Idol worship and the Confederate flag

July 9th, 2015

Dear fellow White Southern Christians,

You, like me, have probably seen countless posts on social media from friends about the Confederate flag in the past few weeks. You may have even made some of them. Those who favor continuing to fly the flag are likely claiming that it represents their heritage and not racism or hate. Personally, I’ve noticed that these arguments tend to claim personal expression or freedom of speech as their basis. In some of them, there’s even the implication that being made to remove the flag is discriminatory against Whites in the South.

Now, because I was raised in the Deep South, I can understand where so many White Southerners are coming from with their arguments. The history we were taught implies that we weren’t really at fault for the Civil War, that slavery wasn’t all bad, and that White Southerners have been beat up on since Reconstruction. Other White Southern authors and pastors have echoed this sentiment of our regional mythology better than I can, but I want you to know that I get it. It feels like one more dismissal of Southern culture and history, one more chastisement, one more reminder of a dying heritage. Of course someone who was raised to feel this way about their home would want to display the symbol of their identity. Of course they would tell those trying to remove that symbol to back off and mind their own business.

There is a strain of personal freedom in these arguments that connects to the mythology of the Confederate battle flag representing resistance to Northern aggression. Saying, “it’s my choice, so you just get over it!”  not only plays into this mythology of resistance but is like some sort of trump card to systemic terror, past and present (because try as we might to ignore it, there is a very particular history of this flag.) But this doesn’t fly for Christians. We are set free, as Paul says,  but not so that we can be jerks about it and do whatever we want. So, fellow White Southern Christians, we need to talk.

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he gives them pieces of advice that paint a picture of communal belonging and care. We see how he asks them not to use the eucharistic meal to exclude others, how he teaches them with beautiful imagery of the parts of the body needing one another, how he corrects them that even he and Apollos were working together for the same purpose. And then there’s chapter 8, a strange section on the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. There are times when I want to ignore this chapter as advice that’s too contextual to be useful now, but I can’t. Because Paul understands power relationships and systems in a community, and he’s telling us Jesus followers how to negotiate them.

Scholars tell us that this chapter is in reference to more powerful, elite and educated members of the church buying meat from the market that had previously been sacrificed to the Roman gods in the temples and how that practice caused “lesser” members (less powerful, less elite, less learned and possibly more recently converted) to “stumble.” The argument appears to be over whether the more powerful should get to do what they want — after all, there are no other gods so the meat wasn’t really sacrificed to anything — and if the less powerful should just get over it.

But there is another layer to this conflict beyond merely the “knowledge” that some members have about this meat and idols. In this society, different classes would have been organized into collegia that had access to things like meat from the temples, social power and political position. In the new Jesus community, those divisions were supposed to be wiped away. Yet, by continuing to engage in the practice of purchasing this meat from the temples, those more powerful members were reinforcing the social hierarchy of Corinth. They were constantly reminding the less powerful of the past and the outside world, when they were part of the lower class, or even when they were slaves.

Paul’s answer to this situation is classic. He explains how the answer (or perhaps excuse?) that the more powerful have given — that there are no other gods so eating this meat is acceptable — is correct. He appeals to their privilege as “knowledgable” and “strong”. But then he turns their own privilege around on them, telling them that if their eating of this meat causes those who have less “knowledge,” the “weaker” members of the community, to stumble, they should not eat it. They have the responsibility for the maintenance of the community on this front because they’re the ones in the position of power. Their privilege does not excuse them from this responsibility, it in fact places more burden on them.

The Confederate flag is a symbol of power dynamics in the South. It was and is flown by those who exert their power to do so, particularly as that power relates to African Americans. To fly that flag is to exert white identity. To continue flying it now, after the murder of 9 people because of their race, after 7 black churches have burned in a week, and after a year of protests drawing attention to racial bias in all aspects of American society is to purposefully reinforce the collegia of whiteness vs. blackness, with all its past and present connotations and privileges. To claim that “it’s not about hate” is, like the Corinthians, to excuse yourself from mutual care of the whole community based on your privilege.

Within most churches, white folks would be unlikely to openly state that they prefer social divisions based on race, that they believe whites are a superior race, or that segregation was a better system. At least to some extent, many white church folks would like to believe there is a new, more egalitarian way of being together created by our devotion to Christ. They at least have a vague, eschatological hope. Outside the church, white nationalist groups openly proclaim that they do not support such a community. They fly the Confederate flag openly and in support of a racial hierarchy. They’re not interested in communion. For white Christians to also adopt this symbol is to participate in the reinforcing within the church of the divisions outside it. Just as the Corinthians used the Eucharistic meal and the purchase of meat sacrificed to idols to import social division into the church, white Christians use the Confederate flag to reinforce racial division in the Church.

There is idolatry at work in this dynamic as well. First is the idolatry of self — the belief that one can display a symbol with such cultural baggage without taking on any of that baggage, the belief that “personal expression” is a higher ideal than not doing violence to another, the belief that the self exists in the present with disregard to the past. In the South (and in America as a whole) we attempt to use personal freedom as a get-out-of-jail-free card for all manner of anti-social behavior. Even worse, we often drag religion and the language of oppression into our claims that we should be allowed to do whatever we want to whomever we want.

Second, there is the idolatry of a cultural ideal (here, generously, “Southern Pride”) without critical engagement about the meaning of that ideal or its larger place in a society. I will admit here that I am proud to be a Southerner, but with an asterix. To worship “Southern Pride” without noting the tremendous evil done through slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing white supremacy is not only willfully blind, it sets up a false idol that requires unquestioning loyalty lest its cracks and false veneer be seen. This particular idol worship often places the ideals of Southern whiteness above Christian ideals and reinforces harmful stereotypes based on race, gender and sexuality.

The third idolatry is, unsurprisingly, worship of money. This idolatry is on the hands of America as a whole and has been displayed prominently in the wall-to-wall coverage of a CVS in Baltimore and a QT burning in Ferguson, but little to no coverage of  black churches burning in the South since the shooting in Charleston. It is on display when the bail for a teenager who breaks a window in a police car is higher than that for someone accused of killing another human being. It is on display when we profit off of mass incarceration, when we criminalize poverty, and even when we reduce matters of racial injustice to solely economic ones. It is not a stretch, but merely history, to see that black bodies were once currency in this country. We are already worshipping Mammon, and we merely hearken back to another of his grotesque graven images with this flag. Southern Whites may imagine that there once was a time when they felt less disenfranchised by global capitalism, more in the loving embrace of Mammon. Perhaps this flag is the remembrance of that imagined time and a kinder god.

Finally, there is the idolatry of white supremacy. Amidst claims by many that the Confederate flag does not represent hate for them, it very clearly does for groups like the KKK and Council of Concerned Citizens. Their idol is the god who would create one race superior to another and appoint them protectors of the divinely appointed order. They openly make these claims and at times act on them. While their idol seems farthest removed from the minds and hearts of nice White church folks, we have seen countless times how white supremacy pervades our culture.

It leads media to call Dylann Roof, a 21 year old confessed racist murder, a “kid” while referring to Mike Brown, unarmed and shot dead in the street at 18, a man. It makes us believe that Dylann Roof must have been sick or suffered some trauma while justifying why Mike Brown deserved to die. It is why black people have been killed at four times the rate as white people by police. It is why there are different sentencing mandates for drugs in communities of color than white communities; why an open carry protest can happen in a zoo, but Tamir Rice is shot dead for playing with a toy gun in a park. The examples are exhausting and overwhelming to even consider listing. It is white supremacy that makes this conversation even necessary.

These idols find recognizable, familiar symbol in the Confederate flag. Just like the meat offered to Roman gods indicated complicity in the worship of those idols, the display of the Confederate flag indicates complicity in the worship of these. When others see us associating with the symbols and acts of these idols, they are completely justified in believing we adhere to the tenants of that religion. While privilege may lead some to believe that they can display the banner of the idols of self/ Southern Pride/Mammon/white supremacy without themselves worshipping those idols, the rest of us are perhaps just not as “strong,” as Paul might say.

The problem is not what the White Christian flying the Confederate flag believes is truly in their heart, but what another brother or sister believes based on the symbol they are displaying. Especially for those who have suffered the most from the worship of these idols, any implication that a fellow brother or sister in Christ is engaged in idol worship is more than enough to damage relationships. The burden of repairing those relationships by openly declaring allegiance to Christ’s teachings and not to a false idol is on the shoulders of those who know that they’re not really a worshipper of these idols. It is not on the shoulders of those who see the flag and read its obvious, historical and cultural meanings. 

So, to my white Southern Christian brothers and sisters I say: Do not sin against Christ by hurting your brother or sister (1 Corinthians 8:12). Take down the flag. Fight for it to be taken down. I am appealing to your privilege as the ones who decided that this symbol would be displayed. Distance yourself from this symbol of so much violence and hate and brokenness. Take up the responsibility for repairing broken relationships. Value the community that we know can be over the imaginary community that never was.

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