A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fun with Flags and Other Symbols: How Do We Remember the Confederacy?

In my first post, I spoke specifically about the Confederate battle flag suggesting that it should be removed from the state house grounds in Columbia, SC, which it has. In my second post, it was my intention to reflect more generally on all the symbols and monuments of the Confederacy, but having read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on the subject by William C. Davis, I am simply going to offer some quotes by him and link to his article. It is simply not possible for me to say it better than he did. He writes,

Symbols matter. They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudices and fears. Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them, changing over time along with our actions. The most obvious example is the ancient "gammadion," which in early Eastern cultures meant "god," "good luck," "eternity" and other benign conjurations. We know it today as the swastika, and a quarter-century of usage by the Nazis forever poisoned it in Western culture.

Southern "heritage" groups who oppose removing the battle flag are reluctant to acknowledge that this same dynamic has tainted their cherished emblem. But it has.

Whatever the flag meant from 1865 to 1940, the flag's misuse by a white minority of outspokenly bigoted and often violent people has indelibly shifted that meaning. It is now remembered around the world with images of defiant governors standing in schoolhouse doors, with the snapping dogs of Birmingham, with police barricades to keep black youths out of classrooms, with beatings and lynchings in the night, with churches set ablaze, with fear, intimidation, hatred and the constant reminder that the descendants of slaves were not welcome in their own country.

The argument that the battle flag is displayed only as a symbol of pride in Southern heritage loses force when one recalls that while Florida, Alabama and Mississippi added elements of the banner to their flags around the turn of the last century, Georgia incorporated the battle emblem into its state flag only in 1956, and South Carolina began flying the battle flag over its state house as late as 1961. Both were unequivocal declarations of defiance to desegregation and the civil-rights movement.

My fellow white Southerners today need feel no shame in confronting the motivations of our ancestors. The Confederates were men and women of their era; we can only judge them legitimately in that context. Otherwise, we could reject virtually all of human history on one currently unacceptable ground or another. As with symbols, standards, norms and mores change over the ages. We could be shocked indeed were we to live long enough to see how Americans 150 years from now might judge us by the measures of their time.

That inevitably raises a question. Our landscape is peppered with monuments, parks, counties, towns, streets and private businesses named for Confederate leaders-- not to mention the myriad road signs and markers commemorating the Confederate story. Are all of these to be purged? Where do we stop?

All of which demands that we ask: Can we ever separate the memory of the Confederate experience from the memory of slavery? Is there any positive legacy to be drawn from the Confederacy? Can we admire Confederate leaders, even the all-but-deified Lee, without tacitly endorsing their cause? Ultimately, can we make the Confederacy worth remembering for the descendants of the slaves and those following generations of freedmen whom the whole nation betrayed by ignoring their new rights and liberties for a century?

Perhaps we can-- but not through the current Southern fallacy that hundreds of thousands of free and enslaved blacks fought for the South. Such an exercise can come only by directly and honestly addressing the Confederacy and the war it fought, and owning up to the ways they are remembered--both of which are vital to understanding America's course since 1860. To that end, the Confederacy's monuments and symbols can be vital learning tools if placed in context. They must be preserved, not expunged. They must be understood, not whitewashed.
The entire editorial is worth a read here. My third post will focus on the nature of the symbolic and why symbolism matters.

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