The Confederate Flag has become, somewhat surprisingly, the focal point of the Charleston, SC shooting tragedy. Though I agree the flag should be removed from public buildings and from any representation on state flags, I am concerned by how it has happened. History is a weapon in the culture war and things will only progress from here.
Russell Moore, executive director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argues, based on Christian beliefs, that the Confederate Flag should be removed from public spaces because of what it represents for too many of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
David French, also an evangelical Christian, defends the flag on National Review Online. French, a military veteran and also a southerner, argues that the flag is a complex symbol that clearly denotes the evils of slavery and racism, but, at the same time, it represents both the battlefield valor and the shame of losing for whites native to the region. He doesn’t back away from slavery, but he hopes that as a piece of history, we see the flag and use it to learn the painful lessons of our past.
Given these two points of view, I side with Russell Moore, but the academic in me hates to see our past, even its darkest parts, scrubbed away. Before we even get into that, let’s consider a few ideas:
- There is little to no relationship between the murderous rampage that killed nine innocents and the Confederate Battle Flag.
- Millions of whites live in the South without mass murdering African-Americans. Seeking linkages between the region’s past and this madness is one of convenience and not one of intellectual necessity. A madman’s motives, no matter how we view them, are still wielded by a madman. His associations are not our associations.
- The Confederate Flag is a complicated symbol that bears many meanings, some of them contradictory. White southerners, like French, see the valor of Lee and Jackson. African-Americans, understandably, see oppression and evil. To some degree, both are right. This does not have to be an either/or proposition.
- State flags like Georgia and Mississippi, which featured the stars and bars, were put in place by Democrats, yet Republicans are being dragged into this issue, presumably because they are now the dominant party in the region. As they disentangle the states from the symbol, they are doing the right thing. Let us be clear, however, that the Democrats are the party of segregation, the party of Jim Crow, and the party of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. It was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who filibustered the Civil Rights Act for eight weeks. It was a Democrat, not a Republican, who stood at the door to resist federal troops. It was a Democrat, not a Republican, who called out the National Guard to prevent African-Americans from enrolling at Central High in Little Rock. Therefore, if it is fair to ask Ted Cruz about the Confederate Flag, it is equally fair to ask Hillary Clinton about her party’s past.
- Most symbols bear multiple meanings based on some degree of subjectivity. Just as the Confederate Flag is a symbol of oppression and valor, so is the Jefferson Memorial, Mount Vernon, and the work of Betsy Ross. In other words, if we are searching history for pure, early American symbols devoid of racism, the search will be a long one. History, since it is largely a study of human beings, is full of triumph and tragedy. While it may sound foolish to argue that the progressive wrecking ball will eventually include such things, just give it time.
I am worried about this movement to sanitize our history, even of its sins. Granted, there is a difference between refusing to glorify our sins, by displaying them on public buildings, and pretending they never existed. But the line between these extremes is more faint than we might imagine. The impulse to expurgate knows few boundaries.
Several years ago, my Berean colleague Tom Mach and I took a group of students to Europe on a World War II themed trip. We went through parts of England, France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria, so we got to walk through history, both inside and outside museums. We visited Nuremberg, where the Nazi party held elaborate rallies, some of which were captured by Leni Riefenstahl in the Triumph of the Will. Much of the infrastructure for those rallies was destroyed either by Allied bombing or during the American occupation. The Zeppelin Field, which largely consisted of a massive grandstand, mostly survives. Part of the grandstand includes a stage that was once dominated by Nazi elites, including Hitler. Walking over those grounds, touching the stones soaked in bile, and standing where Hitler stood was fearsome.
Berlin was different. Hitler’s bunker was destroyed, and any buildings associated with the Nazis were razed. Instead, just next to the Brandenburg Gate sits the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial is made of hundreds of cement rectangles of varying heights, divided by rows. At first, I was flabbergasted by the display. It seemed an odd, overly abstract monument that robbed the Jews of their suffering. But once I walked through it, and experienced its separation and the anxiety, I began to understand its power. Berliners have also preserved portions of the wall that divided their city for so long. There is a line of bricks, that snakes across the city, which replicates where the wall stood. There are also segments of the wall fully preserved. The wall’s scars are nowhere near healed and citizens are reminded of it daily.
Experiencing and seeing history is invaluable for developing empathy. Striding through ruins builds mental pathways that books cannot construct.
I cannot fathom what it must be like for an African-American to gaze upon the Confederate flag as it sits atop a public building or even as it dangles from a window. I am sure it is wrenching, a constant reminder of a past that stains us. At the same time, history surrounds us. Removing it or pulling it down does nothing to counter it. Obliterating history means we can no longer learn from it–for good or ill. To learn from the sins of the past, we must experience them, even in a limited way, sometimes freshly.
Perhaps this means, as Rand Paul has suggested, that the Confederate Battle Flag is best suited for a museum and not public display. There, it can be experienced by choice. But the flag, like the war that produced it, is American. It is part of a past with which we must grapple every day.