“But it does make a difference if you hurt your friend terribly, risking his eternal ruin! When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ. A free meal here and there isn’t worth it at the cost of even one of these “weak ones.” So, never go to these idol-tainted meals if there’s any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters.” – St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 8 (MSG)
As I write, the South Carolina legislature is considering whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from the confederate war memorial on the State House grounds. The state Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor, and the straw polling among members of the House of Representatives suggests the results in that chamber will be the same. Governor Nikki Haley has already indicated her willingness to sign such a bill, so it seems the Confederate battle flag will move to the Confederate relic room.
A little bit of (personal) history
In an earlier post, I explained that I am the great-grandson of a Civil War veteran. My grandfather was the youngest of eleven children born to his father, who had served as a private in the 30th Regiment, North Carolina Infantry. My grandfather was a teenager when his father passed away.
I say this to establish that the war and its significance — and the family ties — are all quite strong, so this is not abstract theory for me. Even though I am proud of my family and I am eligible to join any of the historical societies established for descendents of Confederate soldiers, and even though I could assert a right to display the confederate battle flag, I choose not to do so. I want to explain why by means of the following thought experiment.
The picture on the night table
Imagine for a moment that you’re married and that your wife has decided to place a matted, framed picture of her college boyfriend on the night table beside the bed the two of you share. In addition to finding it bizarre, you find it offensive, especially since you know their relationship was serious and you suspect he may have taken liberties with the woman who is now your wife. And because you love your wife, you have a healthy level of jealousy.
When you express your disapproval, she explains to you that you’re misinterpreting the symbolism and that you don’t understand what a great guy he is. When you counter that you do not approve of the face of her ex-boyfriend gazing over the marriage bed, your marriage bed, she explains she is commemorating a bygone era and some fond memories. When you say that her displaying of the photo suggests she would prefer to be in his arms instead of yours, she says that’s silly — she’s just honoring the past. “And besides, it’s a great picture!”
In a healthy marriage, no such display would take place, and pictures of or with old flames, if any, would be in boxes or photo albums.
Free to choose
I don’t presume to speak for all African-Americans, but I have heard enough of my black friends express views on the Confederate battle flag similar to the husband in the thought experiment above. Whatever virtues the old South possessed — and I would argue that there were many — the Confederate battle flag has been tainted by its connection to the evil of slavery and through its adoption by bigots of the vilest sort.
While I acknowledge and believe in the sincerity and good faith of those who argue “Heritage not Hate,” there are enough instances to the contrary to make the Confederate battle flag an unsuitable symbol. For this reason, I choose not to exercise my liberty or to assert my rights when to do so causes pain to people I love, and I do not support its display on government property. However, I believe private citizens should be free to make up their own minds, just as I have done.
Love your neighbor
In the first century, the issue in the church was whether it was proper for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul the apostle instructed believers in Jesus to understand that their freedom to eat this meat must be tempered by consideration for the well-being of others. When we choose this because we are motivated by the love of God to love our neighbors, it is a beautiful thing.
Where do we go next?
Some people believe this gesture of goodwill from South Carolina should be the beginning of a cultural purge. In this view, all Confederate monuments — from statues and cemeteries, to public streets, to toys, to cars on television shows, to colleges and universities named for Confederate generals — should be renamed, removed or paved over. I think this is a terrible idea, no matter where you line up.
Let’s agree first that this attempt to erase the past is a fool’s errand. In the age of the internet, it simply won’t work. Second, let’s recognize that this is the sort of book-burning impulse that people on the left used to regard as a hallmark of fascism. Third, note who else in the world is going about destroying ancient monuments. I won’t name names but their initials are I-S-I-L. And last, knowledge of our history — good and bad — is valuable to ensure we learn from the past as we build our common life. That kind of civic-mindedness and genuine grace doesn’t come from compulsory groupthink.
If we ban or eradicate every vestige of the past, we deny ourselves the opportunity to appreciate the tremendous progress we have made as a country. So now we find ourselves at or very near the end of what law can do to make men virtuous. That won’t stop some people, however.