Politics Current Events

The Promise and Peril of Taking Down the Confederate Flag

Jemar Tisby

News feeds are filled with people going to battle over the Confederate flag. After the tragic slaying of nine African American men and women at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, pictures emerged showing the killer proudly displaying the Confederate flag. The flag flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol building and calls to take it down surfaced soon after the incident. The campaign went viral and now the state legislature plans to take up the issue.

The fervor to take down the Confederate flag has spread beyond South Carolina. Southern Baptist leaders like Al Mohler and Russell Moore have made strong statements in support of removing the flag. Political leaders, both Republican and Democrat, have also advocated for its removal. The outcome seems pre-determined in South Carolina. The results in Mississippi, the only state that still has the Confederate flag emblem as part of its state flag, is less certain.

While there are definite benefits to taking down the Confederate flag, might we be missing some unintended consequences?

The Promise of Taking Down the Flag

1. It Removes an Offense
The most promising benefit of taking down the Confederate flag is that it literally removes an offense. African Americans and other culturally and historically aware people of all races can experience discomfort or disgust at the sight of the flag. To them it represents a culture that affirmed and fought to the death for race-based chattel slavery. It brings to mind ancestors who lived and died in shackles and those who kept them in such a state. Yes, the Confederate flag represents more than slavery, but it does not represent less. Removing it from certain places fosters a sense of welcoming and unity for those most adversely affected by racism and slavery.

2. It Has Sparked Debate Among Whites
A second promising aspect of taking down the flag is the debate it has sparked among white people. For the most part, African Americans in the U.S. have never been comfortable with displays of the Confederate flag. What it represents has been well known to them, often by experience. Many whites, however, have not openly debated the issue. They are only recently engaging in robust, sustained dialogue not only about the flag, but about racism in its historical and ongoing effects. When people in the majority take racism seriously change will occur more rapidly, broadly, and deeply.

But despite the promise, there are perils to taking down the Confederate flag.

The Perils of Taking Down the Flag

1) We Think the Problem of Racism Is Solved
Removing the Confederate flag does not remove racism. A peril in taking down the flag is that people move on from issues of race. Satisfied that they have taken action, their outrage and energy will be directed elsewhere. Taking down the Confederate flag is removing the shrapnel. The gaping wound of racism remains. While taking down the flag may be necessary, deeper issues of discrimination must be addressed.

2) We Take Aim at Private and Personal Expressions
So far the movement to take down the Confederate flag has focused on government buildings and property. Yet in their zeal for justice, people may call for Confederate flags to be removed from private and personal property as well. Not to be stereotypical, but people should be free to display whatever flag they want on their pick up trucks. A person should be allowed to fly a U.S. flag, their alma mater’s flag, or even the Confederate flag in their front yard. These are reasonable freedoms for citizens in a democracy. Courts and the government should not mandate removing the Confederate flag from private property.

3) We Start to Erase History
Will removing the Confederate flag be enough? Will people start calling for statues to be torn down, streets to be renamed, or buildings to be razed? Will everything with a racist or segregationist connotation become swept up in the maelstrom of this movement? There are reasons to preserve even offensive symbols. The Confederate flag and all that it represents are part of American history. It is not a history of which one can be entirely proud, but the stories deserve telling. The flag should be preserved in appropriate spaces such as museums, and other symbols associated with racism and slavery should have a place in the nation’s memory, too.

4) One’s Stance on the Flag a Test for Godliness
Prominent Christian leaders have lent their weight and voice to the “take down the flag” movement. They have explained that their Christian convictions lead them to support the flag’s removal. They say it erects barriers between brothers and sisters in Christ and that it does not display love of one’s neighbor. Yet could faithful Christians to disagree about the Confederate flag and still be considered godly? Is there the risk of making one’s position about the Confederate flag a test for orthodoxy? Is it a sin to want the flag to keep the Confederate flag flying or is it a case of wisdom and conscience?

Motives matter. It is possible for someone to have never deeply considered the symbolism behind the Confederate flag. It is possible for a person to fly the flag in ignorance without malicious intent. Yet it is also possible for a person to be cognizant of the racism and slavery the flag represents as well as the offense it causes and still want to fly the flag. These situations must be treated both sensitively and differently.

Take Down That Flag
Even with all the potential perils of taking down the Confederate flag, it should still be removed from the South Carolina state capitol. Context matters in biblical interpretation as well as in cultural interpretation. The historical context of the Confederate flag, in part, communicates racism, slavery, and suffering. The contemporary context, on the heels of nine deaths at the hands of a Confederate flag-wielding white supremacist, makes removing it an urgent issue. Taking down the flag in South Carolina will provide a powerful gesture of justice and solidarity for a state and nation reeling from this evil act. So take down the flag, just be aware of both the promise and the perils of doing so.

3 thoughts on “The Promise and Peril of Taking Down the Confederate Flag

  1. Caroline Wong

    Thanks for publishing this article as it really causes us to collectively reflect on the symbols of our culture and history, as well as personal beliefs and actions. Although events are important and may act as catalysts for change, true change doesn’t come through events or declarations. Change is a process not an event, and it isn’t until people change their personal values, beliefs and actions that you have genuine culture change.

  2. Jemar Tisby

    Thanks, George. I’ve appreciated your interaction with our posts.

  3. george

    Good articles like this cause us to think and grapple with our own positions. It is good when we hear from you on these things.

Leave A Comment