Why everyone is wrong about the Confederate Battle Flag

There has been a lot of ridicule on both sides of the Confederate Battle Flag issue. Both sides seem to want to decide what the flag means.

The MoveOn.org petition to remove the flag from the South Carolina state house reads, in part “The Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern pride but rather a symbol of rebellion and racism.” On the other side defenders of the flag, and of the south in general, talk about their heritage and how it in no way represents racism to them.

The problem with both sides is that they are seeking to give a universal meaning to a symbol. But the meaning for that symbol lies in the viewer of the symbol, not in the symbol itself. So MoveOn can’t say that the flag represents rebellion and racism, but not southern pride. Of course it represents all of these things to different people.

We know that to most black Americans, it represents nothing good and all of the evils done to black Americans in the name of states’ rights and southern heritage. To some white southerners, it evokes nothing but good feelings and regional pride. To a nine-year-old boy watching “The Dukes of Hazzard” every Friday night, I can assure you that the flag meant nothing but silly hijinx and lots of cars jumping over things and crashing.

But to some, the flag is a signaling mechanism for racism that they are no longer allowed to proclaim openly without severe consequences. I don’t know what it means to you, and it doesn’t matter exactly what it means to you, because it means something different to each of us.

We can’t successfully defend our positions or act as moral agents if we seek to redefine symbols for others. We can’t tell people what to think about their symbols — be they visual or verbal. And while we can certainly shame and ridicule those who believe differently than us, we achieve a noble end by ignoble means.

How do we successfully navigate this quandary as moral agents? How do we behave as Christians? The answer to this moral question is empathy. Jesus identifies the two greatest commands (I’m paraphrasing here) as “Love God” and “Love Others.” How do we love others? By treating them as we wish to be treated.

If someone says to me, “Your words really hurt me,” my response as a Christian is not to tell him or her to “toughen up” or “get over it.” I am supposed to ask myself, “Would I like to be hurt like that?” If someone says to me, “Your flag really hurts me,” how should I respond as a Christian? Shouldn’t I listen and seek to understand the hurt?

By the same token, if someone says to me, “You hate my flag and it hurts me,” shouldn’t my response be to listen and try to understand the hurt, rather than explaining why that person is actually wrong, and a racist, and an ignorant hillbilly?

But, you say, this is different, because we are right! The flag is a terrible symbol. It hurts a lot of people.

Everyone thinks they are right. The fact that you happen to be right does not excuse unkind behavior. The answer to being right all the time is to listen and to love others. The greatest commands don’t just apply when you are wrong. They also apply when you are right. When Paul was instructing the Ephesian church in how to counter false teachers, he instructed them to “speak the truth in love.” And that’s what you have to do, even when you are right. Especially when your opponent is definitely wrong. Especially when your opponent is hurting you.

So yes, of course I think the flag should come down. I don’t think we should display symbols that cause deep division and pain among a significant number of our people. Those beliefs don’t come from a concept of “political correctness,” but from the second-greatest commandment. Neither do I think that we should be shaming those who believe in that flag innocently, as so many do. Instead we should seek to understand. We can’t redefine their symbols. But we can love people, and when they believe that we love them, they might even listen.

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