June 14th is marked on the calendar as “flag day.” When my wife and I rode a trolley that morning through downtown St. Louis, with the Stars and Stripes at half-staff, little did I know what sort of flag day it would become. Before the day was over, an overwhelming majority of the Southern Baptist Convention would vote for a resolution repudiating the continued display of the Confederate battle flag. I voted with them and I hope some of my personal background and role as a local church pastor in the Deep South will help you not only understand why I voted this way but also why I hope my brothers and sisters in Christ come to the same conclusion. Just a couple of weeks ago driving through metro Atlanta, my eyes locked on to a shiny red tailgate. Just to the left of the latch were raised chrome letters and numbers reading “John 3:16.” Directly underneath this Scripture reference was a vinyl bumper sticker emblazoned with a Confederate battle flag and the words, “if this flag offends you, leave!” If we fail to recognize the inconsistency in this tailgate message, our failure is to our shame.
This real life example is what the resolution was about. If this brother or someone likes him reads this post, I hope you will reconsider what is seen by millions as a conflicting message and remove your bumper sticker.
Those who have known me who may even at this moment disagree with me can assure you I do not need a “history lesson,” I do not need to look up “heritage” and “hate” in the dictionary, I do not need a lesson on “the Saint Andrew’s cross.” I have read the biggest books on the war between the states, I have visited most of the major battlefields, I have been in battle reenactments, Confederate memorial services, and have in my past written in defense of the Confederate battle flag in publications. As a youth, I was part of an organization that saluted this flag with, “affection, reverence, and undying devotion.” There quickly came a time in my life of growing greatly uncomfortable with this sort of language. I can now articulate that feeling knowing I had warring worship and allegiances in my idol factory of a heart. Ultimately there came a time in my life where the Cross of Christ overshadowed the cross of the confederacy and my love for the body of Christ outgrew my love for the entire corpus of American history.
Here are a few compelling lines of thought as to why I chose to vote the way I did and why I would ask you to consider affirming and applying the resolution in your own sphere of influence.
History compels us
Those of us who have and continue to emphasize the “history” of the Confederacy and this particular battle banner are either ultimately ignorant of history or ignore history. By effect what we do is make more of four years of history now 152 years old than we do of the subsequent 152 years of history.
The day Grant returned Lee’s sword at Appomattox Courthouse the history of the flag his soldiers had carried was very young. Though present and cherished by many thousands of veterans in subsequent decades, the flag was picked up by nativist and racist domestic terrorist organizations ( I also have little tolerance for reminders that “the Klan” mostly opposed illegal federal occupation and brought justice to wife beaters and others. The klan’s antics have by far been more horrible and horrific than honorable at any time in history and most of those examples are smoke screens for selective vigilante violence against minorities .) This example should be enough for us to understand why people have a “problem” but the flag’s usage continued and saw an explosion across America and especially the Southeast in the height of the civil rights movement finding itself in demonstrations against integration from the Alabama state house to the schools of Arkansas. The most recent prevalent uses of the flag (90’s, 2000’s) have been by domestic terrorists and anti-government extremists (including the gunman in Charleston.) Maybe these images have been fueled by a biased news media, but that doesn’t change whether or not these images exist and those images were not born in a vacuum.
It does not matter whether or not the flag’s use and abuse is fair. What is ultimately unfair is to ignore these things as if they never happened.
For every one of you that can see your two or three times removed great grandfather fall clutching that banner at Manassas or Malvern’s Hill, there is someone who can see his or her grandfather or great grandfather beaten or lynched on the other side of that flag from Meridian, Mississippi to Marianna, Florida. Though those events are removed by up to a century, we cannot remove the reality of either event. Honestly, in my personal Mississippi bubble growing up, I was in environments where the short history was celebrated and eminent, while the long history was concealed and ignored.
I have met few if any brothers or sisters of a different heritage who will condemn you for caring for your family and family history warts and all, but emblems with historical baggage are not your ancestors, and we must understand the difference and the sincere hurt felt by many.
Honesty compels us
Closely related to a full history of an “embattled banner” is honesty with the usage of symbols. Though born in a historical context, symbols can and do take on a life of their own. Symbols, such as words, do not have meanings but usages. I recently heard a very striking example in that the word “furher” is not acceptable in polite society in Germany. It simply means “leader” but Hitler and the third Reich blew that meaning out of the water.
Consider this anecdote regarding the Confederate battle flag. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was not marching in Selma or Albany for voting rights but in Chicago against slums and unfair rent, the peaceful demonstrators were met by angry Italian and Polish immigrants waving Confederate battle flags. Most assuredly none of these 1st and 2nd generation ethnic minorities had grandfathers at Gettysburg, but they had seen this flag used as an intimidating totem against King’s demonstrators in the South. So here’s the same symbol, in the north, not the south, waved by immigrants with accents, not whites with southern dialects. Odd, but true. At this point a symbol had a use devoid of any context regarding the late “war of northern aggression.” It was instead being used by northerners for aggression against their neighbors.
People always matter more than symbols, save one (the Cross of Christ, see Galatians 5:11, 1 Cor. 1:23), and it’s that symbol that makes them matter.
Our Inheritance compels us
Everyone who is in Christ is of the same heritage and receives the same inheritance. We are after all, “joint heirs with Christ.” To an extent when we become a follower of Jesus Christ, we repudiate our family tree and heritage of blood for a tree that makes us all family by the power of one blood.
In some cases, I have found a greater kinship with brothers and sisters in southeastern Asia eating fish head soup and rice, than I have found around the table of people who look like me eating catfish and drinking sweet tea in the southeastern United States.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:28 – 29
I actually once had a man relate to me after a racial reconciliation message, “I hear what you’re saying preacher, but we will never be equal in this life.” He heard the message, but he didn’t get it, we are equal in this life (in our heritage in Adam) and we will be made equal in eternal life (in Jesus.)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. – Ephesians 2:13 – 14
Humility compels us
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves . Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3 – 4
When we refuse to take away a bumper sticker or change our shirt or whatever it is when we are sharing the gospel of Christ not only with but alongside others who may endure great emotional harm because of our choice of visible actions, we are not counting them more significant than ourselves. Our southern pride has trumped the humility of the cross, and we’ve not taken a minor action to prove a major love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we’ve placed a stumbling block in the way of those we hope to hear the message. And this, as Dr. James Merritt pointed out on the convention floor about three rows behind us Tuesday afternoon, is unacceptable as he observed, “all the Confederate flags in the world are not worth a single soul of any race. . . ”
Finally, I want to pastorally affirm and apply this resolution that the overwhelming majority of messengers at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention voted for. Let me explain what Southern Baptist pastors like myself are asking of our flocks and our brothers and sisters in Christ. What we are asking, is for you to visibly love your brothers and sisters in Christ and unsaved neighbors more than you love your fleshly heritage (Philippians 3:8). What we are asking is for you to love an eternal kingdom more than a failed four year American government experiment. What we are asking is for you to cling to the old rugged cross more than the ole rebel cross. What we are asking is for you to love your (international) Savior more than being a (white American) Southerner.
It is not just about a flag of a defunct country, it’s about a throne in a forever kingdom and those who surround it from every tribe, nation, and tongue.
It is time for those of us who put the “Southern” in Southern Baptist to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Stand up, stand up for Jesus! ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss:
From vict’ry unto vict’ry, His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.