June 27, 2015 by Pastor Ben McIntire
Four years ago I was visiting family in North Carolina on a summer vacation. We happened to be there over the Fourth of July weekend, and as many Americans do, we went to the morning parade. What astounded me, growing up in Iowa my whole life, were a handful of trucks and tractors flying Confederate battle flags in the Independence Day parade. Sure, you see that flag on things from the ‘69 Dodge Charger on “The Dukes of Hazzard” to beer koozies. But to see it flown with pride during a celebration of American freedom is both an oxymoron and an offense. It’s an oxymoron because the Confederate battle flag was flown during battles when the losing side was fighting to maintain the institution of slavery; the antithesis of freedom. The offense this symbol of rebellion and slavery gives is certainly understandable for those of African descent, whose ancestors may have been enslaved in this country or who have experienced the horrors of social and institutional racism for themselves. But this flag should offend all Americans when it is flown as a symbol of pride, just as most Americans would react to seeing a Nazi swastika flown on the grounds of a state capital.
The tragic deaths of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC has once again sparked an outcry for addressing issues of racism, violence and terrorism. This tragedy hits close to home for us Lutherans, as members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, because Dylann Roof, the shooter, was a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC and both Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Daniel Simmons, the two pastors killed during the Bible study, were graduates of our ELCA seminary in Columbia. Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, released a statement saying, “one of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”
Bishop Eaton continued, urging ELCA members to “spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.”
As media attention shifts from the attack to the political stage and the debate over the Confederate battle flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol building, I worry that the public will lose sight of the real issues of racism, inequality, and discrimination. It’s hard to tackle the big, complex, institutional sins like these and stay focused to accomplish real gains, especially when there is an faster “easy win” out there, like getting someone to take down a flag.
My good friend and amateur Civil War historian, Rev. Matt Metevelis, recently wrote, “I’ve been reading Civil War history for about as long as I can remember. The sin of racism was national for a long time and pervaded both sides of the Civil War conflict. People in private spaces can interpret the Confederate flag how they want within limits provided by the first amendment, but in public spaces it has no place. Despite powerful efforts at historical reconstruction, the Confederacy was about one political aim: perpetuation of the institution of slavery and its perverse logic limiting human rights to one race. That doesn’t mean that every Southern soldier who fought to defend his home was evil, just fighting for a cause that was not only ‘lost’ but wrong. Confederate veterans can be remembered by the American flag just as well—the country that forgave them and secured real universal freedom for their children and which is still struggling to provide equality for the children of those they oppressed.” It seems like a no-brainer, this symbol of insurrection, rebellion, slavery and racial inequality cannot stand in a public space. Even Warner Bros. is removing the Confederate battle flag from the roof of Bo Duke’s “General Lee” model cars and other licensed toys. These are steps in the right direction, no doubt, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back for these mundane achievements in light of the more imposing challenges of systemic racism and institutional inequity.
This Independence Day, as we gather to celebrate the birth of our nation and the freedom we hold so dear as American citizens, my prayers will echo those who gathered to mourn at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; prayers for the strength to forgive, for courage in the face of terrorism, for healing from this violence and the peace of mind that was shattered, and for the Spirit’s guidance to learn to be united as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”