Thursday, July 09, 2015

On the Confederate Flag

(Painting: "Fate of the Rebel Flag," by William Bauly, 1861)

I'm going to chime in on the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag. I'm clearly qualified to do this, because I'm a white Yankee from the northernmost state in the Union, as far away from the Confederacy as you can get. I also have very definite opinions on the culture of the South; for instance, I consider "sweet tea" to be one of the strongest possible candidates for the identity of "the abomination that causes desolation."

As most of you will already know, since this has been news for the past month, many southern states are debating whether to cease official use of the old "Stars and Bars," and several large retail chains have pulled all merchandise with the symbol. The reasons for this move are clear: the flag originally flew for a country that was fighting to defend its rights to chattel slavery, and it has often been used in the years since to express racist feelings against African Americans. Hold on, though! Some passionate (white) southerners are opposed to this move, claiming that the Stars and Bars is simply a symbol of southern heritage, a mark of their distinctive culture, and a remembrance of many good men who fought bravely in the Civil War, as much for states' rights and love of homeland as for slavery.

(Picture by fdecomite, Wikimedia Commons)
All of this made me wonder, though: if slavery and racism (i.e., the bad things done under this flag) are the reasons why we're taking it down, then why on earth are people still festooning their children with the Jolly Roger? This abhorrent symbol was used to perpetrate acts of terrorism, theft, murder, and rape. And now we hold festivals in its honor (there's one coming up near my town later this summer). Similarly, my hometown in northern Maine, where Swedes settled in the 1800s, sells merchandise covered in the images of Viking helmets and longships. Though Vikings might be celebrated in a romantic fashion now, it's worth reminding ourselves that they were largely known in the old world for their unsavory habit of murdering unarmed monks.

I throw out these examples not to advocate the cessation of pirate flags and Viking helmets, but to point out that the reason for removing the Confederate flag isn't primarily about the things that were done back in the 1860s (though of course, that's connected to the real reason). Rather, it's about the fact that a segment of our population right now perceives it not as a symbol of heritage and pride, but of rank racism of the worst kind. We don't mind the pirate flag and Viking helmets now, largely because there's no set of our population that has been victimized by Vikings and pirates, and so there is enough historical distance to allow the symbol to shed its hateful attributes and retain its romantic ones. 

But the nature of a symbol is that it speaks, and it doesn't simply speak to the person using the symbol; it speaks to the entire watching public as well. So the perception that other people have of the symbols I use should make a difference in whether I choose to use them or not. There's a very simple biblical principle behind this: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So, if there are symbols out there whose public use would offend and anger you (such as the Nazi flag), then you must admit that your perception of the symbol matters, even though you're not the one flying that flag. In the same way, if you're following the Golden Rule, you have to take into account the perceptions of others regarding the symbols you choose to use. A couple examples of this: when I was working in Sudan, even though I'm proud of my home country, I didn't openly display the American flag. Why not? Because it didn't mean the same thing to my Sudanese friends as it did to me, and it would have given offense and gotten in the way of the Kingdom-friendships I was seeking to build. But choosing not to use that particular symbol didn't mean that I loved my country any less. Similarly, in the first few centuries of Christianity, the cross was not the preferred symbol for the public display of faith. Why not? Because it would have been radically misunderstood by the public.
Instead, Christians used other symbols for their faith, like the ichthus (which represented an anagram of Christ's name and title) and the chi-rho (a combination of the first two letters of Christ's name).

 So, for my southern friends, the message is simple: for the love of your neighbor, choose a symbol that isn't offensive, something that hasn't been tainted by its association with morally repulsive organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, or with dubious "sports" like NASCAR. Choose a symbol that still speaks to southern heritage and pride, but which doesn't scream "racism" to a large segment of your population. I admit that it is a bit of a shame that the Stars and Bars will have to go, because it was an aesthetically appealing flag.
The Confederacy really should've chosen an ugly symbol, like Hitler did with the swastika and the toothbrush mustache, that no one was sorry to leave in the dustbin of history. You could probably even get away with using one of the other Confederate flag designs, like this dorky one proposed in 1862. But the main point is to make sure that your symbols are not simply an expression of personal pride, but also of that very greatest of Christian commands: to love your neighbor as yourself.

1 comment:

Ann Brackett said...

Thank you, Matt..this helped me look at this debate in a different thou neighbor as not be offensive to others.