Yes, Remove the Confederate Flag. But What Then?

Yes, Remove the Confederate Flag. But What Then? June 30, 2015

I have a pretty strong personal history of wrestling with the memory of the Confederacy. Having lived all over the South, I grew up hearing stories from relatives about the Lost Cause and how the Yankees took everything we had during Reconstruction. There was little mention of the role of slavery in the Confederacy. I pretty much accepted these ideas, and became more engaged in the country-music, southern nationalism, Hank Williams Jr. scene in high school (in South Carolina) and early college. As was not unusual in those days among the white students at Clemson, we put a Confederate flag up in the dorm room window my freshman year, the same year in which I made a profession of faith in Christ. By the end of that year, though, my roommate and I agreed to take it down, not wanting to convey the wrong impression to black friends. Our witness as Christians should not be muddled by that flag.

Confederate flag over Fort Sumter, S.C. 1861. National Archives.

I found it fascinating to fast forward two decades and watch most political, business, and religious leaders in South Carolina now decide, in the aftermath of the racist murders in Charleston, that the Confederate flag should come down from the state house grounds. And of course it should. There’s nothing lost by taking it down, and whether we like it or not, keeping the flag up implies official endorsement of what the Confederacy stood for, which was the power to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. (A cursory search of Confederates’ explanations of secession demonstrates that this was the case.)

Yet somehow I feel a strange lack of satisfaction in this moment coming to pass. Part of this is just a pained reaction to the murders in Charleston, and taking down the flag in response is a rather modest gesture – and an easy one in the current political climate. (When virtually all politicians and business leaders agree on something, prepare to be underwhelmed.) Still, it is the right thing to do. Even if it is only late-arriving symbolism, symbols matter. And white Baptists carry a special responsibility to be out front on this issue (one they have largely accepted), given the circumstances of the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding in the 1840s.

Taking down the flag does nothing to address the massive ethnic inequalities in American society, though, or the thorny issues raised by the breakdown of families, inadequate education, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t know what we should do about many of these issues, because they are so deeply rooted in factors far upstream from politics. I do believe that strong churches are an integral part of alleviating the plight of the urban poor, which makes the shootings of church leaders in Charleston that much more loathsome.

I also wonder about the “end of the line” on removing aspects of our history. Taking down the Confederate flag is not an especially tough call, because it is flown on the state house grounds. But there’s a risk that these kinds of symbolic gestures will only keep polarizing our historical understanding. Many Americans seem to think that we can easily stand in judgment of past actors, with the breezy confidence that we would have done better if put in their situation. Symbolic representations of anyone who does not meet our test, the thinking goes, are to be erased, vandalized, or otherwise dishonored.

This kind of judgmental history produces a defensive backlash: hagiographical history of the kind favored by Christian America partisans. For these folks, the Founding Fathers, or the leaders of the Confederacy, were Christian moral exemplars who shouldn’t be questioned. We might mention their complicity in slavery, the Christian America advocates concede, but only to note that our heroes were “good” slaveowners and “kind” to their slaves.

Neither side in these history culture wars have much patience for moral complexity, or the realization that all of us are sinners with massive blind spots. That fundamental defect was true of our American history heroes, and it is true of us, too.

So yes, let’s take down the Confederate flag, because we repudiate the political project for which the Confederacy was created. But let’s also remember that it would not take long for many of us to find in our own institutions and genealogies, both North and South, evidence of complicity in slavery. It is tough to stand outside that reality and serve as an omniscient judge of the past.

Let’s further remember, with humility, that if any of us were born into a white American slaveowning family in the early 1800s, we would have undoubtedly lived and died as pro-slavery people. As much as we might like to imagine it otherwise, we would not have been the lone heroes thinking outside our cultural box. Good history should chasten and sober us, not make us congratulate ourselves for our moral superiority.

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