When I see the Confederate flag, two images come to mind.
In the first, I am back at summer camp. Our rag tag group of teens had been canoeing down the Tennessee lake for three days, camping along the way. We'd now arrived at our destination, a small, uninhabited "island" where we'd camp the rest of the week.
We slept outside, played "King of the Canoe" on the tops of upside down canoes, and hollered during games of "greased watermelon," wrestling bright melons slathered in Crisco in the water. We built campfires and sang worship songs, read through prepared devotional guides, and had long talks.
A few of the boys slept in hammocks slung between trees, and one of them tied a confederate flag bandana above his hammock. He was one of my favorite friends because he was so funny.
My memory is hazy about that flag. I remember it with unease, so I want to assume that the fact I remember it at all reveals my discomfort - or at least, confusion - at the time. I even think we may have had a conversation about it, which this young boy quickly dismissed in favor of "Southern Pride."
I Love the South
I have Southern Pride. I mean, loosely. I love global cultures, but when it comes to the States, I have been most at home in the South. Three years in Los Angeles, I would always greet people when I walked on the streets. No one responded. I couldn't get over it. I worked at a summer camp in Vermont, and I wasn't there but a few hours before I was acutely aware of the whiteness of that area. It was uncomfortable.
But I have cherished memories of hot, summer nights - the smells of freshly cut grass, the wonder of lighting bugs in jars, and the ever present heaviness of humidity in the air. I know Southern hospitality is romanticized, but I appreciate the customary greetings, the potlucks, and the thank-you notes. I have Southern Pride.
I also have a bit of defensiveness about the racist reputation of the South. I'm not saying the South does not struggle with issues of racism. I'm saying everywhere in this country does. And some of my experiences elsewhere have been that race issues are not only ugly, but they are right under the surface, spilling out unexpectedly. But I do believe that much of the Southern ugliness around race is more overt. I don't know which is worse. I think they're both terrible.
How I Was Taught About the Civil War (And Why It Matters)
The Civil War was taught differently to me growing up in East Tennessee than (I have learned since) children in other States are told about it. It was framed as a war based on economics. States rights verses federal control. Northern states issuing steep tariffs on international imported goods, essentially forcing the predominately rural South to buy from Northerners whatever the cost.
I was taught that the Civil War, at its core, was not about slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued a couple years after the war began. It was framed as a political effort to encourage wavering Northerners to stay engaged with the war.
This educational approached allowed me to reconcile a worldview that supported the South while also abhorring slavery and being grateful for its abolition. And thus, I could live in a campground where the Confederate flag waved under the reasoning of Southern Pride without too much angst.
New Friends = New Eyes = New Perspectives
The second memory that springs to mind was several years later. I was nineteen and on another Christian trip into the woods for some type of retreating. We were packed into air condition-less 15-passenger vans as we drove through rural Georgia. Our driver and leader was a hugely significant mentor in my life and a dear friend, who is also black.
With all the talking and laughing and radio blasting, we lost our way. Eventually, we pulled over at a convenient store/outpost-y place to confirm our directions. We were in backwoods Georgia, and the place looked like so many I'd seen in my childhood and adolescence, I thought nothing of it.
Our leader went in, got the directions, and returned to the van. He laughed uncomfortably, and joked, "I did not feel comfortable in there." There was a part of me that was genuinely confused. He went on to describe the looks he received from employees, the stilted conversations, and the overwhelming decor of Confederate flags. His words hinted at a real fear for his treatment at the very least, and his safety at worst.
For me, that was the end of my ambiguity around the Confederate flag. For me, it was an easy call. If the flag symbolized racism, hate, and exclusion to a large group of people, particularly the group most affected by those negative characteristics, than that was that. It shouldn't be displayed.
For me, it wasn't an issue of what the flag represented to me. What mattered it what it symbolized to those most affected by the hate and violence. If the flag was negative to them, then I couldn't support it's proud promotion.
A Place to Start
As with all justice issues in my life, relationship has been the turning point. When you are surrounded by a large group who sees everything the way you do, outside voices can feel like "an attack" on your viewpoint, your way of life, and - in this case - pride, history, and identity. But when people in my circle shared how it affects them, I found I held much more loosely to my viewpoint.
I want to promote the best things about living in the South: sun-ripened peaches, church cookouts, river tubing, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, the Lady Vols, BBQ, and Dollywood. Yes, Dollywood is amazing. You should go.
Taking down the flag doesn't diminish my love for where I've grown up. But it does show hospitality and welcome to all people, especially those for whom the flag serves as a painful reminder of hate.
Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe that a flag change will take care of the racial issues still present in our region or country as a whole. Diverse relationships have opened my eyes to many issues that need to be addressed, but this one is in front of us at the moment.
Racial reconciliation is the real work of the church. It's not simple, and it's not going to happen in the time it takes stories about the Charleston shooting, the Confederate flag, and black churches burning to move through the news cycle.
I pray that the Church will listen to Christians of color, and that we can take steps to heal. We can do better. I was especially moved by this liturgy written for churches in the wake of Charleston. If you're a pastor or lead a small group or anything, I encourage you to incorporate this prayer into your time.
Let's start with prayer. Let's start with taking down the flag. And let's move together towards true reconciliation.
Image credit: J. Stephen Conn