On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments


South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. chrispaavola  |  June 29, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Love your stuff, Zach. You have a great way of Biblically identifying the sides without casting judgement in all of your commentaries.

    Two points- the CNN piece is a great, concise history of the flag. Thanks for including that in your post. I wish the Dixiecrat use of the flag would have gotten more press time during this debate to help people understand the collective association with racism. Too often I heard, “It wasn’t even used in the Civil War” which, as CNN noted, is a bit myopic.

    Second, it’s a tad circular to decry how this issue has “divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps” right after you write that “a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand”. Gun issues ARE secondary and symptomatic of the deeper sin issue in Roof’s heart, which you later point out.

    Because of that, I’m glad most of the debate is focused on racism and symbols of racism instead of gun control. Which seems more in line to your conclusion to remain faithful to “our first loyalty… not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God.”

    I don’t know if that’s what you meant, but I did want to respond.

    Reply
  • 2. Greg Gremmer  |  June 29, 2015 at 10:15 am

    I am not sure what the overall point is, but I am certain, as a child of that era, as an entrepreneur since the age of 25 (now 58), as a Christian, and as an American that believes in self-determination, I have mostly disagreement with Kennedy’s speech. Kennedy, never in his life, knew a single moment when he couldn’t just snap his fingers and have anything in the world delivered to him or have another human being taken out, so I believe that his dismissive view of the economic engine that helped make this nation great – and continues to do so despite great politically motivated intrusion – might be naturally myopic. The GNP is the sum of all the efforts of individuals, companies and communities in our society, good and bad – if we are reducing this to a hypothetical math problem. Building America, financially, took a great deal of wit and courage, not to mention determination and sacrifice. And to say our economic engine didn’t care about the health and well-being of children, their education, and the joy of their play is ridiculous considering all the investment into opportunities in each of theses areas that were afforded by our economic engine through that period of time. Kennedy attributes all the bad and none of the good in our society to our “GNP” because that just makes for a better discussion in his progressive circles that wish to place all the blame for societies ills and woes on the actions of free individuals so as to set up the government as the arbiter of all solutions and all things good. Police and armored cars were necessary to fight riots in the streets because there were riots in the streets from time to time. It’s part of life in a sinful world. We were fortunate to have had an economy that provided the means for our law enforcement officers to protect us and maintain order for our survival’s sake. As far as the strength of our marriages, the economic system of his time was built very much in favor of enabling a family to support itself and live in a traditional way – although it doesn’t seem to as well now. And, as far as the beauty of poetry, whatever. The confederate flag is not the deal. Take it down, if that’s what people in that state want – that’s their freedom. But aiming the discussion towards where to keep guns away from misses the point of the discussion, which that church specifically did get, and that’s on forgiveness and love and how to bring peoples hearts to a point where this hate isn’t so prevalent. And we know there is only one way that pendulum can be redirected. In that regard, if the church would like to be more proactive in its dealings with racism, leaders might view the fact that America is never more racially divided than on Sunday mornings, and might take steps to naturally integrate our churches and Christian efforts.

    Reply
  • 3. Mark Hoelter  |  June 29, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Zach – just responding to your question about why the flag became a topic of debate, a photo of Roof holding the battle flag was posted. Google confederate flag and Roof and you will find it.

    Reply
  • […] heels of a horrific racist shooting in Charleston, a fight erupted over whether and how to display the Confederate flag. And a secret video of a Planned Parenthood executive talking casually about abortion and the sale […]

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