Last week, the messengers of my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, voted to repudiate the confederate flag. In a widely seen address, former SBC President James Merritt, himself the descendant of confederate veterans, gave an impassioned speech that brought over 7,500 messengers to their feet in solidarity.
For some evangelicals, this kind of action seems like unnecessary virtue signaling, just a grandstanding attempt to align with popular sentiment. Others might see this as just another example of political correctness.
Racial Reconciliation Is More Than Political Correctness
Growing up in the white suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s, I was isolated from the pitched battles of the civil rights movements. What’s more, the curriculum in my Christian school barely covered the crushing injustices of the Jim Crow South, the systemic racism of U.S. housing policy and the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
So, sadly and sinfully, for much of my young life, I was ignorant and even indifferent to prejudice. My parents taught me the evils of racism, but we, as members of a white majority, were unaffected by racial tension.
In college I began to read more deeply about the history of the civil rights movement. Philip Yancey’s chapter on King in his book, Soul Survivor, opened my eyes to the tragic injustices endured by the black community, often at the hands of white evangelicals.
I began to read biographies of civil rights leaders and the Spirit of God moved in my heart to care about racial reconciliation. John Piper’s deeply personal book, Bloodlines, was a game-changer for me. Most recently, Isabella Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons has broken my heart afresh.
For some, for many, talking about race is uncomfortable. And so they ask, “Why can’t we just move on? Why can’t we accept the progress we’ve seen? Why can’t we just all get along?”
In some ways, I understand the impulse to not discuss race. It’s messy and, yes, uncomfortable. We don’t always do it well. But when I read Scripture, I see racial reconciliation as central to God’s plan for the nations.
Throughout the story of Israel, God was reminding his people of his plan to bring salvation, not simply to faithful Jews, but to the whole world. In the Great Commission, Jesus, with the full authority of Heaven, sends his disciples to all nations. In the story of Pentecost, Luke intentionally reminds his readers that someone was present from every nation. In the epistles, Paul makes the case that the gospel unites God’s people from every ethnicity. And in Revelation, we see gathered around God’s throne, peoples from every nation and tribe.
Racial reconciliation is not, then, simply a worthy virtue in a civilized society. Racial reconciliation is at the heart of God’s kingdom.
If we are to be kingdom people, we have to be concerned with racial reconciliation and grieved by systemic racism. Which leads me to think about the symbol that has, for many decades, been a flashpoint of racial tension: the confederate flag.
Removing the Confederate Flag Is More Than Virtue Signaling
Virtue-signaling and political correctness do exist and sometimes work to mute the prophetic voices of Christians in the public square.
But speaking against the symbolism of the confederate flag is something altogether different. The confederate flag has always been understood to be a symbol of white supremacy. For black Americans, this flag isn’t simply a nod to history, it is a symbol of oppression and fear. Jamar Tisby, president of Reformed African American Network, writes:
African Americans and other culturally and historically aware people of all races can experience discomfort or disgust at the sight of the flag. To them it represents a culture that affirmed and fought to the death for race-based chattel slavery. It brings to mind ancestors who lived and died in shackles and those who kept them in such a state. Yes, the Confederate flag represents more than slavery, but it does not represent less. Removing it from certain places fosters a sense of welcoming and unity for those most adversely affected by racism and slavery.
Evangelical Christians know that symbols matter. The image of a cross is, to us, a sign of life and hope in a sacrificial savior. The image of a Nazi flag is a symbol of death, fascism and anti-Semitism. The image of an unborn child is a symbol of the fight for justice for children in the womb.
We shouldn’t be governed by political correctness, but if white Christians care about racial reconciliation, we should applaud the taking down of the confederate flag, a symbol that so dehumanizes our African American brothers and sisters in Christ.
If my minority brothers and sisters are hurt by the symbolism of the confederate flag, I hurt, too (Galatians 6:2). The church should be the one place in society where we hurt and mourn together and work to fight racial injustice. This kind of unity can be a vivid expression of gospel love to a watching world. As James Merritt says: “All the confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.”
This is not political correctness. This is not virtue signaling. This is a visible sign of the Spirit’s work in the Church.