While I have long advocated the removal of the confederate flag, the reality is, growing up in the States of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, my life path could have easily veered and led to me driving a Chevy pickup down a backroad with a gun rack and 10-foot flag flying behind it.
(image of author as a child, waiving a USAmerican flag)
It seems far-fetched, but it’s not so hard to believe. I remember when Georgia governor Roy Barnes pushed through the ugliest flag in the Union in order to try, as a compromise, to remove the confederate battle flag (though the new flag still had a smaller version of the battle flag on it). And there was significant outrage among the rural white people in the state. And then, 2 years later the next governor pushed through a change to another flag, which still flies today, this time, the confederate national flag instead of the battle flag.
I have heard the most elaborate arguments about heritage, symbols of states’ rights, and honoring war veterans. I’ve heard these words from politicians, neighbors, and relatives. But I never heard these arguments made in church. Thank God. Perhaps, in the shadow of the cross, there was enough decency and humility to be honest; to say that symbols that evoke hatred and racial oppression are important to study and remember so that we do not forget our shared stories of trauma, but they do not belong as symbols to be revered. Perhaps. Or perhaps there was just enough honesty to feel ashamed, and thus to seek out another symbol under which to lay claim to power.
Every church of my childhood had a cross and two flags. The Christian flag (did you know we had a flag?!?!) and the flag of the United States of America. I learned the Pledge of Allegiance and said it each week in church. On Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, we recognized and applauded military personnel. I’ve been in church services where people ecstatically raised their hands in worship as the congregation reached the chorus of America the beautiful: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee. . .” Even as an adolescent, it was not lost on me that these people were literally singing a worship song to a nation state that they primarily revered for it’s military power.
The confederate battle flag (and national flag, for that matter–here’s looking at you, Georgia) is inarguably a symbol of racialized oppression and disunity, with concrete historical ties to slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. But make no mistake, “Old Glory” is every bit as blood spattered and represents a heinous history and ideology:
- Genocide of dozens of sovereign nations of indigenous people
- Continued second-tier status for U.S. owned territories
- Exploitative global capitalism
- Military oppression around the world
- US Exceptionalism
- Using the myth of the merit of citizenship to oppress, exploit, underpay, imprison, and then export immigrant workers and families all to subsidize our capital corporations
And while there are those who would argue that a flag is a symbol of our ideals, not our shortcomings, I have to ask, at what point do we finally admit that our nation-state does not, in fact, provide “liberty and justice for all”? Or perhaps, what should be clear, in the case of the US flag and the Confederate flag, we are willing to stomach just about anything as long as it is a symbol of our own supremacy.
(image of author, age 11, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA, wearing a USA hat)
It is this dynamic that is at play when mass media refers to African American, Latino American, Native American, and Asian American communities, crime, problems, etc. But does not discuss White American communities, crimes, or problems–problems like white supremacy, rabid defense of gun ownership and access that is irrevocably linked to mass shootings the vast majority of which are committed by white men. When it is convenient for white problems to disappear, the word “American” means ever citizen of every race. But when it comes time to assert white supremacy, “American” becomes an implicit stand in for White Americans, by use of racialized modifiers to single out “problems in the Black Community.”
It’s this “American” means everybody when it’s time to take responsibility, but “American” means white when it comes time to determine who holds power, that makes this word, and this flag, so slick with blood.
This is why I detest the Confederate flag; this is why I detest the American flag.
I do not pledge allegiance. I do not stand, I do not place my hand on my heart. I do not sing the national anthem.
My allegiance and my heart belong to my human brothers and sisters. I do not give a damn what nationality they are, and this country and this flag represent a nation that has grown up out of racialized oppression, beginning with the genocide of this land’s first inhabitants and growing from there.
As a Christian my faith compels me to follow a God who moves towards all people to bless our differences and bring us into community. The heart of my faith, as taught by Jesus is to love God and love my neighbor. And from everything that I can see, the flag is a veil that is meant to obscure–to hide bloody truths, to shift directions with the wind of convenience, and, because I am a white USAmerican, it is meant to enforce my power in this world, over and against my neighbors. And that is not a poison that I am willing to ingest.
People of a faith that’s most important tenant is love have a responsibility not only to demand the removal of symbols of inequity from our houses of worship. We are also faced, in the faces of our brothers and sisters, with the call to repent of our allegiances to the symbols and ideals that callous our hearts to the lived realities of oppression. As the book of Common Prayer leads us, we must “repent of the evil that enslaves us; the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”
The flag–like military force, police brutality, privatized ICE interment camps, the stock market, and unmanned drones–is an abstraction that allows us to think of ourselves as loving and good, while enacting evil on our behalf. Removing the veil from our eyes and de-sacralizing the symbols is only a first step that opens the wound so that we can do the difficult work of repentance.