It’s about loving your neighbor: The Flag Controversy

For 2 days, South Carolina sits stunned at the news that a sullen 21 year old boy, hyped up on white supremacy nonsense and hoping to start a race war, spent an hour studying the Bible with a group of African Americans at a legendary AME church in Charleston before pulling out his gun and shooting 9 of them dead.

Stunned.

We all struggle to speak, because really, what can I say?

But I can add my voice to the rising tide of others who are willing to be so bold as to challenge the narrative that there isn’t a race problem in America, that this is all caused by angry black people or poor black people or good-for-nothing lazy welfare black people or [insert your other favorite slightly racist but still acceptable conservative statement here].

I can challenge the reality in my state of South Carolina that above our capital, on the grounds, flew one flag yesterday at full mast while all the others were at half: The Confederate flag. The flag that signified the South’s proud assertion that they were sovereign in 1860 and they are sovereign now over any federal mandate.

We could easily get bogged down in an argument over that sovereignty. I’ll leave that to the armchair historians.

But if you think that the value of the Confederate flag as a statement of sovereignty means anything in face of our American white/majority culture that glorifies violence in general as symbolized by the right to own weapons of violence, and refuses to relinquish power over what defines racism — well, here we must disagree.

The question of what SC needed to do with its flag was settled a decade ago with a compromise: remove the flag from the actual statehouse building but fly it on the grounds at the Confederate memorial instead.  Ok, that’s decent I suppose. I’m fine with history.

But the flag. That flag. It nearly throbs with the emotions attached to it by both sides: those who feel like their Southern culture and way of life are being ripped from them and must then clutch to the orange and blue symbol as a rallying cry to keep out anything that suggests we live in a different world. And by those who see in the flag a constant reminder of the lynchings (144 in South Carolina alone), the lunch-counter sit-ins, the beatings that accompanied the Civil Rights marches, the man who was shot dead by a Charleston police officer just two months ago.

Folks, the hate isn’t stopping. And our refusal (as those with power and privilege) to acknowledge this hate, to own it, to take responsibility for the backbreaking work of pushing against the capacity of the human heart to manufacture evil – that refusal is hurting us.

It’s a failure to love.

The Great Commandments are these: Love God (as hard as you can all the time with everything you have) and Love your neighbor as yourself.

Friends, our neighbors are the ones mourning the shots fired and the nine lives robbed from the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday.  And our neighbors are telling us that racial attitudes in South Carolina are not fine.

The Confederate flag is not a neutral symbol of fried chicken, biscuits, sweet tea, and big trucks. It’s a physical manifestation of our failure as Christians in South Carolina to give up our “love” for “Southern heritage” (whatever the hell that means) on behalf of actually carrying out our mandate to flood every corner of this dark earth with the Gospel: the Gospel that condemns racism and sexism and classism, the Gospel that enables us to love God and neighbor, the Gospel that recognizes sin and names it for what it is and roots it out. 

I’d like to share Dr. Anthony Bradley‘s outstanding commentary on South Carolina’s moment in the spotlight in the wake of this shooting, as the flag’s presence over the capital — padlocked to its pole so that no one can ever take it down, or even lower it to honor innocent people slain by racial hatred — has moved to the forefront.

Dr. Bradley is a scholar, a PCA minister, and one of the few minority voices within my denomination. The PCA just last week passed a basic statement of repentance for our tainted and murky racial past. Bradley is clearly a brave man to be willing to hang out with us here in all our whiteness and Presbyterianness. And he’s brave enough to say this on Facebook and elsewhere:

The video referenced in this post is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7m5kWC90a6I
The video referenced in this post is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7m5kWC90a6I

Calling out this paragraph as the heart of his argument, and it’s a point that may cost me some friends by repeating it:

The spirit of the Confedrate battle flag remains alive and well in South Carolina because conservative Republican evangelical Christians have yet to place “loving your neighborhood” ahead of a romantic idolatry of “states’ rights and the old south.” Until black people become more important than “the Southern way of life” by white Christians, who hold the state’s economic and political power, the community of discourse that produced this shooter could keep producing people who are just as evil.

I don’t *need* for famous people to agree with my point of view, but it’s nice when it happens. 🙂

To save myself from typing:

FB lori comment

A friend of mine teaches at a school in the Greenville area and one of her German students struggled to understand why the Confederate flag is even defensible given America’s yearlong carnival of racial violence and shootings:

Michele student

Of course, it’s hard to find a more eloquent commentator on American flaws than Jon Stewart….. I still can’t cope with the reality that he won’t be a voice for us much longer ….. he had this powerful statement last night in response to the shootings. And I’ll let this be the last word (you can also read this summary at WaPo if you don’t have time for the video):

Among many excellent points, Stewart says:

I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.

And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.

Update, 11:30am:
This excellent article by a South Carolina native and minority woman is a gentle reminder that South Carolina life is complex and messy, just like life everywhere. I’ll post it here because her viewpoint is important and necessary if we are to move past condemnation into hope:

Social justice is complicated and the lack of it is fraught with local nuance. What I ask from my friends who will and should add to the public conversation on the Charleston shootings is that they consider this before they tweet generalized condemnation.

from “My Complicated Relationship with South Carolina”

Update, Saturday, 1:30pm:

One of the best articles I’ve read in a while, Osheta counsels us to stop talking and listen, setting a trajectory of response that is Gospel-rich. “I’m sorry” and “I’m listening.”

 I’m sorry tames the anger.  “I’m sorry” respects the pain. “I’m sorry” positions you as a friend and not adversary.

I’m listening because we’re called to be reconcilers.

from What I need you to say in response to the shooting in Charleston

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