The Southern Baptist Convention voted to "repudiate" the use of the Confederate battle flag today. Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote this touching piece. The vote was not unanimous, and it was not easy. It had vocal opposition. Make no mistake, though: The resolution still passed with overwhelming support.
As an outside observer the last two years, I have felt a strong desire of the people of the SBC to put the sins of racism behind them--even if they aren't sure exactly how to do that and if their language around race can be awkward at times. Their efforts, I believe, are sincere. Before the vote today, there was an extended dialogue on racism on the main convention floor--unprecedented in their history as they take the conversation deeper than ever before. The Twitter feed was nearly unanimous in its support for that racism discussion, with only one lone comment expressing exasperation for continued dialogue on the topic--a comment which was ignored by all the rest.
The flag resolution today took real courage, and the SBC should be commended. It will take even more courage as this resolution is implemented in churches and towns all over, as one dissenting voice warned. But they took a giant step forward today.
Those who opposed it said their opposition had nothing to do with racism. Rather, it was based on their right to express their heritage and avoid a never-ending slippery slope of political correctness where everything could potentially come under fire, including the flag of the USA which has also flown on slave ships. Removing every name and every symbol with a negative connotation would not leave much, they argued.
The transformative moment arrived when former SBC president and descendent of Confederate soldiers James Merritt spoke from the floor with leadership and presence. Noting how the flag is often a barrier for evangelization, he said, "All the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race." I encourage you to watch it here.
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Imagine you are an African-American walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood at night.
You are alone. Suddenly, a car drives alongside you and slows down. It has a Confederate flag proudly displayed in the back window, perhaps with other aggressive symbols or a gun rack. Your heart starts racing. What do you do? Should you expect to be attacked or will they offer help? You immediately go on high alert. Should you be thinking about ways to escape or defend yourself, or can you just go about your business? You are kicking yourself for being careless and roaming too far into unfamiliar territory--you promise to yourself that if you survive you won't ever go into that part of town again.
There is no luxury to leisurely ponder whether this flag is just an innocent expression of cultural heritage or whether it announces a threat. Your life may be on the line, and you have to react as if it is. You relive this trauma over and over every time you see this flag.
It is precisely in this way that the symbol is itself an act of violence--even when it is just passively hanging in a front yard or in the back of a vehicle.
That's how terrorism works. It's a constant stream of hints, taunts and outright intimidation with the goal of disorienting and destabilizing others--and ultimately limiting and controlling their behavior. It's not just the violence itself that terrorizes, but rather the environment which is saturated with constant suggestions of violence. It often comes in the form of a polite face with a sinister intent. Doubt is dizzying as folks are unsure where and when the next attack is coming and who they can trust.
It may be just an innocent expression of heritage for some folks, but think of the impact it may be having on others.
Just try to put yourselves into the shoes of an African-American person. For decades, this flag has used by the KKK and other hate groups--and continues to be used by them actively in the present day--to terrorize and intimidate an entire race of people.
When people fly that flag, they are continuing to terrorize people who have been through enough. And enough is, by definition, enough.
It's like taking someone for a ride who has just recovered from a terrible car accident and then driving recklessly at high speeds, just for laughs.
It's like inviting a veteran with PTSD over to your house and then unexpectedly setting off fireworks behind him. There is nothing inherently wrong with fireworks, and maybe your family has a long history of using them. But some sensitivity is in order! If that is truly too much to ask, then it begs the question: Why in the world is that too much to ask?
In a twisted way, racist aggression is actually a hidden compliment to black folks--for people to expend that much energy trying to keep others down, they must be completely afraid of what would happen if that other group's full power were expressed. That may be poor consolation to victims of racial terrorism, but it is worth pondering what makes so much of white America so insecure and afraid of real black power. Why else would someone spend so much effort trying to keep another race of people down? It has to be fear.
When Christians refuse to distance themselves from this flag, I have to wonder why.
If you are married, you technically have the right to wear a ring that your previous girlfriend gave you. After all, it's just a part of your heritage and history. You can put it right next to your wedding ring. You can tell your wife that it's just a symbol of the past, "just trust me." But by doing so, you are putting an incredible burden on your wife. That ring is a constant symbol of doubt about where you stand today. It belongs in the far back corner of some drawer that rarely sees the light of day. Or better yet: In a pawn shop.
I have to admit something: When people say they fly the flag just to express their "heritage," I often don't believe them. Or at the very least, I am left unsure. I suspect they could be expressing passive-aggressive racism in disguise. They may say it's not about racism, but they are doing the absolute, complete bare minimum to show that and leaving the door wide open for doubt--as I pointed out earlier, doubt itself is a weapon of terrorism. Maybe some white people are sincere and don't intend that, but whether it's intended or not, it can and does bring that consequence. When someone does the absolute minimum, it is often a form of resistance.
The flag that we refer to as the "Confederate Flag" was a minor battle flag during the Civil War and only rose to prominence afterwards as a symbol of Jim Crow and the KKK. The Confederacy had other, more official flags, and I have never seen any of them flown. Yes, this flag has also evolved over time to be a general symbol of the South, but it's real claim to fame came during Jim Crow and can no longer be separated from that. It is still one of the most popular symbols of hate groups today. It's usage as a symbol of hate and aggression is simply too extensive, too deep and covers the span of too many years. There are plenty of other flags that could be used to celebrate the history of the South that could do a more convincing job drawing a hard line between any racist connotations.
A symbol can have multiple meanings. I understand the argument that people should be able to avoid racism without having to erase their own cultural heritage in the process. But make no mistake, the history of this flag may be forever linked with white supremacist terrorist groups. It can and will bring those other associations along. It can and will continue to re-injure and re-terrorize, just like in the example above of the person walking down the street. Its usage by white hate groups for so many years means that it promotes oppression by its very presence. If you don't like that fact, then please direct your anger to the KKK and others who have tainted the symbol rather than to the people who say that enough is enough and want to put an end to it.
To those who are opposed: Please stop complaining that the "political correctness police" are taking away all your toys. You sound like little boys, and little boys need to grow up and become men. I'm sorry you feel like limiting hate speech is an unbearable burden of tyranny. The truth is you have a tremendous opportunity--such a small act can go a long way toward healing and helping a great multitude of people.
If you feel oppressed by being pressured to give up the flag, just imagine the oppression the African-American community has experienced for hundreds of years--and continues to experience.
Little boys pout because their toys have been taken away. Grown men have broad shoulders and know they are strong enough and secure enough to ensure that expressing their rights does not come at the expense of others. The irony is that while you are worried that the political correctness police are "oppressing" you, the fact is that you are putting a tremendous burden on your neighbors and, in fact, oppressing them far worse. Let's find a better way for all. Yes, you still have the right to display that flag--but the question remains, why would you given the harm it continues to inflict?
Today, the SBC showed what mature Christians look like. Instead of focusing solely on their "rights," they made the decision that best expresses Gospel compassion, even if that means enduring tension in the community and making a sacrifice. It is, after all, a small price to pay on a long road of repentance and reconciliation. I was there and believe an historic moment took place. Energy shifted in this denomination, perhaps forever. So for all the SBC members who fear they may be losing a part of their heritage, I say: Fear not. You all did a fine job of building on that heritage today and have much more to share than ever. Congratulations!