Last week, Dale and I watched the ceremony when the Confederate flag was removed from the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. We were deeply moved and celebrated along with many others the removal of this racist symbol from public property.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, our neighbors had put up two flags in front of their home – a U.S. flag and a Confederate flag. Given the timing, this seemed like more than just a patriotic gesture over the Fourth of July but was also in direct response to all the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag precipitated by the murder of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston by a young man who espoused racist beliefs and draped himself in the Confederate flag. We don’t know our neighbors well (introverts that we are) and we don’t interact more than the usual casual friendly conversations across our front lawns. We did learn awhile ago that they hope to be able to move to South Carolina sometime in the next few years when they’re financially able to do so. Still, the flag-flying came as a bit of a surprise.
Then while Dale and I were watching the flag-removal ceremony, he mentioned that the neighbors had taken down their flags. I hadn’t noticed, but sure enough when I double-checked, they were gone. Yay, I thought! But I cheered too soon, because both flags went back up not long after and they’re still flying. We couldn’t help wondering whether our neighbors were so upset by the the Confederate flag coming down in South Carolina and many other places that they had defiantly decided to make their statement again.
Despite arguments that the Confederate flag is a symbol of southern heritage and history, and therefore deserves a place of honor, it is abundantly clear to me that the flag is much more a symbol of racism, beliefs in racial superiority, and white supremacy. When defenders of the flag talk about “southern pride,” they’re really talking about white southern pride, and disregarding all the African Americans who are also southerners and descendants of slaves and feel pain rather than pride when they see the flag. It might be true that many people who fly the flag don’t mean to be racist, and perhaps don’t even think about what the flag represents to others. I’m sure many of them are really good people. But that doesn’t negate the reality of the flag’s history (which I personally don’t understand how anyone can not see as blatantly racist), and its offensiveness to many of their friends and neighbors.
Our neighbors seem like good people who work hard and are trying to make a better life for themselves. Their decision to fly a Confederate flag in front of their home offends me, but what if anything should I do about it? It’s their home, their private property, and flying the flag is an exercise of their freedom of speech. However reprehensible I might think that particular kind of speech is, it is protected, as is my speech opposing their point of view or my decision not to fly any flag at my home. I also don’t have the kind of relationship with them to tell them I am offended by the flag and to ask them to take it down, and even if I did, I’m not sure that would be the right thing to do. At the very least, if the subject ever came up in a casual conversation, I hope I would be able to explain my views forthrightly while also listening carefully and graciously to their point of view, trying to understand where they are coming from, and what may have happened to them to make them believe as they do. That’s what I would want from someone who disagreed with me, and what I think my commitment to peacemaking requires. I would also hope I might be able to give them something to think about that might eventually change their minds.
Truth be told, I’m also uncomfortable flying the American flag. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what the flag is supposed to stand for, and I confess to feeling very patriotic during the Olympics or more recently, when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup and draped themselves in the American flag as they celebrated their championship. But, my father was born in Canada and I still have family there; I was born and lived in Zimbabwe, and I also lived in Zambia for a time. Those flags have personal meaning. Plus, I’ve worked really hard over the course of my adult life to have a more global perspective, to try to see the world through other-than-American lenses, to be less ethnocentric. The Christian tradition I come from is reluctant to pledge allegiance to any flag, believing that our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God rather than to any of the kingdoms of this world.
Despite my personal reluctance to display the American flag, however, I am not offended when my neighbors up and down the street do so during patriotic holidays, or in some cases, all the time. Our next-door neighbors can fly the American flag all they want, but I do hope they take down that Confederate flag soon!