The Confederacy and Christians

August 16th, 2017

The first book I fell in love with was Gone with the Wind. As a young reader, it was my first “adult” book, an epic tome, and being prone to the dramatic, I was swept up by the tension of war and romantic love. The movie intensified that love, putting visuals with the words — grand plantations and elegant dresses worn by the beautiful Vivien Leigh. However, I was unaware of its danger — its romanticizing of the antebellum South and its racist portrayal of black characters.

Despite my love for Gone with the Wind, I wasn’t aware of the extent of the Lost Cause mythology until I moved from Texas to Tennessee. Driving up I-65 into Nashville, I was greeted by a horrifically ugly statue of a sword-brandishing man on a horse surrounded by flagpoles with the flags of the former Confederate states and what is commonly known as the Confederate flag. I later learned that the man portrayed by the statue was slave trader and Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and though the monument fronts the interstate, it resides on private land. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in the rotunda of the Tennessee State Capitol, and a state park bears his name as well.

My husband came into our marriage with a coffee cup bearing a Confederate flag, purchased somewhat ironically at Beauvoir Estate, the historic home of the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. It lived in the back of our cabinet until shortly after the shootings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, I unearthed it and unceremoniously threw it in the trash.

Before the events in Charleston, I’d roll my eyes when I encountered a Confederate flag on the back of a truck or displayed proudly on someone’s property out in more rural areas. I winced at pictures from local parades with people waving the Confederate flag alongside the American flag. I naively believed those who insisted that the flag, to them, represented “states’ rights” or “heritage, not hate,” without investigating states’ rights to do what exactly or what that heritage consisted of that was somehow separate from owning other human beings. After all, the proliferation of these flags and the Confederate monuments currently at issue only occurred in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Robert E. Lee himself was against memorializing the Confederacy with monuments, and yet statues bearing his likeness dot the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

There are those in my congregation and my community who see nothing wrong with the Confederate flag, who are happy to fly it outside their house or wear articles of clothing that feature it. They would insist that it isn’t racist, that they aren’t racist. But, this past weekend in Charlottesville, the world saw white men marching with Confederate flags alongside Nazi flags before a young woman counter-protesting was murdered by one of their ilk. Whether the Confederate flag is or is not racist, it has now been officially co-opted by those who preach white supremacy and white nationalism.

White supremacy is a sin, and Christians must make this clear. It is an idol. It is contradictory to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is also endemic to American society in ways small and large, in my willingness to overlook racist tropes in books and in white nationalist rallies. We are all in need of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit to drive us to repent, to change our hearts and minds. White Christians must listen to our black brothers and sisters who tell us how our actions have caused them pain, how a Confederate flag to them is a giant sign that they are not welcome, whatever our intentions. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves, and, for some of us, that may mean dying to parts of our culture or heritage that do harm to our neighbor.

When our eyes are opened, it can be painful or embarrassing, and that can cause us to resist what we know is right. That coffee mug sat in the back of the cabinet a long time before I finally threw it away. I can no longer watch Gone with the Wind without cringing. I could never live on a street named after a Confederate general or a subdivision with the word “plantation” in it. This is not about being politically correct. It is about following Jesus by not condoning a culture that subtly longs for a time when black people were sub-human property. Repentance starts with a long, hard look at ourselves and our history. Only then can we identify our sins, change our behavior, and ask for forgiveness from God and our neighbors.

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