The Cross and the Confederate Flag: Reflections on Symbols in the Church and America

Two Observations About Symbols in the Christian Community

Let’s talk about symbols. What are they? How do they attain their meaning? And what do they do to people? 

Christianity uses a great deal of symbolism in its private and communal worship. Crosses are displayed in and around Christian places of worship (except some churches who deem the symbol too off-putting for seekers). The ichthus, a simple fish outline, is a popular symbol for bumper stickers. Many ornate sanctuaries are highly symbolic, with engravings on altars and pulpits and colorful vestments. Animals, flowers, shapes, and lighting all communicate symbolically.

These symbols are incredibly useful in worship because symbols point to stories and events that give meaning to our faith. In our sanctuary, an illuminated cross is suspended high above the stage at the front of the sanctuary. Every time a congregant looks at that symbol, they either consciously or subconsciously, recall the twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our worship is only meaningful so long as we remember that particular story, which gives the symbol of the cross its meaning, and which in turn gives meaning to our worship and lives.

Here’s a fascinating thought experiment that may help one to realize the complexity of how symbols become meaningful. Try thinking about the cross as a symbol prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. Fleming Rutledge has explained how horrific, how brutal, how unrelenting death by crucifixion was. Prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, and years of celebrating that story, the cross was utterly irreligious. “The cross is ‘irreligious,’” Rutledge writes, “because no human being individually or human beings collectively would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man” (The Crucifixion, p. 75). 

In other words, historically speaking, the original historical meaning of the cross was barren of religious meaning, and symbolized mostly the power of the state to brutalize those who caused problems. (Fleming Rutledge has since acknowledged that, even after decades of studying Christ’s crucifixion, she failed to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree, so powerfully described by the late James Cone.) But Christ’s life, death, and resurrection added to—or, better, transformed—the meaning of the cross as a symbol.

In fact, the symbolic meaning of the cross more powerful because of the cross’s irreligious history. The cross itself indicates that a powerful and unimaginable transformation has taken place: death has been trampled over by life. In its own story as a symbol, the cross has been transformed from a sign of brutality to a sign of love, this transformation taking place because of the way the Christian community laid hold of the symbol and let Jesus’s story give the symbol new meaning.

The cross itself indicates that a powerful and unimaginable transformation has taken place: death has been trampled over by life.

So, point one about symbols: their meaning is never simply “historical.” The way the symbol is used (for example, the cross’s use in worship several centuries after Christ’s death) and the events it is associated with (Christ’s death and resurrection) give it meaning over time, and through particular communities.

But symbols are not inert objects. They actually do something to people and communities. To continue thinking about the cross, how do you feel when you see it? As a Christian, if you feel a bland indifference, you’ve probably not yet understood the powerful story it conveys. Every time you look at the cross, in some sense, it proclaims the gospel to you. That is part of the purpose of a symbol, to tell a story or deliver a message in a simplified form. As I mentioned above, the purpose of symbols in worship is to reinforce stories that both lead folks into worship and help them understand what they’re doing in worship. In a highly concentrated way, the symbol of our illuminated and suspended cross tells the story of the gospel: Christ died but is risen from the dead.

Symbols can and do serve another purpose. They create a sense of community. How do you feel when you see someone wearing a cross necklace? If you’re like me, you feel an immediate sense of connection to them, a kinship of sorts. You share a story with them, the story of God’s love and mercy which has transformed your life. When I was a freshmen in college, I had a friend who wore a cross necklace. He also partied, slept around, and dealt drugs. One day I approached him and asked him how he could wear a cross around his neck while doing those sorts of things. “Come on, Zen,” he said. “You’re making me feel bad.” I said, “Maybe you should.” Looking back, I probably should have asked a different sort of question: “What do you think that cross means, and how might it challenge the way you’re living?” But, here’s the point of the story: I would never had said something like that to him were he not wearing a cross. The symbol created a connection in which I felt that our shared story bound us in a shared understanding of life and morality.

Point two about symbols: they reinforce their meaning (or what we perceive their meaning to be) in us and they create a sense of “community” or “connectedness” with others who utilize that symbol. In a way, symbols are essential tools for building a culture.

Confederate Symbols in Contemporary America

All of this is significant for understanding the national debate about the removal or destruction of statues and the rebel flag in North America, and especially in the states which formerly seceded from the United States of America to become an autonomous country called the Confederate States of America. 

These monuments and the rebel flag are symbols. And, as such, they function like Christian religious symbols. They gain meaning over time through the stories they echo and the way they are used, they reinforce that meaning in those who observe them, and they create a sense of community around the story the symbol communicates.

I’ve seen several dear friends defending these statues and the rebel flag. This is what led me to write this post. I’ll list several ways I’ve seen people, including my dear friends, justifying these symbols, with reflections on how the meaning and use of symbols seems to undermine my friends’ justifications.

The statues or the rebel flag are just historical artifacts, which we should preserve and/or use so we never forget our history. True, they are historical artifacts, and even useful for teaching history. But it is not true that they are “just” historical artifacts. They are symbols, and many have been used in quite harmful ways.

This is undeniable for the rebel flag. What else is a flag but a symbol that represents and communicates the shared beliefs, desires, hopes, and convictions of a people? As such, the symbol of the rebel flag is not simply its original use and meaning, but the meaning given to it over time.

While the flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy, it was incorporated into versions of the official flag and was utilized by former Confederate states to call back to their former nation. The flag’s association with the Confederacy is enough to recognize its symbolic approval of racism. The Confederate States of America’s constitution deliberately upheld slavery as a just practice by outlawing the creation of laws to outlaw slavery (see Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4). It also anticipated acquiring additional lands, and insured slavery would become the law of the land in those places (presumably whether or not the new lands desired it to be so). The Civil War may have been fought for complicated reasons but the Confederacy felt slavery was so essential to its states’ rights that it ratified it constitutionally. The defining story of the flag as a symbol is the formation of a country that constitutionalized racism. In terms of symbolic meaning, the flag restates what the Confederate constitution declared: “Black people are less than white people, and slavery is just.”

The flag grew in popularity following the Civil War among former states of the Confederacy. It is still a part of the Mississippi state flag. Until recently, it was flown, notoriously, at the statehouse in South Carolina. One should recall that these states, following the Civil War, instituted laws that were purposefully discriminatory, segregationist, and violent toward black people. (These are known as Jim Crow laws; one should note that the north had its own absurdly racist laws.) The Ku Klux Klan often carried this flag at their rallies and as they lynched black people. Whatever one might think the original meaning of the flag was, its symbolic meaning to whites, especially in the south, is steeped in racism. If the cross’s original meaning was transformed by what Christ did through the cross and the church’s use of the cross as a religious symbol in worship, the rebel flag’s meaning is transformed by it’s use to fight for a country that upheld slavery and its use by those Americans who maintained the racist ideologies of the Confederacy after the Civil War and into present times.

KKK rally in Chapel Hill, NC. Picture from WUNC.org.

Moreover, the rebel flag becomes a culture-making symbol when it is flown. People who are sympathetic with racist habits of mind and action will feel a sense of solidarity and acceptance wherever this flag is flown, even if the person flying it interprets the flag in a somehow “non-racist” way. It is not a matter of political correctness to remove these flags, especially from places of governance or other public institutions. It is a matter of cultural morality. Flying such a flag does not, on its own, “keep history from repeating itself.” It reinforces the history of racism that has so desecrated this country for centuries.

It is not a matter of political correctness to remove rebel flags, especially from places of governance or other public institutions. It is a matter of cultural morality.

The statues and monuments that have sparked controversy are also symbols. Auschwitz or other historical sites of horrific suffering are preserved—often turned into museums—in order to educate and inform people about the injustice and ignorance that led to such a history. Most monuments glorifying Confederate generals and other notable figures, on the other hand, are intended to celebrate figures of history, many of whom carried out or supported violent injustices. 

Do these statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers have signs and information about the number of black people enslaved by such figures, or by the Confederacy they fought for? Do they explain and detail the legislation such figures pursued following the war? Do they decry the systems of brutality and dehumanization that went along with the institution of slavery that would have been upheld had these generals won the war? Or do they simply glorify the “bravery” and military expertise of such figures? Are those who wish for these monuments to remain equally willing to see statues of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, or Ida B. Wells erected in their city centers, state capitols, and universities—at taxpayer expense, as many of these Confederate monuments were? They are a significant part of history, too, are they not?

If monuments and statues of Confederate soldiers and figures are not to be symbolic reinforcements of white supremacy, the “educational elements” surrounding them—signs, resources, etc.—must be revised to explain why the figures memorialized fought an unjust war to maintain injustice and slavery. Since that is quite unlikely, given almost all of the statues were erected to do the very opposite, these statues must be removed. This is not erasing history, as some argue. It is refusing to glorify historical immorality.

Additionally, if there is a deeply seated concern that history will be forgotten and repeated, we should consider the possibility of requiring ongoing education in workplaces across America that cover the history of racism in America, anti-racism and bias training, and intercultural communication and conflict. If the concern is forgetting and repeating history, these tactics will clearly be more direct and effective than a monument.

This whole “politically correct” thing has got to go. We can’t say anything without people being offended. As far as I see it, this is not a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of our culture’s moral integrity. As I’ve explained above, these symbols are not harmless. Like other symbols, they can and do reinforce racist ideology and create solidarity among racist people, emboldening them to act on their racist ideas.

It’s not that you can’t say anything you want, it’s that the rebel flag says something deeply immoral, and painful to the black community especially. This flag has been carried and flown and supported by people who killed black people, who burned black peoples houses and church buildings, who legislated black people into prison (through vagrancy laws, etc.). The predominate and consistent use of this symbol has been with the specific intent of communicating that the Confederacy was right about black people. Whatever you may want it to mean, for the foreseeable future it will inevitably mean “I think black people should still be slaves.” That is deeply and profoundly immoral.

Someone who refuses to acknowledge the flags common use because it means something particular to them is thinking carelessly. If I say the word “Steeple,” you might say, “Ah, yes, like the steeple of a church.” If I then respond, saying, “No, obviously I mean steeple, as in the tip of your elbow.” Who would be at fault for the miscommunication? It wouldn’t be the person who created their own interpretation of the word “steeple.” To act as if the obvious and generally accepted meaning of a symbol is not its obvious and generally accepted meaning is not conducive to communal life together. We cannot sustain our life together if we cannot communicate together, and we cannot communicate together if our symbols and signs mean whatever we want them to.

People should celebrate their heritage; Confederate soldiers were American, too. Yes, people can celebrate their heritage and culture. Christians celebrate their heritage by retelling the story of Jesus year after year. But we should also be a people who confess and repent of our sins, which means we have to disassociate with certain parts of our history. 

Think of your own life’s story. When you look back on your life, you will inevitably remember seasons in which you thought you were doing what you should be doing only to discover later that you were in the wrong. What is the right way to remember such a time in your life? Should you get a tattoo memorializing that time as “a really good season of life?” Or should you thank God for leading you out of darkness and into the light, vowing again never to return to the sinfulness from which God has liberated you?

Image from Wikipedia.org

Consider this. When schools started to be desegregated, the number of schools in America named for key figures of the Confederacy (i.e. Robert E. Lee) spiked significantly. What else can this mean but that the people in power, who decided to name those schools, despised the idea of healing the racial divide through bringing children together to learn, so they chose to glorify those who fought to keep the races apart. Those schools are tattoos celebrating the darkest moral failures in our country’s life together. It is not simply historical name; it is a symbolic gesture.

Many of the statues and monuments were used in just the same way as the schools. If I’m right to suggest they get their meaning, in part, from their use, then the statues mean “We do not want black people in our communities, nor do we want to see them as equals.”  I’ll say it again: it’s not a matter of forgetting, which leads to repetition of sin and evil. It’s a matter of refusing to celebrate our cultural sin. Southern culture has plenty worth celebrating. The decision to sacrifice many of its sons and to kill many others, in significant part to protect the institution of slavery, is not one of them. 

To the second point, I am surprised by the number of people who defend Confederate soldiers as Americans. They were until they chose not to be (or their state chose not to be and they went along with it). They fought as enemy combatants of a country that disassociated with the United States. By definition, they were not Americans. (Despite rumors, the U.S. government never retroactively honored Confederate soldiers as U.S. veterans.) We should grieve and lament every life lost in war, but we do not honor anyone by celebrating their defense of injustice.

Other people were and are enslaved and treated unjustly, too. Why don’t we care about them? We do and we should. All injustices should be lamented and resisted. Modern slavery anywhere is egregious and should be condemned in the strongest terms. The oppression of the white poor in America is a moral evil to be expunged. But it is simply a fact that historically, legislatively, and socially the black people of America have endured the most widespread and heinous discrimination of any social group. It makes good sense that the cries for their freedom are often the loudest and longest lasting. There is much that needs redressed. 

This also means that there are more symbols in our country that evoke the cry for freedom. They are in the north and the south. Some are obvious and others are discreet. As we recognize the way our symbols reinforce oppressive ideology, we are right to ask questions about whether their present form and presentation is good, right, and just. If not, either they should not remain or their presentation must undergo changes to shift their purpose from glorification of fighting for injustice to anti-discriminatory education.

Conclusion

More could be said. My goal was only to show that symbols are more than historical artifacts. Their meaning is established in the stories they point to and by the way they are used. And they reinforce their meaning and gather people around it. The flags and monuments in question today cannot be played down as “simply historical artifacts” because, for many, they are far more than that. And they will continue to reinforce and reinvigorate the very evils we’ve worked so hard to eradicate.

The cross bears symbolic witness to Christ’s work of tearing down the dividing wall between God and people, and between us sinners. Why would we try to defend any symbol that reinforces one of those dividing walls? May God bless us all with wisdom and courage to see the error of our ways, and to rally around the humbling and liberating story of the cross.

The cross bears symbolic witness to Christ’s work of tearing down the dividing wall between God and people, and between us sinners. Why would we try to defend any symbol that reinforces one of those dividing walls?

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