South Carolina, the Confederate Flag, and Leading Smart

Many leaders and commentators have said much regarding the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the Capitol building in Charleston, SC—the place where nine African-American Christians were shot in cold blood after a church service at Emanuel AME Church.  The shooter?  Dylann Roof, a man with racist ties to numerous organizations who felt he had to do this.

My intention isn’t to talk about the shooting, but about the controversy surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag.  As someone who was born in Virginia and has a great love for all things Civil War, I understand both sides of how one approaches the Confederate flag.  One side says this flag merely represents the heritage of the South, and nothing else.  Another side sees this flag as a symbol of race-based slavery and oppression.

I recently put up on my Facebook page a link to Russell Moore’s article, “The Cross and the Confederate Flag.”   He closed the article with this paragraph:

That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt—and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.

I agree with this—but I would like to add some thoughts:

No one can change history.  It happened.  Slavery happened.  Jim Crow happened.  Segregation happened.  Racism still happens. Taking down the flag will not change history.  Those pages have already been written.  Removing the flag will not remove history.  More is the pity.  We can’t change it—but we must beware we don’t embrace it or revise it either.  More on that later.

No one can change hearts.  Suppose the South Carolina authorities listen to the outcry and take the flag down.  Will that change the hearts of those engulfed in racism?  Will that remove all the bitterness that racism has caused?  No!  The only thing that can change hearts from outside is the Holy Spirit who shines the gospel.  Taking down the flag could result from the same motive as stores keeping the word “Christmas” in their advertisements and verbiage—it doesn’t mean they agree.  In the case of the stores, they just want your business.  In the case of politics, they risk saying, “We just want your vote!”

South Carolina leaders can lead smart to initiate change.  Yes, removing the flag will not change history or hearts, but the symbolism of the flag is powerful—as all symbols are.  In the Christian tradition, the symbols of the cross, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, serve as powerful symbols of a reality.  Christ identifies the reality, so we have help in understanding the symbols.   One of my church members rightly pointed out that the American Indians, given our respective history with them, could look with offense at our American flag and ask us to remove this.

So here’s the takeaway.  Remove all the Confederate flags, you won’t remove the racism.  Remove all the Confederate general references in the bridges, parks, and street names, and you won’t change the history—nor will you change hearts.  The issue for the leadership in South Carolina moving forward is this: will they be proactive in their leadership in showing Charleston, South Carolina, the South, the nation, and the world that you do not embrace anything regarding the race-based connections their history holds?

That involves more than keeping or removing a flag.  That involves recognizing that whichever way you go, you will face opposition from one camp or the other.  Leadership is not about pandering to one camp or another to get their vote or their funding.  Leadership means joyfully embracing that which emboldens all citizens to move forward together with a common goal for wisdom, justice, and reconciliation.  If that means taking down the flag, then so be it.

But taking down that flag in itself may serve as a symbol moving forward.  It’s just not the end of the solution—but it’s a start.