Mary Poppins: A Starting Place
I was watching Mary Poppins with my children the other day. There is a scene where Mary Poppins is talking about Mr. Banks’ general inattentiveness to his surroundings. In teaching Jane and Michael about the birdwoman on the steps of St. Paul’s Mary Poppins remarks that “sometimes a person we love, through no fault of their own, can’t see past the end of his nose”. By this she means that Mr. Banks doesn’t notice the lady on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is either due to her familiarity or his preoccupation with his own life. Later, Bert surmises that Mr. Banks is overwhelmed with the pressures of his job.
I wonder if current defenders of the Confederate flag, namely the Sons of Confederate Veterans can see past the ends of their noses. They have emphatically stated that Dylann Roof does not represent their values or the values of the Confederacy. I want to take them at their word. But there is a cognitive dissonance that I cannot ignore. The Sons of Confederate Veterans flies a flag on private property just outside of my town. I’ve wondered what to do about it. I’m inspired by Bree Newsome. But flying this flag on private property, I believe, changes the game.
The Flag’s Meanings
Less a matter of opinion is what the flag means. I know symbols have layers of meanings. But they also have a foundational layer that either undergirds the others or confuses them. The proponents of the flag in my town say it is a matter of heritage. I get it. I want to be proud of my family, too. And I am proud. But I can’t ignore the fact that my ancestors probably would have owned slaves had they the opportunity. If I were to have my family tree examined, I might certainly discover slavery in my family tree. In any case, I have certainly benefited economically from slavery. That is an indisputable fact. How much? I’m not sure. But a matter of scale doesn’t cancel a matter of fact.
The foundational layer of the Confederate flag is what the founders of the Confederacy said they were fighting for. Georgia’s declaration of causes of secession states
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.
South Carolina said that their reason for seceding was due, in part, to the fact that free states refused to send back runaway slaves:
The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor. We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Texas echoed the rendition complaint also accusing northerners of
proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
This is the foundational level of the Confederate flag’s meaning. (Source)
There are additional layers of meaning: It’s use as a rallying symbol of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party of the 1940’s and American Independence Party of the 1960’s (image) and its appropriation by the KKK. I take the Sons of Confederate Veterans at their word that the park in Ridgefield contains no intention of identifying with the KKK, the Segregationist Party or any other hate group. At the same time, I cannot take them at their word that they are honoring the moral uprightness of the Confederacy. Documents on their parent website include a “Confederacy Catechism” which contains an answer as to whether or not the Civil War was about slavery. According to this Catechism, it was not:
2. Was slavery the cause of secession or the war?
No. Slavery existed previous to the Constitution, and the Union was formed in spite of it. Both from the standpoint of the Constitution and sound statesmanship it was not slavery, but the vindictive, intemperate antislavery movement that was at the bottom of all the troubles. The North having formed a union with a lot of States inheriting slavery, common honesty dictated that it should respect the institutions of the South, or, in case of a change of conscience, should secede from the Union. But it did neither. Having possessed itself of the Federal Government, it set up as its particular champion, made war upon the South, freed the negroes without regard to time or consequences, and held the South as conquered territory. (Source)
At this point, the Confederacy stumbles over its own words. I think I know why.
Beyond the Sons convictions, there is black America’s experience with that symbol. That is most important. That pain is inescapable for me at this point. To perpetuate that pain is to love thread more than flesh. No just society can abide in this way.
Further clouding the matter is the Sons of the Confederate Veteran’s self-righteousness about the Confederacy in general. The narrative of southern bravery is double-doused in bravado for the south and derision for the north. From the latest newsletter of my local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter:
Yankees fought because they were told to, and were doing so to “preserve the Union” (by force). Our Ancestors fought, because they were being invaded. Our families (sic) land, livelihood, beliefs and way of life, was all being threatened by a greedy invader, who wanted to destroy liberty, all at in the name of money and power. (Source)
While this sounds too black-and-white to be believable, it also sounds ghastly familiar. When I hear particular portions of our population speak of Muslims I often hear a similar simplification of terms. Propaganda from the late 20th century employed a similar effect to garner support for America’s Cold War confrontations with the Soviet Union. They are bad guys, we are good guys (add lip-service about how a few of them are not like that). Many people speak similarly of the poor, the gays, the liberals/conservatives, the immigrants, etc., etc., etc. I am always suspicious of dualistic thinking. It always includes exceptionalism for the good guys. The good guys are good, even when they do bad things. Spreading smallpox against the indigenous tribes of North America was certainly bad, but that doesn’t mean that the people doing these bad things are bad. Or so the idea goes. In any case, it’s almost unAmerican to think that our guys are not the good guys.
Exceptionalism: The American Way
Perhaps this is normal across nations: but for much of American history, exceptionalism has been a strong element of national identity. Exceptionalism meaning the belief that America is better than other countries, enjoys special dispensation from God, from the moral and intellectual superiority of the Founding Fathers, etc. Exceptionalism is the secularized descendent of manifest destiny: the attitude that God has ordained the founding of the USofA, therefore anything the USofA does that prospers is evidence of God’s favor. ‘[Indian removal] was ghastly, but God needed this great country’ so said manifest destiny. Those brackets could read [slavery], [Japanese interment], [preemptive invasion of Iraq], or any other brutal practice. Reading the Sons of Confederate Veterans material, I hear a similar leveling of terms. ‘It wasn’t about slavery’; ‘South just wanted to be left alone’; ‘Northerners were gullible invaders’; etc. This kind of narrative lacks the nuance necessary to be credible. It lacks facts, humility and recognition of diversity.
A Family Systems Approach to Reveal the Root Issue
I have been trying to understand how this current Confederate mindset relates to the rest of American history. As a fan of family systems theory, I have become acquainted with seeing groups of people as ’emotional systems’. This applies to families and I know it applies to faith communities. And I may be out of bounds for trying to utilize this for a nation. But a family-systems-theory-style question still lingers: how might a nation come to peaceful terms with the blights in its history?
Here is where I have to recognize a sliver of hope in the Sons of Confederate Veterans: on the most basic level they just want to be proud of their family. The Sons is a fraternity of ancestors. You have to be blood descended to be a part of the group. No doubt the original founders were actual children of Confederate soldiers: a collection of orphans and sons who were taking care of their war-wounded fathers, trying to repair their war-ravaged land. They undoubtedly heard their fathers’ stories of war. They heard their fathers’ justification for fighting in the war. They watched their cities burn. There is a certain nobility in putting your body on the line for something you believe in. And if the Dixie propaganda machine omitted slavery from the recruitment pamphlet, then we have to understand the real reasons why these men fought. I wonder if, then, there is a truth gap: not so much between the north and the south, but between the southern politicians who clearly made slavery a reason for secession and the soldiers who signed up to defend the south. I guess I want to give these soldiers the same benefit that their Sons are trying to give them. But I can’t ignore the bold statements by southern officials that declared human beings of African descent to be property.
And Now About Those Cute German Girls
Which brings me, naturally, to these cute German girls I met in England. I took them in to Trinity College chapel in Cambridge, England. The ante-chapel contains statues of famous Trinity College alum: Francis Bacon, Alfred Tennyson, Isaac Newton, etc. The main chapel contains memorials to English veterans of World Wars 1 & 2. These memorials were received differently by me than by my German friends. Over the course of my friendship with them, many of them told me of their family’s heroism in defending or helping Jews during the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, there was heroism. But I found it statistically unlikely that I would encounter so many people with similar stories in one space 50 years later. Also, the stories were too generic to be believable. These friends carried with them the shame of their country. And they couldn’t just talk about their Pawpaw the way I talk about my Pawpaw. Whereas we have “The Greatest Generation”, they have a lost generation. It is a holy pilgrimage to visit the grave sites of my grandparents. For them…I bet they don’t even go. Finally, I did learn from these cute German friends lots of ways they are building into their society ways of preventing such atrocities from happening again. They also have incorporated small reminders of their past. Once I raised my hand to ask a question. My cute German friend encouraged me to not raise an open hand (ala Hitler) but single finger (ala ‘we’re #1’). They don’t make that sign anymore.
Maybe I’m projecting too much. But my pastoral spider senses suspect that there is still deep shame in the South regarding slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, etc. (Of course, the South ought not sit alone in shame.) That shame can be atoned. I believe this in general, though I’m not sure how specifically. There have been momentary apologies here and there, but no systemic sustained effort to confess sins, practice appropriate penance and genuinely reconcile to a truly equitable and just society. Beyond removing flags, this is the deeper and more difficult work. The flag controversy is only as important as it is successful in serving as a call to action for these larger needs. Which leads me to more questions.
The Lingering Questions
- In what ways has our society failed to remember its past accurately?
- In what ways does our society need to better understand our current situation?
- What needs to happen to atone for these collective sins?
- Why can’t a flag of another country even be lowered to half-mast in respect to the 9 murdered victims at Emanuel AME?
- What needs to be done to disentangle “southern heritage” from the practice of slavery which made room for that heritage?
- What would it mean for peace in America were the South to voluntarily lay down that flag altogether?
- Who will design a new flag for the new south of which ALL of America can be proud?
- Beyond flags, what needs to be done to bring true justice, true peace and true healing to our nation?