking that monster in the face is necessary to dismantling its power. The Allied Forces understood this and, in 1945, forced German citizens to tour concentration camps as part of a larger process called Entnazifizierung (denazification). Looking this evil in the face, not sweeping it under the rug or trying to make the events of the Holocaust about something other than what they were is part of how Germany can ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the great tragedies of American History is that we haven’t continually looked at the monster. We know it’s there. We fought a great war to try and eradicate it from our civic life, but once the war was done we fooled ourselves into thinking the monster had been exposed, even killed, but all all we did was simply banish it to the woods to terrify us at night. We’ve forgotten that the monster feeds on lies, and the greatest of lies is that it doesn’t exist. So we don’t visit the trees that black American’s hung from. We don’t reflect on the brutality we allowed to happen on our soil. We are completely comfortable with visiting museums about the Holocaust because that was about them, a society we imagine to be unlike ours, but we don’t remember what we allowed. What we did. Instead, we demand that our black neighbors “get over it already” because that was so long ago.
Well, now we know we haven’t gotten over it. The monster came out during the day and we saw it. Clearly. And it’s time to bring it out into the light, look at it, and talk about it.
Taking the flag down is a start. But it won’t kill the monster. My fear, and the fear of my black friends I’ve talked with, is that in taking the flag down we think we will have adequately dealt with the monster and, for those of us who have white guilt, will dust our hands off, pat ourselves on the back as we congratulate one another for finally dealing with racism.
For us as Christians, this is something we should be speaking about. We believe in the God who loves all his children: red, yellow, black and white. We believe in the day when every tribe, tongue, and every nation sits at the table of the one who died for all. I love that the vision of heaven is one where the distinctive of people is not lost, they are not mushed together into some new homogeneity, but that our distinctive co-exist around the table. In other words, heaven’s will on earth looks like equality between the races.
Some may balk here and claim that the removal of the Confederate flag is a removal of their heritage. Maybe so. We could have a conversation about the heritage you want to hold on to given the historical circumstances of the flag, but let’s not focus on that. As Christians, we are to be aware of our impact on others. We must repent when our actions, intentional or not, negatively affect another person or people group. It follows, then, that if the symbol of our heritage represents the sin done to another person, it should be repented of, rooted out, and put to death.
To use an analogy of Jesus, taking down the flag is cleaning the outside of the cup. While there is some benefit to cleaning the outside of the cup, it isn’t enough. You have to clean the inside. The monster in each of us will never be killed. But it can be known. It can be exposed. It’s power can be diminished if we are willing to acknowledge that the monster is there.
Removing the flag down won’t end racism. Perhaps white privilege is thinking that removing a flag will repair race relations. It’s like a patient who goes to a doctor for a persistent cough, only to find that the cough is caused by lung cancer. The doctor can treat the cough, make it less of a nuisance, but that won’t change the disease that’s killing him. Taking the flag down is simply treating the cough. We are going to need something much more potent and aggressive if we are going to deal with the monster.
We’re gonna have to talk about it.