History of the Confederate flag
Defenders of the flag say that it is a symbol of their Southern heritage, a point of pride in fighting for what they believe in. Critics argue that, because the Southern states seceded largely over the issue of slavery, the flag is a symbol of racism and hatred.
An interesting component of this debate is that the Confederate battle flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy. While the blue X with white stars over a red background was incorporated into the second and third incarnations of the official flag of the Confederacy, it never flew in the form that is now drawing controversy. It was, however, adopted by several Confederate army battalions, including that of the South’s most famous general, Robert E. Lee.
All of the flags of the Confederacy disappeared in the wake of the Union’s victory, as the flags were seen as reminders of Southern defeat. It was only in the context of the struggle for Civil Rights for African Americans that the flag surfaced as a symbol of Southern pride and, more specifically, rebellion.
Contemporary Symbol of Rebellion
Those who fly the flag proudly today will tell you that it is a symbol of heritage, not hate. But this connection to heritage is a connection to a rebellion against governmental interference in what some people of the time determined to be a necessary business practice. In the mid-1800’s, slaves were seen as essential to the economic health of the nation, especially on Southern plantations. The Southern states rebelled for economic purposes, not because of moral or ideological difference, those who defend the flag would argue.
So today, those who fly the flag identify with that sense of rebelliousness, that determination to not let anyone tell them what they can’t do. In an article in the New York Times, a man wearing numerous Confederate flags states, “Plain and simple, a rebel…Tell me not to do something, I’m going to do it.”
Symbol of Hate?
While defenders of the flag uphold it as a symbol of heritage and celebrate a rebellious spirit, detractors claim it is a reminder of the struggle to keep black people enslaved to while landowners. Moreover, because of its resurgence alongside the Civil Rights battle, there seems to be a parallel between the battle flag and segregation, racism, and hatred of black Americans.
In our current climate of racial tension – sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and fueled by several instances of white police officers killing unarmed black persons – the controversy over the Confederate battle flag has become even more emotional. Following the massacre in South Carolina, the state’s legislature swiftly voted to move the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capital to a Confederate museum. And clashes over flying the flag have arisen all over the country, in state houses and neighborhoods, businesses and blog posts.
Other broken symbols
Some in this conversation have compared the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi swastika. Those who would defend the swastika symbol could contend that it was in use in numerous cultures for at least 5,000 years before it was co-opted by the Nazis. It was understood by ancient cultures across India, Indonesia, and Europe to symbolize good fortune and well-being. It can still be found in many houses of worship in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain faiths.
However, the use of this symbol by Nazi Germany has forever changed its meaning and reception. Not many contemporary Americans or Europeans would argue that the swastika symbolizes anything other than antisemitism and neo-Nazi values of racism and hatred. And that is because so many of us have inherited the narrative of the evils of Nazi Germany connected to this symbol.
And that’s what makes the swastika different from the Confederate battle flag. We all fought together as one nation against Nazi Germany. We know who the enemy was, and we now know how great and awful this enemy was. The Nazi regime is synonymous with pure, unadulterated evil, and because of that, so is the swastika.
But in the Civil War, we were a nation divided. And while we may have reunified after that horrific and bloody disagreement, we are still a nation divided. We are divided over race, economics, religion, and values. And so there are still those with a strong desire for rebellion. And there are still those whose people were oppressed by that earlier rebellion who see that symbol of rebellion as a symbolizing a desire to return them to slavery.
So the real question is: if a symbol means something different to two different groups, who wins? In my opinion: nobody. Those who fly the Confederate flag cannot do so purely as a symbol of their heritage or rebellious spirit. They are saddled with the history of Southern slavery, whether or not they like it or accept it. And freedom of speech in this country will allow the flag to continue to fly, on private property at least, as a continual reminder our dark history of slavery, segregation, and oppression and of just how very far we still have to go in the struggle for equality, justice, and unity in this country.
As Christians, we can take this opportunity to examine our own symbols: their meaning and even, perhaps, their brokenness. We might do well to remember that the swastika was called the German hooked cross and hung in state-run churches in Nazi Germany. And throughout history, various crosses have been conflicted symbols. The Jerusalem Cross, or Crusaders Cross, would have been seen by the Muslim, Jewish, and Eastern Christian victims of the Crusaders’ victories as a symbol of violence and oppression.
While the cross was important in the theology and faith of early Christians, it did not emerge as a physical symbol until late in the 5th century. There are several possible reasons for this, but one of the more meaningful possibilities is that the Roman Empire crucified many people, but only one of them was resurrected. Therefore the emphasis of early Christians continuing to live under the Roman Empire would have been on Christ’s resurrection rather than his death on a cross. The cross was a clear and present danger for Christians. It was the death of a traitor, a criminal, a failure.
A multitude of other symbols were used to identify Christians in the early centuries, including a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, a shepherd, a lamb, and an anchor. Many early Christian symbols also incorporated letters of the Greek alphabet that represented Christ. The most famous of these was the chi rho which, legend has it, Constantine had emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers as he went into battle with Maxentius to gain control of the Roman Empire. In the vision Constantine purportedly had leading up the battle, the sign appeared in the sky along with the words “In this sign conquer.” Since then, Christian symbols have been used by numerous conquerors, thereby compromising them as symbols of God’s love and the peaceful reign of Christ.
What to do with conflicted symbols?
All of this raises many questions for us as Christians.
What symbols can we use that are not compromised by violence?
What is our responsibility in the debate over broken symbols such as the Confederate battle flag?
How do we interpret conflicted symbols in such a diverse society?
Is there a call to develop new symbols to express our faith, our beliefs, our identity, and our ideals? If so, how do we go about doing this?
Join us at the next Untapped Questions where we’ll pour out our thoughts on this challenging topic.