Pain is the Point

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Culture, News

The Confederate Flag - Pain is the Point

South Carolina & the Confederate Flag

I’m a South Carolina transplant, having left my beloved old Kentucky home five years ago to move from one blessed place to another. Truly, we love living in South Carolina, where our days are filled with friendly folks and family adventures (swim at a beach and hike a mountain on the same day!). The food isn’t bad, either.

The history, though, is peculiar and complex, both glorious and haunted. The fierce love of freedom and deep patriotism mingle with the scars of oppression and still-open wounds of inequality. Here, history lives. After moving to Anderson, I discovered that I’m not the first in my family to walk these grounds. My great-great grandfather marched through Anderson with the 12th Kentucky Infantry in 1864—a Union regiment. When I posted this on social media, some really were offended—not in a racist, “the South shall rise again!” way, but because what I noted resurfaced their pain. And pain is the point. They still feel the sting of defeat and retell stories of their own grandparents scraping and scrounging to survive in the post-Civil War era.

The brutality perpetrated at Mother Emmanuel AME Church has brought us, once again, to think about Southern heritage, and, most notably, the Confederate battle flag that waves on the grounds of the South Carolina state house. In recent days, a few poignant perspectives have emerged on both sides. I’ll note four.

Russell Moore argues that in view of the flag’s current assigned meaning and the biblical demand to love our neighbors, it should come down.

Rod Dreher agrees and, while noting the validity of some pro-flag arguments, believes the symbol can’t be redeemed.

Conversely, David French argues that we shouldn’t remove the flag from Confederate memorials because we shouldn’t erase history.

Alongside French, Doug Wilson presents a less convincing argument that the Confederate flag should stay because, after all, even Old Glory is fraught with less-than-noble causes, such as abortion.

With these complexities in view, the South Carolina state house case should be considered within its own, peculiar context. The Confederate battle flag (rectangular, Army of Tennessee version) that once flew above the state house dome wasn’t placed there until 1962, and then by an all-white legislature in the midst of integration and the Civil Rights Movement.

The flag was raised, ostensibly, to commemorate the war’s centennial (at least according to the official statement by then-Governor Holllings), but its obvious association with segregationist politics overshadowed the pretext. The flag wasn’t an enduring symbol of history or heritage on the grounds, but was introduced at a key moment to make a specific statement. The legislature (that represented South Carolinians) was somehow threatened by the civil rights movement, and acted with a gesture of resistance. In 2000, by means of a long-negotiated compromise (think about that), South Carolina passed a bill that removed the battle flag from the dome, but raised a more traditional version (square-shaped) of it beside a Confederate memorial on the grounds in front of the state house. The prominent position of the memorial and height of the flag effectively make it the welcome sign to the state’s most significant property.

A symbol is much like a word or phrase in that the intent for its use conveys as much meaning as the symbol itself. The reason the Confederate flag was raised on the state house grounds in the first place makes its message particularly ominous, differing significantly from other Confederate memorials. Placed on the dome in defiance of civil rights and moved to the memorial as the result of a compromise, this flag is offensive to African-Americans and other minorities in a way that trumps other memorials. This, too, in a nation that claims “liberty and justice for all.” Indeed, the ugly parts of our heritage should be remembered, but the flag at the state house does more. It celebrates, even imposes upon citizens—to whom the grounds belong—the most painful, ugly parts of Southern heritage. And pain is the point. A Christian citizen simply cannot read the last third of Paul’s letter to the Romans and not acknowledge the offense. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (13:10), and “let us pursue what makes for peace” (14:19). The flag must come down. Moore is right, “We can give gratitude to where we’ve come from without perpetuating symbols of pretend superiority over others.”

Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by eyeliam