Flags, rebel souls and the real villain

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When I was in the fifth grade a special pocket knife caught my eye. It was under the glass counter in a little country store. It was gray with two Confederate flags set in a cross position.

The Civil War and my childhood view of it fascinated me. Growing up around its battlefields in south Atlanta my brother and I “reenacted” war games as we imagined them. Tim, my brother, was the Northern army and I was the Confederate army. Our mother even played special martial music for us.

I look back on those childhood games with mixed emotions. What did I know about the horrors and carnage of Civil War battles? Even more telling, the evil of slavery and what was at stake in the war of brother against brother were not a part of my 10-year-old worldview. Yet some sort of Southern loyalty and sentimentality won the day.

The Confederate battle flag has been pushed front and center by recent events in Charleston, South Carolina. A seriously disturbed young man walked into a church Bible study and killed nine African-Americans in cold blood. Pictures soon appeared of the killer displaying the Confederate flag. Racist motivation had pulled the trigger in an unspeakable crime of animus.

The response of the families and church was stunning. Forgiveness and racial reconciliation took over the story. It was amazing. There were no riots, only grief soaked in love.

But the Confederate flag and its association with the old South, slavery, and segregation ignited a fresh debate. Many began to clamor for its disappearance from all taxpayer-related properties and celebratory events.

The reality is that the Confederate battle flag is viewed by many, especially African-Americans, as a symbol of hate and racial prejudice.

There are those who resist this charge, arguing for it as a symbol of Southern heritage and honoring the remembrance of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. My friend and fellow elder in our church, Ed Sherwood, offers a helpful perspective on these issues.

“A forgotten perspective: What seems lost in the Confederate emblem-symbol debate is that after the war many in the North wanted vengeance and retribution on the South. After all, they were the victors! Cooler and more prudent heads in the North prevailed. The effort for the most part was on reconciliation and restoration of the Union.

“It was not easy nor without setbacks. Reconciliation was encouraged, often led, by the very men who fought and killed each other on the battlefields of America’s bloodiest war. Their effort was to honor and respect each side’s sacrifices and terrible losses.

“Even so, slavery remains a stain on our entire nation’s heritage, not just for the South. The blot extends its reach well throughout the Northern states where merchants, industrialists, and ship owners benefited and were enriched by slavery. The North’s population at large was not greatly concerned about the plight of slaves. Thankfully the abolition movement arose in the churches of the North.

“Tearing at the South’s heritage and honor now by removing statues, names, or symbols revives the hate, vengeance, and strife which was mitigated, but not ended after the war. All suffered. The war ended rightly. Slavery was abolished.

“Let’s return to a focus on forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Much progress against racial discrimination, tension, and conflict has been made. Still more needs to be done. We should not turn the clock back to allow the spirit of ‘killer angels’ to prevail in our great nation again.

“My hope is that the faithful churches of both the North and South will rise to the challenge. Can we continue our quest for “E Pluribus Unum” and “One Nation Under God”? These thoughts seem far removed from the present debate — to our great shame and loss.”

These words bring needed clarity into the conversation about the Confederate flag conflict. Christians should seek the well-being of our nation, working for unity, without attempting to erase historical realities.

The Civil War has been over for 150 years. There is bridge-building to be done between blacks and whites. South Carolina is to be commended for its government’s response by removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds.

To those who run to lift up a fallen battle flag, I would offer a caution. The Confederate flag was used as an in-your-face defiance of court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s (I saw it happen). I have a great-great uncle who died in the Confederate army in Petersburg, Virginia, but I take no pride in the cause of defending slavery.

Complicating the conflict over the Confederate flag are those who wish to declare war on many of the symbols of the old Confederacy. Do we really want to sand-blast the Stone Mountain memorial? Why not a unified effort to rectify the blind spots in our Civil War memorials by honoring the heroism of African-Americans who overcame slavery and segregation? It is better to let history speak rather than erase it.

We are not called to our better selves by political demagoguery, vengeance seeking, racism disguised as Southern patriotism, and the editing of history.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has spoken wisely: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Why do we not listen and learn from the pain, suffering, and abuse of power in our history? The apostle James leaves us in no doubt about the source of wars and the miseries humans can inflict upon one another, slavery and racial prejudice being among them (Jas. 4:1-2). The injustices of our past are but symptoms of alienation from God and one another. Sin is the villain.

There are evils besetting us which can only be overcome by good. And the greatest good for followers of Jesus Christ is the flag of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Rebels we were, enemies of Christ, haters of God, and enslaved to sin. Pain as a result of that rebellion, whether in body or soul, can be the occasion for the triumph of the gospel. Our war against God and our slavery to sin call upon us to look to the flag of truth. As C.S. Lewis (“The Problem of Pain”) has famously said:

“No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendments. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”

Dr. Howard E. Dial, pastor emeritus
Berachah Bible Church
Fayetteville, Ga.