The Confederate Flag vs. The American Flag

Recently, a former student of mine, Dale Swearingen, posted the following on Facebook:

“I just want to post this as a discussion point:  If the Confederate flag should be removed because it’s mostly being linked to racism and violence, then shouldn’t we also remove our current flag due to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans?”

Let me first point out that this is a fine example of how to approach a difficult and controversial subject.   How we say what we say is as important, I believe, as what we say. Dale’s post is not accusatory, insulting or overbearing. It invites discussion and reflection. Civic discourse — the way we talk about social issues in public — is actually quite important. As historian Tracy McKenzie points out in The First Thanksgiving, all too often we use history or civic discourse for the purposes of ammunition rather than illumination. I’m guilty of that too often, myself.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.  What flags do you see?

Selma, Alabama, 1965. What flags do you see?

Second, a short answer to Dale’s question is that while it is true that both flags point to a history linked to racism and violence, there is still a significant difference between the two. The American flag has been used to justify unjust situations, but it has also been used, historically, by the oppressed in American society to remind Americans that we are still not as just as we could be. It was carried by black civil rights leaders in all the key civil rights moments, including the march in Selma. Native Americans commonly fly the American flag at events tied to their identity, such as Indian rodeos. Cesar Chavez, who worked for the rights of poor Mexican-American farm laborers was often pictured in front of the flag. It is a flag that has been embraced by just about all American communities. (Jehovah Witnesses and the Amish are exceptions, for theological reasons.) Some members of these communities have protested against the American flag or seen it as a sign of oppression, but they tend to be minorities within their own communities.

However, when have blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, religious minorities or other “outsider” groups working for justice flown the Confederate flag? What causes for justice has the Confederate flag stood for? Some fly it for the cause of states rights, or the cause of southern whites who feel marginalized, or vague principles of being a “rebel” against the establishment. But these have been narrow and limited causes.  And they have all been bound up in racism.  Am I missing a bigger cause that the Confederate flag stands for that includes all Americans?

So there is, I believe, a qualitative difference in the ways the two flags have been used in American society. When the day arrives where whites and blacks march together with the Confederate flag for causes against some sort of evil or injustice — particularly against racism –then I will start to change my view of the overall cultural meaning of the Confederate flag.

But even that response, while valid, does not get at all the issues.

There is another, deeper, more sobering point that all Americans need to consider. Dale’s question gets at a hard but an important historical question for all of us who are Americans: what about the injustices that have been tied to the actions of the American nation? It’s possible for white northerners to argue about the Confederate flag in a way that puts all the hard ethical, social and relational work on someone else. But addressing racism and race relations in our society is hard work that applies to all Americans.

What is included and excluded in "heritage?"

What is included and excluded in “heritage?”

One way to think about Dale’s flag post is to consider the way that the word “heritage” is often used. Some have argued that the flag (and this applies to both the Confederate and American flags) has been used for racism or hate, but that is not what the flag is really about. It’s really about our heritage. And heritage is about what is good in our past. Therefore, both the American flag and the Confederate flag are really about noble ideals.

That can be a tempting route to take because it is optimistic and easy to understand.

Too easy. That understanding of heritage produces national denial. It pains us to see a friend or a loved one deny that they have a problem when it is clear they are struggling with something like addiction. Similarly, it should pain us to see our culture in denial when struggling with a social problem like racism.

Slavery. Indian Removal. Discrimination against immigrants. Gender inequities. Segregation. Religious discrimination. These are inescapable aspects of American history. As such, they are part of our heritage, just as much as the Bill of Rights, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and votes for women are part of our heritage. Furthermore, the American heritage of racism would not be a great problem if we were at a point today where we have figured out racial problems. We haven’t. So let’s try to understand the problem better.  You can’t do that, fully, without understanding history.

Others have said that the flag is a sign of hypocrisy. American history is full of people in power who have preached justice, equality, and freedom, while denying it to those outside of their group. Therefore, the flag is about historic injustices.

That can be a tempting route because it takes a strong stand on justice and is easy to understand.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America's past.  And feel self-righteous about it.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America’s past. And feel self-righteous about it.

Too easy. That understanding removes me from having to search myself for any connection to injustice. That makes it pretty easy to be self-righteous. You can do this if you are white, by the way. Just identify with the oppressed in America’s past in such a way that enables you to say that the collective problems of injustice in America are caused by other people, or groups that you don’t identify with. The historian Howard Zinn tended to write history this way. If you have ever run into his books you see he presents a searing critique of the United States. (Actually, his work is a bit more complicated than that because of his Marxist worldview, but I think the basic stance still holds). He was provocative, which can be helpful, but mostly I found it was too easy to agree with him in a way that produced self-righteousness.

Nobody likes to face sin within themselves. In the same way, we don’t like to face sin in those in history we identify with. And who, from the past do we identify with?   Southerners, blacks, whites, Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, workers, women, Indians, Democrats, Republicans, immigrants, business leaders — there are many, many options here. But we’ll instinctively and unconsciously want to defend those we identify with, while ignoring their sins. That’s one way we sin.

Christians ought to be good at confessing the sins of those we identify with. Alas, I confess that we are not always good at this. I include myself in this. We ought to be good at confessing the sins of Christians in the past because we believe that sin infects all of us. We Christians ought to be good at this because we should be humbly and sincerely confessing our own sins on a regular basis. And we Christians ought to be good at this because we know that, by the grace of God, we are forgiven when we confess our sins. And Christians we ought to be good at this because we know that through this grace, God transforms us into more of what we should be.

So where does that leave our discussion on history and the flag? I’ll say this about the United States: it is a land that has been deeply stained by slavery, segregation and racism, but it is also a land that has provided opportunities to address these evils. Democracy doesn’t make us good, but it can provide the freedom for good people to address injustices, sins, and problems within society.   And it can give us the freedom to try to change them. It’s not easy, but we have the freedom to do the hard work. The problem is that we also have the freedom to completely ignore the hard work. (Hey, do you want to play a video game or go the mall?)

A truly good patriot and good Christian, then, does not deny the sins in America’s history.   A good patriot and good Christian will soberly look at America’s history to gain deeper understanding about how past sins have been effectively addressed and what, historically, has brought about justice, freedom and equality in an American society stained by sin. And a good patriot and good Christian will then ask, how am I a part of a system, an institution, a way of thinking that is bound up in this?

Is Religion Declining in the U.S.? Don’t Bet On It.

Every now and then, some very smart people in the United States take a look at society and conclude that religious commitment is declining.  These smart people have been saying this since…..1660.  That’s when the second generation of Puritan ministers started preaching sermons, which we call “jeremiads,” bemoaning what they saw as the decline of religious faith in New England.

And with that, a proud American tradition was born:  predicting the decline of religion in America.  Secular leaders have declared this with some satisfaction, seeing it as an example of progress.  Christian leaders, like the Puritans, have declared this with anguish, seeing it as a way to stir complacent congregations to action.  The reported decline of American religion is such a common practice that that is has popped up every two decades or so for the past 350 ears.  And then the smart people are proven wrong by reality.

The line between secularism and religion keeps shifting and taking on different forms, but religious commitment keeps persisting.  I’ve been suspicious of the recent declarations that the rise of the “nones” mean that religion is declining in the United States.  I have been doubtful, not just for historical reasons, but for the way that the data has been interpreted.

Thomas Kidd, a professor of American history at Baylor University, (and an excellent historian, I should add) analyzes the data much better than I can.  You should read his blog post, which can be found here.

(For those that read my last post, I should tell you that, yes, I am still planning another one on the flag controversy.  In case you are interested, that is).




Kenya, The Confederate Flag, and History

The first time I saw a Confederate battle flag up close, I was in Kenya.

(You know, you really can’t predict what you will run into when you become a missionary).

Back around 1990, I was teaching American history to high school students at a boarding school in Kenya. Most of my students, the children of missionaries, were Americans from both the South and North. But I had a few Africans, Norwegians, Koreans, and Australians in the mix. When I got to the Civil War section of the semester, a student named Scott brought in his Confederate flag to display in class, as a matter of pride. With his Yankee classmates in mind (and his Yankee teacher, no doubt), Scott presented the flag like he was wearing a college football sweatshirt on the Friday before the big game. It was if he were bringing an Alabama Crimson Tide flag to a classroom with a bunch of Ohio State fans in it.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught.  I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn't take a selfie of me and my class every thirty minutes, like I do now.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught. I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn’t take a selfie of me and my students every fifteen minutes, like I do now.

(I really don’t know what the Norwegians and the Africans thought of all of this. But in that boarding school setting most students were used to odd cultural juxtapositions popping up regularly.)

Scott was a good guy: earnest, hard-working, a bit squirrely at times, but someone who wanted to do what was right.

So we had a conversation about the flag in class. I explained that he needed to realize that many people look at that flag and see racism. As I recall, Scott replied that he didn’t see racism when he thought of the flag. He said he thought about his family, and barbeques, and enjoyable times he had back home in Alabama.

And in that setting — a multi-national boarding school in Africa, with a framed picture of the Kenyan president hanging on the wall, jacaranda trees blooming outside our window, his parents 1400 miles away in Zambia, and his grandparents 8000 miles away in Alabama — I could see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in Scott warm, cherished memories of home.

But then I think of another southerner. A black southerner: John Lewis. Born in 1940 near Troy, Alabama, Lewis attended segregated schools. After hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, Lewis joined the Civil Rights movement. He participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joined the Freedom Rides on desegregated buses, suffered beatings by angry mobs, and was arrested more than forty times.

He also helped organize the famous march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, designed to insure that blacks in Alabama would be given their right to vote. In the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis was nearly beaten to death. Quite a few of the white state troopers who beat him had the Confederate battle flag on their helmets.

State trooper at Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.

In that setting, I can see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in John Lewis memories of inferior school facilities, police beatings, political resistance to equal rights, threatening epithets shouted by whites, and terrorists who killed blacks. The last of which, as the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina has reminded us, has not ended. (Actually, have any of them fully ended?)

Several observations. First, the Confederate battle flag is not one thing. I’ve seen people say it “is” racist and others say it “is not” racist. Strictly speaking, neither of those comments are true. The flag is a symbol, and symbols elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences. I associate the flag with a lot of things, including a classroom in Kenya, which I’m guessing is not a common connotation. I’ve only scratched the surface with Scott and John Lewis, for the associations are all over the map, so to speak.

The difficulty here is that symbols and images have power. This is why advertisers find all kinds of clever ways to stick scantily-clad women into commercials — those women will elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences (not necessarily healthy ones) in the minds of the viewer.  If the scantily-clad women provoke positive connotations in the viewer, the viewer will automatically (without even thinking about it) feel more positive about the product which has, of course, no real connection to the scantily-clad women. But the viewer will be more likely to buy the product. That’s how symbols work.  They influence behavior.

But not all associations are created equal. Some give a fuller picture of reality than others. Some — like Dylann Roof’s association of the Confederate flag with a race war he wanted to provoke — are quite dangerous. And whether or not the viewer realizes it or not, they are tied to history.

So how should we, as a society, handle these conflicted associations with the flag? It’s difficult. In the end, I think the problem with the Confederate flag is its history — a history that is tied too heavily to a burden of racial injustice.  When Scott told me what the flag meant to him, as I recall, he didn’t make any historical references, even though it was a history class that provoked his actions. While his individual conception of the flag was not much of a problem, the flag is a social and cultural symbol, which is a problem. So while individual associations elicited by the flag may be harmless and sometimes even admirable, the cultural and collective history of the flag has been largely one that has elicited, supported and promoted racist behavior and systems.

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

How?  Well, here is a brief history of the flag, in case you have not heard it by now. Many people today don’t realize that the Confederate battle flag had not been flown or displayed very much between the 1870s and the 1930s. During that time, it really was not a common symbol of the South. In 1948, some southern Democrats called Dixiecrats split with their party because they opposed civil rights legislation.  In the process they waved, and in many ways resurrected, the Confederate battle flag as a symbol for their cause. From there, it appeared in all sorts of public conflicts over civil rights.  Whites who burned civil rights literature waved the flag.  Whites who appeared at civil rights marches to protest civil rights flew the flag. Soon, the flag was popping up all across the South.  It spread into the white segments of southern culture.  So, it started with a political movement to oppose equal rights, maintaining racist connotations in many quarters, even as it also spread out to comparatively harmless uses beyond the South, as can be seen with the “Dukes of Hazzard,” NASCAR races, and tacky coffee mugs.

Some people will say that the original use of the flag was not tied to racism. This is the historical argument that the South was fighting for states rights, not slavery, in the Civil War.

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

This is not an accurate understanding of American history. The essential reason that the southern states supported states rights and turned to secession was to preserve slavery. In other words, slavery caused the states rights agitation and was the primary cause of the Civil War. I can provide mountains of evidence for this. Academic historians know this, but alternative interpretations of the Civil War have been around a long time, (think of “Gone with the Wind”) telling the story of the war in ways that divorce it from slavery. These stories are deeply flawed.

Furthermore, the states rights dynamic lay behind the resurrection of the flag a century later. The state of South Carolina did not raise the flag over the capitol grounds until 1961, right in the middle of the civil rights conflicts. There were official pronouncements that this was to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Some people have argued, therefore, that the flag was not tied to racism, but to a war fought over states rights. Besides the flaw in this view of the Civil War, it masks another dynamic in the South in the 1950s and 60s.  Similar to the political forces that caused the Civil War, opposition to civil rights drove a lot of southern states rights arguments in the 1950s and 60s.

Selma, 1965

Selma, 1965

I understand that some people hold warm and rather innocent associations with Confederate flag. However, this is largely possible because these associations have erased blacks and race relations from the history or from current conception of the South. And that is a problem.

And yet, even as I believe that the flag should come down from governmental sites, and even though I care about this issue, I actually have little emotional investment in this conflict, compared to many blacks and white southerners.  As a white northerner, the flag neither forms a key part of my identity nor insults it. That makes it easy for me to take a stand. But there are historical and theological implications in an issue like this that are tougher to come to terms with.  And they apply to everyone.  So, for all of you non-southerners out there, I have more for you to think about, which I will get to in my next post.



Breaking News: The New York Times Has Discovered Evangelical Christians living in New York City.

We interrupt our sporadic string of “Circuit Reader” blog posts to report that the New York Times has come across an amazing discovery: there are evangelical Christians —a lot of them –living within the very borders of the Big Apple.

The Times, with its modest motto, “All the news that is fit to print,” regularly reports on topics that it deems essential for human flourishing, including politics, education, business, sports, arts, automobiles, health, food and (what is so obviously central to the meaning of life), fashion.   It has devoted regular sections to each of these.

Religion does not have its own section because, unlike fashion, nobody finds it important. Plus it is fading away as the United States becomes more secular and it will soon be irrelevant. Particularly virulent and oppressive forms of religion, like evangelicalism, are only practiced by close-minded or rather unstable white people in the Midwest and the South.

These people live in New York City?

These people live in New York City?

But this entire view of the world may be undermined by this new discovery. The Times reported today, shockingly, that there is “An Evangelical Revival in the Heart of New York.” Using painstakingly dogged investigative journalism unseen by a Times reporter since Billy Graham drew 2.4 million people to his NYC crusade in 1957, the newspaper has discovered that this Saturday there will be a festival in Central Park that is expected to draw 60,000 people. The evangelist Luis Palau, who is actually well-known by people in exotic places like Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala City, Wheaton, Dallas, Santiago, and Pasadena, will be preaching.

900 of the 1700 churches supporting the festival are Hispanic, an ethnic link which may have led the Times to this fascinating discovery. Even more surprising, the newspaper has found that immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa find comfort in the lively atmosphere of New York City AND pentecostalism. In another breakthrough, akin to the accidental discovery of penicillium mold by Alexander Fleming in 1928, research has revealed that there are between 1.2 million and 1.6 million evangelicals living in New York City,

What's this?  Evangelicals read books?

What’s this? Evangelicals read books?

“The size of the festival belies the city’s secular reputation and speaks to the vibrant evangelical movement in New York,” the newspaper reported in a rather puzzled tone.

No word yet on whether or not this means the Times will pay attention to religion in the future.



Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Rioting

The disturbances in Baltimore a couple of months ago have me thinking about riots in the United States.

Do you remember that time when the Secretary of State was extremely worried about the rioting in Boston? The city, he said, was in a state of disorder, lives were in danger, local law enforcement had not effectively suppressed the riots, and troops would need to be brought in to establish order.

One to two thousand people had roamed the streets, attacking houses, beating up people and burning property.

The year was 1768 and the Secretary of State was Lord Hillsborough, speaking before Parliament in London. The disturbances in Boston had been provoked by government officials in Boston who had seized a ship, the Liberty, which belonged to John Hancock.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

Yeah, it was one of those American Revolution things. The Sons of Liberty were out leading the way. Rebellion against the British, and that sort of stuff.

Riots of various sizes and dimensions were actually somewhat common in the American Revolutionary era. Between 1760 and 1775, there were forty-four riots in the American colonies.   Fortunately, the main grievances were gone after the British were defeated and the United States could rule itself. And so, in the 1780s…..riots still popped up. In the 1780s there were major riots in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia and Charleston.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

The young nation, however, made it through the turbulent period of its founding. And….there were more riots. Between 1830 and 1860 there were thirty-five major riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In fact, in every decade of American history, we can find at least one major riot — usually more. I discussed the Philadelphia Bible Riots in my last post. The New York City draft riots during the Civil War (which were not the only riot in during the Civil War) lasted for four days and killed 105 people. The Great Railway Strike of 1877 provoked riots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and many other cities, leaving more than one hundred dead.  The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (one of twenty-five in the U.S. that year) left thirty-eight dead and thousands of black families homeless. The 1960s, of course, produced many different kinds of riots. And you may remember the Rodney King riots in the 1992. These listed are just the tip of the iceberg.

But why do Americans do this? The Canadians refrain from rioting, unless hockey is involved. Riots have been pretty common throughout U.S. history, though.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

A common response is that riots are driven by irrational people who get angry and then can’t control themselves. Some blame riots on people who just want to take advantage of an unstable situation to rob and steal. I read comments recently about the riots in Baltimore that declared that those people don’t know how to protest.

Were the riots in Baltimore simply an example of people who just did not know how to use available democratic means (petition, protest, political action) to address problems?

There is more to it than that. History (are you surprised?) can help us see more clearly. In the vast majority of cases, we find people rioting because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a legal, political, social and/or political system is failing to address an injustice. They believe that normal political processes (petition, protest, political action) have not worked. That is why the violence of riots very often target specific properties or symbols of authority. You can find this dynamic in each of the riots I have mentioned, including the recent riots in Baltimore.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their a black Baptist church.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their thing…to a black Baptist church.

After the recent shooting at the AME church in Charleston, I read some people say that they were thankful riots did not break out. But I don’t think rioting was really likely in this situation. Partly, this is because of the rather amazing statements of forgiveness by the AME church members. But even without that, I think it was unlikely because this was not a situation in which the justice and law enforcement system failed. Dylann Roof obviously drew upon racist and hateful motives that can still be found in our society, but the law enforcement and legal system acted as it should. It apprehended him and initiated prosecution. Everybody understands that.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Conversely, rioting usually occurs when the legal system does not do what it is supposed to, at least in the eyes of the rioters. In Baltimore and Ferguson, there was a backstory (there is always a backstory) dating back decades in which blacks were treated differently than whites by law enforcement. The political or community efforts to address the issue were not effectively heeded by those with authority. The same is true of most riots through American history. The issues change, but the dynamics of the system are quite similar.

But I have been wondering about something else. The Sons of Liberty in the American Revolutionary era raise questions in my mind. Could it be that rioting in American history has often been an unfortunate but logical working out of several beliefs that are found among American ideas of democracy?

(FILE FOOTAGE) April 29, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, when a jury acquitted three white and one hispanic LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people rioted in LA over the six days following the verdict.

Rioters in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King decision do their thing.

There are several historical elements here. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the most important right of nature we have is to “defend ourselves” by all means. John Locke, arguably the Enlightenment political thinker who had the greatest influence on the creation of the United States, built upon Hobbes. Locke argued we have a moral responsibility to defend ourselves against those who seek to harm us. And, of course, in his social contract theory, Locke extended this to say that if the government authority acts against the interest of the people, they have the right and the moral obligation to resist this authority. These men, of course, were read by the Founders. Ben Franklin wanted our national motto to be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” has been used by those who see resistance to authority as a sacred duty.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015...ah, you get the idea.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015…ah, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between peaceful resistance and violent resistance. And it is very difficult to determine, under this thinking about “rights,” just when violent resistance is justified. George Washington thought that taking up arms against the British was justified, but that the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (in which excessive taxes were the sticking point) was not justified. Lord Hillsborough thought the Sons of Liberty were out of line. The Sons of Liberty thought they were working for, well, liberty. Similar divided thinking about justice can be found in just about every riot since then.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our conflicts in American society are handled through peaceful means. But there is still this underlying current of violence in the name of justice and rights that comes to surface occasionally, when a legal and/or political system is perceived as failing to address injustices. And, of course, we have not effectively solved all issues of justice in our society, so I expect riots to occur again numerous times in my lifetime. Rioting, unfortunately, may be as American as apple pie.