A Christian Response to the Battle over Confederate Symbols

Confederate monument in front of the South Carolina capitol (taken by Lael Arrington)

Last week, as two factions violently clashed over whether to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city of Charlottesville, VA, the movie Selma was playing on TV. I flipped the channel between live coverage of young white men attacking those who wanted to bring the statue down and actual newsreel footage inserted in the movie of young white men waving the Confederate battle flag to mock and harass the Selma marchers.

You couldn’t miss the contrast in the two scenes. In the movie, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King was invoking the love of Christ and his non-violent example as he led many young blacks to march and stand quietly with their hands clasped behind them. By contrast, the faces of the young white men waving their stars and bars were screwed up in hate. In Charlottesville you could see the anger exploding on both sides.

What a difference strong, Christ-following leadership made.

Here in South Carolina we have seen that difference defuse the battle over Confederate symbols more than once. Two Christian governors have stood up to tradition and strong emotions at great political risk. Their words speak compellingly to this moment.

Full view of monument in front of the South Carolina capitol

South Carolina is the only state that has flown the Confederate battle flag from the dome of its state capitol. In the mid-90’s Governor David Beasley felt compelled by the love of Christ to lead the effort to take it down. He paid a great price. And for his leadership he was awarded the JFK Profiles in Courage award.

As you read his remarks that follow, delivered on accepting the 2003 award, consider how we might show “charity” to the 40% of Blacks who are  offended or wounded by Confederate symbols, many of which were erected in the heyday of the KKK and the passage of Jim Crow laws.

<<Up until Governor Barnes came along, I was the last living casualty of the Civil War.

My link with that war goes back to June 8, 1863. My great, great, great grandmother, Sarah Beasley wrote the Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America regarding the plight of her family. She said her husband and two of her children were in the same company in the War, but husband was now weak and sick; she said to please send home her husband and she would send her youngest, a 16-year-old boy, in his father’s stead. Sarah Beasley’s request is just a glimpse of the pride and strong emotions that have endured for generations in the North and South.

The Confederate flag is indeed a part of American history. And as a part of history, it should have its proper place. But, should it be worshipped? No. But, neither should it be destroyed and erased from history. The flag over time became abused and misused as a symbol for hatred and discord – on both sides of the issue.

By November of 1996, my second year as Governor, there had been 31 confirmed church arsons in South Carolina alone in the previous five years. There were many more across the South. Extremists opened a KKK museum in South Carolina. Isolated racial incidents and crimes of hate were beginning to increase in number, bringing embarrassment to South Carolina and the rest of the country. I knew this did not reflect the South Carolina and America that I knew and loved, and I knew I must do something about it.

I will never forget that day: I called in my staff and told them that I had made the decision to fight for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol dome. I asked them to assume that this would cause my defeat, they would lose their jobs, and all the good that we had done would be forgotten and washed away in the headlines of defeat. Knowing this, I then asked them if they were still ready and willing to endure hardship for this cause. I looked around the room from person to person and asked each of them to answer from their own heart. They made me proud. Not a one said “no” or “let’s wait until after the election.”

On November 26, 1996, I addressed the people of South Carolina on live television to outline the basis for my decision. Here in part is what I said:

“A flag should be a symbol that unites all those standing below it…one that every South Carolinian can look up to with respect, admiration and the unshakable knowledge that the flag flies for them.

But I long for all South Carolina children something of even greater value. Like so many things the Bible puts it best: “Now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

The word charity combines the meaning of love and brotherly love and implies intense concerns for others. My friends, our children will not learn charity unless black parents and white parents start practicing charity towards one another.

The Bible also tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is time for the races to compromise on the Confederate flag to show Judeo-Christian love that will bring the races closer together and teach our children that we can live together in mutual respect.”

Those of you who know politics well can surmise what transpired. I immediately was a hero to the press, the “intelligentsia”, but to the politicians and public, it was an entirely different matter. Immediately, my poll numbers took a hit. The ‘one-term Governor’ line went from being unthinkable to being whispered in lonely places, to being thundered by political opportunists.

Protesters began to gather and follow me around the state. Death threats? Sure. Honestly, that didn’t really bother me. It was the threats against my family, my wife and children that hit home. Strange as it may seem though, these threats did not raise doubt in my mind nor cause me to have second thoughts about my decision. Rather, to the contrary, these insidious acts underscored the absolute necessity for action and confirmed in my heart that I was right.

To stand for what is right is good. But it is not sufficient. We must stand for what is right when it is right to do so. And there is more. We must stand for what is right not only when it is right to do so but also in the right way. We all know people who have stood for right when it cost them nothing. They beat their chests in the public square and roar from the top of their lungs their righteous indignation against the evil of the day, but they do so only when there is nothing to lose. This is of little value.

You must be willing to stand for what is right when it will be the most effective even if it costs you everything. Martin Luther said: “Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

Last, in this point, your effort and path of decision must be done in love. I have seen many political and religious leaders take noble stands for what is right, but do so in bitterness and hatred. This is wrong in itself. We must take our stands in the deepest essence of love.

It is disturbing today to witness the bitterness and harshness with which we treat one another in the world of politics or the halls of democracy. In some of my most enjoyable years in the political arena, my most outspoken opponents were usually my most respected and admired friends. We acted out of love and respect for one another and love and respect for the common good. Today, it is different. People have little respect for one another and little heart for compassion and mercy. I pray that this will change. For America’s future depends on it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”

In my case, there were many more “someones” than I really wanted to know about. Yet today, if you ask most of those people whether moving the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Statehouse dome was right or not, they would answer yes. It was not always so. It is remarkable how fast the transition of perception from my being a fool, then with a little passage of time, to being brave, and then eventually to what people now assess as “how obvious”. My, how time does change things. But, isn’t that what leadership is all about?>>

(Reprinted with permission from Gov. David Beasley)

David Beasley was, in fact, a one term governor. His courageous stand cost him his political office. In that November of ’96 he could not get his party to side with him. The New York Times described the resistance: “State Representative John Graham Altman, a Republican from Charleston, told his colleagues that he would lower the flag himself if doing so ”would solve any of the pathology that infects some segments of the black population.

”Quit looking at the symbols,” Mr. Altman said. ”Get out and get a job. Quit shooting each other. Quit having illegitimate babies.”

His comments provoked angry reactions from black legislators. ”This type of comment is an insult to me, to my wife and to my grandchildren,” said State Representative Kenneth Kennedy, a black Democrat from Greeleyville.

The South Carolina capitol with the white monument base and the Confederate flag behind it. (December 2010)

By 2000 there were more legislators and citizens who agreed with Beasley than with Altman and the flag came down from the dome. Through due legislative process (not under the cover of darkness) the flag and was then flown in front of the Capitol beside a monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, the exact compromise Beasley had proposed. It was still flying there when we moved to South Carolina in 2010.

But on June 21, 2015, immediately after the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where nine people, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, were killed by a 21-year-old white supremacist, Governor Nikky Haley called for its removal.

“Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said. “One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War . . . the time has come.”

Symbols are extraordinarily powerful. We cannot tell people not to look. Consider the psalmist’s lament when Nebuchadnezzar had his troops destroy Solomon’s temple: Psalm 74:4,8, “Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs…We do not see our signs…and there is none among us who knows how long.” We long for signs that represent our values and heritage and can feel deeply wounded by the imposition of signs that signify oppression and loss.

The State, Columbia’s newspaper, reported that, Haley’s “sense of urgency was propelled by the victims’ families, who expressed love and forgiveness to the accused shooter, and the strength and grace on display when Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened Sunday, a service that Haley and her family attended. ‘My children saw that true hate can never, never triumph over true love,'” she said.

As you process the on-going debate over the future of Confederate monuments, I challenge you: May Christian leaders lead. May we remember the commitment of Christ-following leaders like David Beasley who have set aside their own family heritage to champion the love and grace of Christ. Leaders who have sacrificed their positions rather than continue to support signs that wound and offend.

And they do wound and offend as this quote from the Yale Law Journal attests:

It is the spring of 1984 in Atlanta, and the groundskeeper at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School is starting his morning routine. In my twelfth grade homeroom we have finished the morning business…We are simply waiting for the bell. As I wait, my eyes return to the groundskeeper, who is carefully unfurling and raising a series of flags. First is the American flag, last is the Atlanta Public Schools flag, and sandwiched between the two is the Georgia State flag. I am drawn to this flag, particularly its wholesale incorporation of Dixie. I observe the same scene almost every morning, and almost every morning I hate the fact that I watch. I want so desperately to ignore the flag. Ignore Dixie, and ignore the history for which it stands.

For relief I take my eyes off the flag, and glance down again at the groundskeeper, who is still pulling the cords to raise the trio of flags. Like most of the students and teachers, the groundskeeper is black. I think of the incongruity of having black children in a largely black city watch a black man raise the symbol of the Confederacy for us all to honor. I tell myself to laugh, hoping that this will keep me from crying. But I cannot laugh and I dare not cry, so I close my eyes and try to forget. My eyes close tightly, my fists clench, and I slowly force from my mind, images of the flag, of the Ku Klux Klan, of Bull Conner and George Wallace–of black people in chains, hanging from trees, kept illiterate, denied the opportunity to vote.

The bell has rung. The teacher is calling my name: “James, are you ok?” I look up startled, “Yes ma’am, I’m fine,” I say, as I collect my books and head for class. “I’m fine,” I repeat as I walk out the door. I have forgotten; I have purged my mind; I am able to get up and walk out of the door. But the flag has taken a piece of me–a piece that I will not easily recover.

–James Forman Jr., Yale Law School, 1-1-91, reprinted with permission

How are you processing Charlottesville? The monuments question? Do you think there is a significant difference between the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments? If so what?

I’ve re-posted on my Facebook timeline an email sent to Princeton Prof. Robby George from an alt-right student who does not consider himself racist as much as a racial separatist, and who claims to feel that way as a result of his education being saturated by identity politics and diversity training. He is weary of being guilted as an “oppressor.” How do we show charity to students like him?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below…


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “A Christian Response to the Battle over Confederate Symbols

    • As a recently arrived South Carolinian I’m indebted to those who pointed me toward the story. Love to share what impacts me.

  1. Thank you for the thoughts on the monuments and our SC flag history. I proudly provided gear for and worked on a TV commercial for the Beasley-led campaign to remove the flag from the State House dome. Sadly, the commercial never aired as it became obvious that the fight would not be won in that round. I certainly see the parallels between the battle-flag history and today’s monument controversy and agree that as Christ-followers we should err on the side of mercy and love.

    I think the monument discussion brings up more difficult questions, however. In our fallen, imperfect world, can we honor someone for their extraordinary accomplishments in one area of life while acknowledging their imperfections (perhaps even dreadful ones) in other areas of life? There is a funny post going around FB about no longer using US paper money because the people on the bills were slave owners (send it to me for disposal!). Except for Lincoln on the $5 bill, the rest were indeed likely slave owners. Can we or should we celebrate Franklin’s scientific accomplishments or Jefferson for his founding-document writings, or is slave ownership a complete disqualification for all honor of any kind? What if someone didn’t own slaves, but signed the constitution with the three-fifths limits on ”Negros”? What if one regularly used racial slurs? What if slurs were only used in period literature like Mark Twain’s writings?

    Obviously if we are going to have a monument for anyone besides the only perfect human, Jesus, we will be honoring a person with flaws and sins. In our current society of micro-aggressions and hypersensitivity to some issues, it seems entirely possible we will throw the baby out with the bath water in an effort to do what is right. The ESPN announcer, Robert Lee, can probably explain what that may look like.

    • Thanks, Dave, for your “on the scene” perspective. (You have the most interesting job.) I appreciate the convo because we’re all learning more. I think there is a distinction between monuments and the flag and we are sorting that out. The conversation educates all of us. Which is why I like that South Carolina solved their conflict through conversation and the legislative process. Not by removals in the dead of night.

      I’m thinking about what C.S. Lewis said about chronological snobbery and may write a post on that too. We run into all kinds of problems when we think our current cultural values trump all others throughout history. We need a standard beyond culture by which to judge. And a great deal of grace for others. I’d like to see each monument evaluated on a case by case basis…looking at the person’s life and leadership as well as the circumstances surrounding the erection of the statue. But I don’t think holding slaves should automatically disqualify them from honor.