If you have already a strong opinion on the matter of the Mississippi state flag and its Confederate canton, do not read this. After all, if you share my opinion, reading this is unnecessary. If you have a strongly held differing opinion, you will only be aggravated by this and I certainly do not want that. So, if you already know your mind on this matter, please do not read further! If, however, you are still wondering about this complex and vexing problem, I encourage you to read more. In the end, for each of us, this is a deeply personal matter with potentially historic consequences for my home state, Mississippi. I offer this memorial for consideration.
First and foremost, I believe the challenge of the Christian community to incorporate reconciliation into the daily experience of our lives is real and a responsibility we cannot avoid (“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself, through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” 2 Cor. 5.18 or “…leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister” Mat. 5.24). Our beliefs do not allow us to park our faith at the door of our churches as we exit on Sunday. Incarnational theology compels us to bring to life in the activities of our daily living the profound challenges of our beliefs. Paul, in Ephesians, calls us to be imitators of God (Eph 5.1). Reconciliation of the broken relationship between God and humanity was God’s choice in Christ. Thus, to imitate God, we must seek reconciliation in broken relationships at every opportunity. But how do we seek reconciliation? Again, Paul is a good instructor. In slightly different circumstances, in the fourteenth chapter of Romans, he is describing a strategy of relationship and reconciliation. If a behavior, attitude, or action we exhibit is causing offense to another and we persist in that behavior, Paul suggests we are not being guided by love (agape). Even if the action is not wrong or corrupt, Paul suggests if we are strong in faith we should be willing to change. He says, “Let us each stop passing judgment, therefore, on one another and decide instead that none of us will place obstacles in the way of others.” (Romans 14.13) and “So then, let us be always seeking the ways which lead to peace and the ways in which we can support one another.” (Romans 14.19). For me, an action of reconciliation is to be guided by love and a willingness to set aside my own opinions, attitudes, or symbols for the benefit of the greater good in the objective of creating/being a reconciling community.
But what of our Southern heritage? Robert E. Lee is the greatest symbol of our Southern traditions. More than any other, he represents the best qualities of integrity and honor, which we hold dear in the South. I wondered what Lee might say in this matter. It turns out, the day after the surrender at Appomattox, Lee sent a message to Grant, “… (Lee) would devote my whole efforts to pacifying the country and bringing people back to the Union.” Clearly, a message intended to advocate reconciliation. Criticized by fellow Confederate generals for this position, Lee responded, “I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires a man to act exactly contrary at one period to that which he does at another, and the motive which impels him, the desire to do right, is precisely the same.” In the post-war years, Lee’s greatest desire was to do right and to move the whole country forward in the direction of reconciliation and reunion. Not only did he resist efforts to memorialize the Confederacy, his son, who succeeded him as president at Washington College, upheld his father’s desire not to create memorials to the old Confederacy. Even with the name change to Washington and Lee College, Lee’s goal remained to welcome northern and southern students into an educational institution with a clear vision toward the future and not the past. Lee even wanted to expand educational opportunities for former slaves and, interestingly, women. In every way, Lee wanted to move toward reconciliation unfettered by the events of the past. Consequently, I believe if Lee were advising us today, he would encourage us to take bold actions toward reconciliation and the future. He would tell us to remove the Confederate battle flag from the canton of our state flag.
Finally, hatred, violence, and bigotry, in every form, are contrary to our Christian beliefs and should be rejected. Because of the cowardly actions of certain hate organizations and groups, I am compelled to acknowledge the painful impact, as a symbol, the Confederate battle flag upon the African-American community. To the extent this symbol is adopted by groups living and advocating racism, hate, violence, and bigotry, we are compelled to consider dramatic actions to dispel any notion these groups may possess of any popular support of their beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. To support the removal of the Confederate symbol from the canton of the Mississippi state flag sends clearly a message to such hate groups of the rejection not only of their beliefs but also of the use to which they have put this historic symbol.
I am ready for my home state to move forward toward more creative, non-judgmental, and non-violent opportunities for racial reconciliation. I am ready to embrace M.L. King’s dream, where people are “…not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Aug 28, 1963). I am ready to live out my incarnational beliefs seeking to create an environment of grace and love in which racial reconciliation may be encouraged to flourish. The words of Lee resonate with my hopes for Mississippi’s future, “Let the past be the past and let us move forward and bear no malice.” May we let the past be the past and look forward to a new and hopeful future, seeking reconciliation with all, making history not changing history.