President of Oklahoma Baptist University, Dr. David Whitlock, announced last month a decision to remove a small stained glass panel containing an image of the confederate flag from one of its chapel windows. The panel appeared among other symbols relevant to the history of Oklahoma, re-narrating its story by displaying several of the more monumental plot points. This window was installed many decades ago to remind onlookers of what has happened to and among us. It hardly needs pointing out that the window could only display and never control the meaning of the images cast translucently in the Raley Chapel nave.
The decision to remove the confederate flag panel from the window was the right decision. We laud President Whitlock and his administration for the wisdom and courage to see the flag for what it now represents. It is clear that the confederate flag represents far more than idiosyncratic nineteenth-century regional disputes, southern unity, or even some nostalgic pride in lost forms of life. If this symbol unites any longer it does so at the cost of deep, deleterious division; a source even of enmity.
The confederate flag should have no place amongst a people united by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. To better reinforce this truth we shall need to get a clear picture of the power symbols carry in our lives and then discern how this particular symbol clashes with the great symbol of reconciliation—the Cross of Jesus Christ. If the flag fails to unite and only divides the Church, then by extension it has a similar but exaggerated effect within wider society. A scratch in the church is a hemorrhage in the world.
Symbols by their nature carry power they do not themselves fully control. They portray or disclose meaning in ways determined in part by original intention and in part by the exigencies of present circumstance. The meaning of a symbol may therefore change over time, and it is often remarked that symbols may likewise seem to take different meanings to different people. The swastika, hammer and sickle, union jack, star of David, skull and crossbones, and UN circle of stars, to name but a few examples, all evoke feeling but do so in different ways and to varying degrees in different places. Flags are particularly notorious for coming to mean more than they were ever intended to mean. They take a life of their own. And that is certainly true of the “stars and bars”; an insidious source of pride to some, a picture of hatred to others. No catalog can comprehend its fuller meaning and significance for us as a nation or as a Church.
The flag’s appearance in the Raley Chapel window at OBU is set within a larger panel telling incompletely a very regional story. It is one symbol among many. But for our brothers and sisters of color, and indeed for many white members of the university community, the pane of glass leapt from the window like an assailant. For them—for us—the flag is emblematic of a political attitude that is unavoidably theological and racial. Whether the Civil War in which the flag became representative was really one of “northern aggression” is here beside the point. In the decades following the war’s completion the meaning of the flag would be fully deconstructed, and mostly by those who worshiped it most fervently. You see, symbols do not merely represent a thing, but express the otherwise inexpressible and thus formatively shape human sensibilities in often powerful and imperceptible ways: flags don’t just tell us something, they also make us something. Thus, the confederate flag is for our brothers and sisters of color the symbol of white Southern supremacy, evoking a sense deep-seated hatred, hostility, and even the threat of legalized terrorism.
Only the hopelessly naïve southerner could possibly suggest that the flag is merely a regional trope, for it has now far too regularly been the backdrop to overt racial animosity. In fact, for many African Americans, there is often a distinct feeling that the animus has never really ceased, but instead reincarnates itself in ever more pernicious ways. No symbol today quite conveys the message of racism and exclusion like the confederate flag. As a symbol it has evolved into an icon.
Historically, flags have carried tremendous political symbolism. Whether we are conscious of it or not, flags are the object of allegiance. Here in this country the Pledge of Allegiance is memorized at a very early age. Desecration of the flag was a federally punishable offense until 1989. We feel strongly about flags. They’re evocative. The confederate flag is not somehow uniquely impotent in this regard. It has not been, and never will be, neutral in its presentation. The flag doesn’t just signal a difference of opinion, but already reflects unacknowledged, longstanding resentments and divisions.
Some will wish to retort here that folks who take offense at the confederate flag should educate themselves on the flag’s history, and in the meantime get a slightly thicker skin. If somebody takes offense, in other words, it’s the offended party’s problem. Flags just do their thing. In response to this claim consider Paul’s instruction offered toward the end of his epistle to the Romans:
let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-19)
And later: let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Now, of course, we fully recognize that Paul addresses here the customs of eating or not eating under the law, and not of rebel flag raising. Nevertheless, the theological rationale of the exhortation is directly applicable to the confederate flag: is the act you undertake in any way a stumbling block, hindrance, or harm to another brother or sister? If so, then according to Paul “you are no longer walking in love.” To paraphrase: do not let your appreciation for a flag cause another to stumble or to ruin one for whom Christ died. Thus, when some raise high the confederate flag as a partial associative identity, they should bear in mind that their act is accounted by people of color as tantamount to hate.
In this regard we must likewise acknowledge the American Church’s occasional complicity in perpetuating the power and meaning behind the confederate flag. No church or denomination is unaffected by racism, we realize, but for many of our minority faith-communities, the unwillingness to rebuke or denounce the flag on Christian grounds is almost as grievous as actively hoisting the flag itself. The deafening “silence of friends,” to quote the memorable phrase of the late Martin Luther King, is piercing.
The theological and moral question here is whether love will be extended to our brothers and sisters of color by removing from their view a symbol of anguish, enmity, and terror. If you believe this exaggerated then may we implore you to ask a person of color, particularly one who lived through the mid-century civil rights struggle, to offer their impressions of the confederate flag. We believe you will find it both deeply educational and evocative.
But in truth it shouldn’t have to come to that, for if one cannot see that a brother and sister is plainly more deserving of love than a flag, then not only do they “destroy the work of God” (Rom.14:2) but the central symbol of Christianity itself has been mistaken. The Church is united not by flag but by Cross. Following Jesus Christ in discipleship requires taking up one’s cross. The cross companies us in our travels with Jesus, and in this way unites us as a people of faith. We carry our crosses together. The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of humanity’s reconciliation with God and in turn the symbol of the Church’s unity under his throne. No thing, and certainly no flag, can match the bonding power of the Cross. As Bonhoeffer puts it so eloquently in Discipleship, “peacemakers will bear the cross with their Lord, for peace was made at the Cross.” Jesus is our Mediator and all our brothers and sisters are those to whom Christ comes.
The glass panel of the confederate flag has come down from the chapel window at OBU because President Whitlock wisely understands that as a Christian learning community this political symbol estranges us from one another. Our distinguished Raley Chapel is the place we gather to celebrate God and the life he has given us together for a time here on Bison Hill. Its purpose has always been to facilitate our assembly and to bring us together around common purposes, to enclose us in a sanctuary for prayer, singing, and receiving the word of the Lord. And now, thank God, when the sun makes its western descent we no longer see the red and blue hues of the confederate flag cast darkly on chapel seats. Our brothers and sisters of color can gather for chapel each week without its quiet reproach. A symbol of enmity has been expunged from the very place where our unity is most beautifully and meaningfully embodied.