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Knowledge & News
Thought provoking topics and series, necessary news and information.
Yes, people are still talking about this. Honestly, we need the practice. Not one-sided rants on social media, not fear-fueled nor hate-hardened caricatures of every opinion different from our own, but dialogue. Discourse. If you're considering commenting and contributing to a civil conversation, please read Collective's community statement (bottom of page) and proceed. Mike does a great job of educating, offering his perspective, and inviting our reflection and engagement. Enjoy!
As we all know, the “rebel flag” has become a focal point of news media lately. Governor Nikki Haley’s call to remove it from the State House grounds in South Carolina following the Charleston tragedy has ignited raucous support and opposition. This is an important conversation that starts now, and provides a powerful opportunity for us as Christians (or whatever we consider ourselves at Collective) to bring redemption to a cultural system that has fallen short of Christ’s standard of grace and redemption.
I am qualified to say this as someone raised as a Southerner in that cultural system, with the mythos and baggage of the South in my life in a very personal way. I have had to think a lot personally about how I view my own history and culture in the past weeks, and although it is uncomfortable, it is good. What makes me more uncomfortable is the lack of earnest engagement between people of different cultural backgrounds (black and white, Northern and Southern, insider and outsider). What follows is some information to hopefully help break the ice and start this engagement on a note of understanding and grace.
Fellow Southerners: what you should know
1. No one is limiting your free speech by removing the flag
The flag is not being made illegal to fly; it is being removed from the grounds of government buildings in a move towards reconciliation. Free speech means that the government of South Carolina is free to remove a symbol of armed insurrection against itself from its grounds. This is not unreasonable. We don’t see British flags in the eastern U.S. We don’t see Spanish flags in California. No one is saying that flag can’t be flown; the government is deciding it doesn’t want to fly it.
2. The rebel flag is a divisive symbol
By using the “rebel flag” as a symbol, Southerners elevate the most divisive period of our history above the rest of it. Keep in mind that although the majority of Southerners weren’t slaveholders, the government of the Confederacy did not believe in racial equality of any sort, and statements of secession state this in very plain language. What many people may not realize is that to an outsider, the rebel flag could represent not wanting to be American because it symbolizes the four years when Southerners were removed from America. In this way, flying the rebel flag could come off to an outsider as a desire to be sequestered away and not participate in or contribute to greater American culture. Just as big a dividing point was the flag’s prominent use in White Supremacist politics, featured prominently alongside figures like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Whether you like it or not, all that baggage is there, and there has to be a better symbol for our heritage than that.
3. The South is much bigger than the confederacy
Although the Confederacy is one formative part of the South’s history, it is not the whole of it. It is not even the most impressive part. Great authors, inventors, statesmen, musicians, theologians, businesspeople, and freedom fighters litter the South’s history. A tiny minority of these great people had a hand in the brief chapter of the Confederacy. The vast majority of them did not. To elevate that tiny subset above all of the other great Southerners is unfair and sends the wrong message to outsiders.
4. Southern culture is just as African as it is European
Yankees: what you should know
1. Most southerners who fly the flag are aloof, not malicious
Most Southerners who fly the battle flag either don’t understand or don’t acknowledge the significance of the “rebel flag” to outsiders. And the reactions that the flag elicits are typically either coldness and distance or anger and confrontation. The only way most Southerners are ever talked to about the flag is angrily, usually by an outsider who comes off as talking down to them. This is not a recipe for sensitivity and genuine engagement. Outsiders should adjust their behavior accordingly. You would be surprised the seeds you can sow with an earnest conversation.
2. Southerner's suspicion of outsiders is historical
The period following the Civil war is usually taught in school as the Gilded Age, where America developed the DNA of a future world superpower by developing its industry and infrastructure. In the South, this period is known as Reconstruction; a time when Northern Republican politicians ran on platforms of hammering the South with economic sanctions and land grant resettlement by outsiders (against the wishes of the deceased President Lincoln), keeping white Southerners for the most part poor and angry. This was not a recipe for progress; these outsiders created a stagnant South that struggled to move forward economically and socially for 30 extra years. The South, which was already behind in development, was slowed down even more. In this way, Northerners have a big stake in Southern racial division; Reconstruction reinforced and nurtured old social patterns of anger, poverty, and division and paved the way for 20th century Jim Crow politics, in addition to reinforcing Southerners’ suspicion of any federal action on their behalf to remedy these problems later on.
3. Slavery was a national sin, not a regional one
Additionally, the largest race riots and lynch mobs of the 19th century happened north of the Mason-Dixon, with the biggest of the Civil War in Manhattan. The point is that shirking the responsibility for America’s national shame onto the South is a cop-out. The entire United States, North and South, has to face its brutish heritage, and work to undo the unfair parts of that old system that still live on to this day.
4. Individuals are judged by their actions, not their historical period
The vandalism of Southern civil war monuments has become an internet phenomenon. Just last week, in Chapel Hill, NC, just up the road from me, “Silent Sam,” a monument that commemorates the UNC students who died in the Civil War, was spray-painted. Although it is right to raise the question of which of these monuments should be kept and which should be renamed or rebuilt in a different light, we as a society must remember that judgment should be made based on the merits of that person’s life, not the consequence of their historical period. There were many racist and vicious people who architected and helped run the Confederacy. But there were some who were brave, fair, and intelligent. And celebrating those values in dark times such as a nation at war with itself is certainly a point to be visited. I hope that the conversation surrounding these monuments and what parts of Southern history we want to celebrate is made in earnest and with understanding from white and black Southerners.
Where Grace comes into it:
First and foremost: the flag coming down is a good thing. It is the start of a long and painful conversation that black and white, rich and poor Southerners must have about their cultural tradition. Redemption comes from the fact that a major point of emotional disengagement for black Southerners is on its way out of public life. Hopefully, as the conversation warms, white and black Southerners can start to celebrate their unique and complicated heritage in a truly collaborative way; seeing what they offer each other and working to grow together and support one another rather than divide. As a Southerner, that’s the South that I want to see; that’s the South that I want to raise my kids in and take part in and contribute to. And I’m pretty sure Jesus would be into that, too.
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We value highly the metaphor of journey. We’re different people from different places and backgrounds, representing an intergenerational community, and we’ve traveled different paths. So, we agree not to make assumptions about the person across from us, next to us, or in conversation with us. We challenge ourselves to be sensitive, knowing this community includes a diverse group of people from life-long followers of Jesus, to people who are just now open to the idea that God might exist. We strive to avoid offense, ask good questions, articulate and explain our responses. We don’t assume fluency in bible, spirituality, or Church language, because we believe the message of Jesus is not for Christianity, but for humanity. So, we do everything in the spirit of love and grace.