Was it appropriate to speak of the confederate flag as a symbol/sign that could be reclaimed and become a reminder of both the dehumanizing capacities of human beings toward other human beings and the need for God’s transformative grace to guard against such occurrences? Was it appropriate to compare this possibility with how the Church instilled its own meaning and power into the shame and humiliation of the cross?
Recently I passed these themes by an old friend whom I had known since we were four years old. He pointed out that I may not be fully aware of how others process the meaning of the confederate flag. Rather than a comparison with the cross, a better one, he thought, was the Nazi swastika. Consider how many people regard this symbol and how they would consider the possibility of reclaiming this symbol. This helpful comparison was made by someone who is an Italian-American, an award-winning producer of Broadway plays, whose parents came over to the United States from Italy during the first half of the twentieth century. His helpful perspective made me sharpen my focus on this subject.
From Suppression to Transformation
My address, then, is to the church of Jesus Christ and to my interrelated concern of the danger of an enculturated Christian faith where the truths of the faith are rendered non-transformative. Much attention has been directed to the fact that the South Carolina state legislature voted to remove the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. The flag was finally lowered on Friday morning, July 10. From all impressions in the public media, this was a major step taken to move toward greater racial harmony.
At this point, I have not heard of revival-type movements of confession and repentance among black, white, or Latino churches anywhere, but I just may be ignorant. I believe that the church could have called for more attention to another event that would have demonstrated even more intensely a movement toward authentic racial reconciliation. On June 10, the Washington Post reported on the bond hearing for the alleged assassin, Dylann Roof (see also Elahe Izadi, “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness”). These words were written about some family members of the victims:
One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses.
Why did they do this? What empowered them to do this? My concern here is first and foremost that the church of Jesus Christ be reminded of supernatural empowerment. But then, was there something that the nation could have learned from this event? I know that in a posted picture Roof appears with a confederate flag, but did the flag cause the hatred in him, or did it personify for him the hatred that was developed internally through a number of factors? In other words, would hatred have been in his heart without the flag?
Unless symbol/signs are magical, or mystical in some supernatural way, they have the meaning infused in them by others. I believe that the problem through the centuries has been that the church at various times and for various reasons has placed sociocultural elements above the recognition of biblical truth and its proper implications and applications. I cannot go into many examples at this point, but race matters can serve as an immediate one.
Without redefined symbol/signs, however, even we in the church may lose markers of our own slides, becoming the very type of person, or people, that we initially despise. The church could gain unprecedented influence if we led the way in confession, repentance, and calls for forgiveness among ourselves. This we could do with—or without—a flag.