A few weeks ago, I had to apologize to someone in my church. This wasn’t an insignificant apology, like, “I’m sorry I forgot our appointment.” This was an issue when I deeply wounded someone in the body of Christ.
A whole bunch of thoughts were going through my head, as I walked into this mediated apology session:
- Through my pride, I hurt someone who God cares about deeply.
- I didn’t deserve forgiveness, but I needed to ask for it.
- I sinned against this person, against others who were involved, and against God (Psalm 51:4)
- God values peace, and I needed to do everything I could to make that happen.
But one thing I wasn’t thinking: I never thought that I could walk into this meeting and demand forgiveness. I wanted reconciliation, but I would have understood if this person wasn’t ready to give it to me. (Thankfully, they were a lot more gracious that I would have been, and I was forgiven immediately.)
Even though God commands us to forgive each other, just as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32), I couldn’t insist on being forgiven. Forgiving is a choice of one who has been offended.
The Question at Hand
I am writing this blog post to my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially my white southern friends. Other people are invited to read this post, but I don’t think you’ll fully grasp where we are coming from. (Truth be told, I don’t fully understand these complex issues, but I’m working on it.)
Shortly after a recent racism-motivated massacre in Charleston, SC, many people were calling (once again) for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in Columbia. Others said that people were using this tragedy for political reasons, and it was not the right time to bring this issue up. (But exactly when is a good time to discuss this? It’s been an issue for at least 20 years. Thankfully, Governor Nikki Haley has bravely called on the SC Legislature to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds.)
So, this is the issue: Should Christians support the removal of the Confederate Flag from our State House grounds? And if we want to take it further, we can ask: Should Christians freely display this flag?
A Little Background
I’m not going to go into the history of this flag issue. You can do your own research (and share your ideas or ask questions in the comments), about what the flag represents, and when it was introduced on the State House, and why that was done.
Twenty years ago, I would have echoed many of the comments (and Facebook statuses) I hear today: It’s not hurting anyone, and most people are in favor of it. Plus, taking it down is not going to change some bigger issues, so why change anything? They just need to get over it. (And remember, I am a born Yankee, so I never had any ingrained love for Southern heritage.)
But my views have changed. And I don’t attribute those changes to be due to simple maturing or growing more liberal. My perspective has changed because my heart, soul, and mind have been regenerated by the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
I don’t feel that I have the right to tell someone to just “get over it.” This is especially true when the person insisting on moving forward is from the group who has held the power for decades, and centuries.
Should the side that is hurt offer forgiveness? Absolutely. But we cannot demand anyone to move past their woundedness, any more than I can demand forgiveness from someone I have hurt.
And speaking of forgiveness, I don’t see many southerners admitting past mistakes in this discussion. While it won’t fix the issue, it would definitely be a helpful part of the conversation, to admit that:
- Our system of slavery was a sin against man and God.
- African-Americans were regularly dehumanized and denied justice in the south for at least a century past the Civil War.
- South Carolina putting the Confederate flag (or whatever you want to call it) on the State House in the 1960’s was done for arrogant and hateful reasons.
While you may disagree that we should apologize for these past sins, we should at least feel deep remorse over them, mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). And our remorse should be deep enough to propel us to action.
For the friends that I have debated with on social media, here is the question I keep asking: How can you justify your position to keep this on the Capitol property, in view of Scripture? I have not seen one single attempt at an answer. Maybe you can help me out.
Rightly so, one person threw the question back at me: How can I support removing the flag on the basis of God’s word? Here is a start:
- I need to seek peace and the well-being of my brothers (James 3:18). The flag is an affront and causes strife to many of my Christian brothers and sisters. And it’s not just about being politically correct. We have to remember that slavery was only a handful of generations ago to many who are alive today.
- The Bible teaches that God made everyone from the same blood (Acts 17:26). We’re Colored People. But the flag represents outright racism, or at least a group of people considering themselves superior and in power over another racial (or ethnic) group.
- “All things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial” (I Corinthians 6:12). There is not widespread benefit of having the flag on the State House property. If this is something that is not promoting societal unity and well-being, why have it?
- We are called to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Instead of worrying about what we are risking if we remove it, we should be asking, “What’s the most I can be doing to love my brothers and sisters in Christ?”
Do you wonder how much black people are hurt (not just offended) by this flag? Read Benjamin Watson’s story. And then ask many of your southern, black friends what they think.
Any Christian who puts his “Southern Heritage” over our identity and unity in Christ, tramples on the gospel.
— Joey Espinosa (@EspinosaJoey) June 23, 2015
Or as CJ Rhodes wrote to a Mississippi state legislator:
“I dare not claim to know all the reasons why some brothers and sisters cling to the Confederate flag the way we are to cling to the old rugged cross.”
Heritage or Identity?
Most pro-flag people talk about how the Confederate flag is an important part of their heritage. Now, if we put aside the question of what kind of heritage it was, I can acknowledge that heritage is important.
But more important than our heritage is our identity. The Bible does not remove the importance of heritage, legacy, and tradition. However, it elevates our faith and our identity to a much higher place (Galatians 3, Romans 9).
Recently a friend asked me if I identify with my Hispanic (my father’s side of the family) or my Jewish (my mother’s side of the family) heritage. I said that I am mostly just plain white middle class. But even for the little bit that I try to embrace my inner melting pot, I know there is one identity that matters more than anything – that I am in Christ.
Paul writes in Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Some have mistakenly understood this verse to mean that Christians should eliminate all distinctions (gender, culture, ethnicity, etc). However, I think it’s the opposite. Paul is showing that only in Jesus do we understand the full beauty of the gospel. The gospel is for the diversity of all nations.
But he also stresses that more important than all our individual characteristics, is who we are in Christ. And this is where I want to call out Christians who stake their claim on heritage or political party or social justice or any other category.
No identity matters as much as our unity in Jesus Christ. If Christians fail to put that first, the gospel is tarnished at the least. At worst, we are preaching a false-gospel.
Years ago, when my wife and I were trying to make a decision that would affect our extended family, a mentor told me, “Blood is not always thicker than water.” Sometimes family and heritage is our most important consideration, and sometimes it’s not.
But in this case, when we consider the Confederate flag, blood is thicker than water. But it’s the blood of Jesus that matters the most, the blood that was shed to reconcile us to God and to each other.
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.“ Romans 12:1-2
- Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Me, and You
- Forgiveness, Patriotism, Heritage, and the Gospel
- Racism By the Numbers