On Friday, July 10th, 2015, South Carolina ceremoniously lowered the Confederate flag, permanently. In the shadow of the racially inspired carnage at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at the hands of a killer who posed with the flag, the political controversies surrounding its prominent display at the State House ceased. The symbol that celebrated past systems of racial oppression has been eclipsed by a new era of liberal democratic participation.
But something seemed rather amiss in the midst of the solemnity of the ceremony. As the flag was lowered, the thousands of spectators began to chant: “USA! USA!”
In other words, a racially-inspired flag has been banned in the name of the claimed cultural superiority of another.
But why is the American flag any better? It continues to define race in terms of systems of domination and repression. In fact, you will find no shortage of activists who seek to cleanse this land of any enduring symbols of racism and imperialism, including the American flag itself.
It may be argued that the lowering of the Confederate flag is part of an overall national process of overcoming the apartheid-like policies of the past by promoting public policies inclusive of the historically disenfranchised, thereby transcending our past racial divides.
The problem here is that such a process can in fact be seen as representing not the end of racial injustices but rather new forms of such injustices. The invention of such conceptions and policies as “affirmative action,” “racial justice,” “white privilege,” and “racial profiling” are themselves secularized political constructs that define and privilege certain races and racial policies at the expense of others, and thus indicate that racial negotiation and mythology continue to serve the interests of political organization and power contestations.
Take, for example, the frustration that we as a family have in filling out race indicators on applications. My wife is Japanese. So, when filling out an application for our four kids, what are we supposed to designate as their race? Are they ‘Asian’ (my wife has no idea what the term means)? ‘White’ (I’m not white, I’m British. Where did that term come from?)? ‘Eurasian’ (I’m Anglo, not European)? Have I unknowingly fathered a different race from myself?
The important point here is that applications are merely one of a number of tools at the disposal of states for articulating national identity, all of which involve the power to exclude and include in racially ordered terms.
Maybe so, but at least the American flag is not a symbol of institutional slavery! Well, not exactly. There is the so-called “13th Amendment loophole” that allows for slavery “as a punishment for crime.” Again, no shortage of commentators have observed that slavery has yet to be banned in the US.
Moreover, how does a nation whose laws have institutionalized the racially inspired eugenics of Planned Parenthood, which is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of unborn children, speak credibly about the sins of racism? If the meaning of the Confederate flag is historically fixed, I don’t know why the significance of Planned Parenthood isn’t. In fact, one commentator has pointed out that if we are going to be about the business of cleansing our country of its racist culture, the next target should be the banning of Planned Parenthood.
I’m not holding my breath.
And that’s because what’s stripping America of its racist heritage is nothing more than another form of state-sanctioned racism.
It is here that I find another event in the news unexpectedly apropos.
A pastor in Shelby, North Carolina, recently began flying the Christian flag above the American flag as a protest to the recent Supreme Court ruling on so-called same-sex marriage. Pastor Rit Varriale raised the Christian flag above the American flag on the pole outside Elizabeth Baptist Church, reversing nationally recognized flag etiquette. “Our typical flag etiquette is to have the American flag above the Christian flag. But when you stop and think about it, it should be our commitment to God first, then our commitment to country,” Varriale said. “Before our accountability to government is our accountability to God.”
The history and symbolism behind the flag is rather unexceptional. It dates back to 1907, the initiative of Charles C. Overton, a Sunday school superintendent in New York, who observed the powerful symbolism behind national flags and proposed a flag for Christian allegiance. The colors of the flag are, not surprisingly, red, white, and blue. The red stands for Christ’s sacrifice, the blue signifies fidelity and/or the water of baptism, and white represents purity and peace. The pledge that developed in theologically conservative circles was as follows:
I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.
While a number of churches are apparently following Varriale’s example, what interests me is the ways in which the flag can be imagined as symbolizing a distinctively Christian vision of race:
First, the flag would represent the Christian affirmation of the innate dignity of every human being, including the unborn, something the republic for which our national flag stands is a serial violator, as well as civil rights custodians such as the NAACP.
Secondly, the Christian flag would affirm the unity of the entire human race. In Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, he proclaims: “From one man God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26). All nations constitute the one human race.
Thirdly, the Christian Flag would stand for the rebirth of the human race in Christ. The apostle Paul declared to the baptized Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Those who have been baptized into Christ, both Jew and Gentile, no longer belong to the old order of the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4); their faith has made them “sons and heirs” (Gal 3:26, 29), inheritors of a new world (Gal 6:15). Thus, Paul could refer to the Corinthian believers as having once been Gentiles, but are no longer (1 Cor 12:2). They now belong to the one body of Christ, the new Adam, having been baptized by the one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13).
If the Christian flag took on such significance, it would then be a symbol of true national reconciliation. For on the one hand, it represents the racial justice that alone comes through the redeeming grace of the Creator of race. And on the other hand, it would express the redemption from systems of political oppression and state-sanctioned racism.
The Christian flag would then be a true symbol of racial reconciliation, amputated from arbitrary systems of domination.
Now that’s a flag to which I could pledge allegiance.
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