From Russell Moore:
This week the nation reels over the murder of praying Christians in an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the same time, one of the issues hurting many is the Confederate Battle Flag flying at full-mast from the South Carolina Capitol grounds even in the aftermath of this racist act of violence on innocent people. This raises the question of what we as Christians ought to think about the Confederate Battle Flag, given the fact that many of us are from the South.
The flag of my home state of Mississippi contains the Confederate Battle Flag as part of it, and I’m deeply conflicted about that. The flag represents home for me. I love Christ, church, and family more than Mississippi, but that’s about it. Even so, that battle flag makes me wince—even though I’m the descendant of Confederate veterans.
Some would say that the Confederate Battle Flag is simply about heritage, not about hate. Singer Brad Paisley sang that his wearing a Confederate flag on his shirt was just meant to say that he was a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped, “Little known fact: Jefferson Davis—HUGE Skynyrd fan.”
Defenders of the flag would point out that the United States flag is itself tied up with ugly questions of history. Washington and Jefferson, after all, supported chattel slavery too. The difference is, though, that the United States overcame its sinful support of this wicked system (though tragically late in the game). The Confederate States of America was not simply about limited government and local autonomy; the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections of law, to a great evil. The moral enormity of the slavery question is one still viscerally felt today, especially by the descendants of those who were enslaved and persecuted.
The gospel speaks to this. The idea of a human being attempting to “own” another human being is abhorrent in a Christian view of humanity. That should hardly need to be said these days, though it does, given the modern-day slavery enterprises of human trafficking all over the world. In the Scriptures, humanity is given dominion over the creation. We are not given dominion over our fellow image-bearing human beings (Gen. 1:27-30). The southern system of chattel slavery was built off of the things the Scripture condemns as wicked: “man-stealing” (1 Tim. 1:10), the theft of another’s labor (Jas. 5:1-6), the breaking up of families, and on and on.
In order to prop up this system, a system that benefited the Mammonism of wealthy planters, Southern religion had to carefully weave a counter-biblical theology that could justify it (the biblically ridiculous “curse of Ham” concept, for instance). In so doing, this form of southern folk religion was outside of the global and historic teachings of the Christian church. The abolitionists were right—and they were right not because they were on the right side of history but because they were on the right side of God.
Even beyond that, though, the Flag has taken on yet another contextual meaning in the years since. The Confederate Battle Flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils of our all too recent, all too awful history.
White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the aftermath of yet another act of white supremacist terrorism against them. The gospel frees us from scrapping for our “heritage” at the expense of others. As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of “y’all” and how to make sweet tea.
None of us is free from a sketchy background, and none of our backgrounds is wholly evil. The blood of Jesus has ransomed us all “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18), whether your forefathers were Yankees, rebels, Vikings, or whatever. We can give gratitude for where we’ve come from, without perpetuating symbols of pretend superiority over others.
The Apostle Paul says that we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). The Confederate Battle Flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.
That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt—and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.
It’s time to talk about this. I would ask Christians to set aside political and cultural lenses as best they can and prayerfully consider what 1 Cor. 8 may suggest to us about a Christian’s support for the adoption of the Confederate Flag as an official symbol of his/her state. Notice in this passage that Paul is not concerned with who is right or wrong about eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (he actually says that those who say there is nothing wrong with it are technically right, that the offended party is being too sensitive). Nevertheless, what overrides his concern? Peace, love, edification in the church. He says that Christians are free to eat that meat. They actually have very good reasons for doing so (it’s not really possessed, since meat is from God and there is only one God anyways, not matter what pagans believe). But if eating meat, which is morally neutral (so to speak) is offensive to the brothers, foments hate, distracts from worship, causes division, impedes edification, then we should refrain from doing so in the presence of the weaker or more scrupulous brothers.
I believe that the principle at play in 1 Cor. 8 applies to Christian support for official adoption of the Confederate Flag for their state’s symbol. No matter what a Christian may or may not feel about what the flag truly represents, it is not a hill worth dying on since it clearly causes division, pain, tension, offense among God’s people where there is neither Jew nor Greek.
But what about Christian liberty? Aren’t we free, without a clear command from God, to believe and support what we want politically? Well, this is a matter of Christian liberty, to be sure. Christians are free to believe what they want about the meaning of the Confederate Flag. That will vary from believer to believer. For some, it will be a nothing more that pure hate, rebellion, and racism. For others, it will be a valiant attempt to maintain something of true republican government. But this is beside the point. Indeed, the same was true about eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor. 8. It too was a matter of Christian liberty, and yet Paul advised them to use that Christian liberty for the harmony and peace of the church, not to have their rights vindicated. Maybe letting this go, conceding ground for the sake of peace/love, is what having the mind of Christ is like. After all, Paul told us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,a who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,b being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Basically, Paul asks us, on issues where there is no clear command from God, to be driven by love and the unity/edification of the church, not personal pride. Because where there are people placing personal pride above brotherly love, there is bound to be sin. How serious is he about this? Read for yourself: For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way [flaunting your liberty/rightness] and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”