American society has had an eventful few weeks regarding cultural debates and decisions, to put it mildly.
A heinous act of evil that resulted in the tragic loss of life in Charleston, South Carolina has led us to question some of the vestiges of our past – namely, the continued flying of the battle flag of the Confederate States of America in state capitals – while the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriages has resulted in some very ugly discourse from both supporters and detractors.
I hope to be sensitive to all sides on both debates while writing what I perceive to be the truth in love. That is my intent, at least, so I hope this can be read and understood within that context.
The Confederate flag
Some caveats: in case you aren’t aware, I’m a 33-year-0ld white Southerner (seventh or eighth generation Floridian) born and raised in the South (yes, North Florida is the South).
I love history and am fairly well-read for a layman when it comes to American, Southern, and local history of my native Alachua County. As the recipient of a political science degree, the same can be said for political history and theory.
I prefer Southern culture to other American variations: I like the food, I like that people are usually friendly, I like manners and social politeness, I tend to appreciate the Southern emphasis on a balanced tension between State and Federal government, and I like a lot that is unique about the history and peoples who have called the South home.
My family is of German descent, and since I have become more interested in my German heritage over the last five years or so, I have done a good bit of reading on German culture and history prior to, during, and following the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s and have lamented the loss of much that was good but tainted by Nazism.
Nevertheless, that which was directly associated with Nazi Germany is appropriately relegated to history, to be studied so that the lessons of how a society could come to embrace a blatantly evil regime are not forgotten, but to otherwise remain in the past so that those victimized by the Nazi are properly allowed to move on.
The parallel is identical with the Confederacy and its flag.
The Confederacy represents a blight on Southern culture that is nearly synonymous to the blight Nazism is to German culture.
You have to really understand history in order to appreciate the similarities, and you have to be able to remove yourself emotionally from the argument to attempt as best you can to look at this situation objectively, as you might look at the issue of Germany continuing to raise the Nazi flag if it so chose.
Because most of us in America aren’t German, we take for granted that the millions upon millions of Germans who died during World War II were not Nazis: they were ordinary people fighting for national pride after the completely unfair and abject humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
We tend to forget that Germans weren’t on the side of evil during the First World War: there was no “evil” side, simply nations at odds with each other over historically petty differences. Regardless, after the German loss, the Allied Powers buried Germany by laying the blame and debt for the entire war on them.
Facing both an impossible debt and the worldwide financial crisis of the Great Depression in the late 1920s destroyed the German economy and resulted in a highly-fragile parliamentary government that was ripe for the growing influence of a radically nationalist political party that publicly extolled the restoration of German power and pride at the expense of those who had legitimately wronged them (the Allied Nations) and those who were incorrectly perceived to have wronged them (the Jews).
Thus, during World War II, the common German wasn’t fighting for Nazism – they were fighting for Germany with the same nationalist motivation with which the vast majority of Americans extol their soldiers in any war the U.S. engages in.
Germans are able to honor the sacrifices of their soldiers and civilians while simultaneously denouncing the regime that controlled the nation.
This is as it should be in the South when remembering the sacrifices of soldiers and civilians during the Civil War, not forgetting that the cause for which they fought – whether they recognized it or not – was ultimately evil, because the center of every rationale for which the war was waged is slavery.
Yes, a root issue was whether the Federal government had the right to impose its will on the State(s), but the reason that issue was in play was due to slavery.
It’s disingenuous to throw random snippets of quotes around from a specific era to prove a point (lots of people said lots of different things at any given time, as evident then as it is today), but when reading white Southern history it’s humbling to see how central slavery was to every aspect of society: economics, religion, politics, anthropology.
White supremacy was deeply imbedded in a very large portion of Southern thinking and living.
[As a broader context, we’d do well to remember that the classical cultures we tend to romanticize were likewise built on the backs of slaves: every single one of them, from Egypt to Greece to Rome to China. It is even more important to know that slavery is still alive and well in the world today.]
I certainly believe many of the people who support the Confederate flag are not racist and are supporting it out of a notion of heritage. It is, however, an accident of history that allowed the rebel battle flag to continue to have any association with the South whatsoever after the conclusion of the Civil War.
At the conclusion of World War II, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were made abundantly clear to all German citizens, there was an incredible sense of shame and remorse felt by the majority.
The same cannot be said about the South at the conclusion of the Civil War. The ideals of white supremacy ran deeply throughout Southern culture, even “kind” and “benevolent” versions of white supremacy that advocated treating African Americans well but nonetheless as intrinsically inferior.
While the North completely uprooted Southern industry, law, and economics (and carpet-bagged and robbed along the way), white Southern culture remained unchanged regarding its feelings towards African Americans, as is blatantly evidenced by segregation, Jim Crow laws and the need for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
In fact, the Confederate flag was not flown after the Civil War until the Civil Rights era as a clear intimidation towards African Americans and a large, extended middle-finger to the North and heavy-handed federal government.
That fact by itself is damning evidence concerning the intention behind the flag’s reemergence.
Thus it is that it is impossible to extricate racism and white supremacy as a central theme interwoven in the meaning of the Confederate flag.
The process of separating legitimately good parts of Southern historical heritage is extremely difficult given the deep-seated prevalence of white supremacy, but it is a noble cause that must necessarily include the good shared experiences of whites and African Americans.
The flag, however, can not be included as part of the “good” of Southern heritage, as it is akin to Jews being forced to see swastikas continue to fly in government and public buildings.
Ironically, the legalization of same-sex marriage is made possible because of the result of the Civil War in which Federal powers greatly increased over the powers of the States: the nature of the debate in the Supreme Court was precisely whether Federal powers could be enforced over and against the individual powers of the States.
I have written ad nauseam about American culture and politics (here, here, here), whether America should be considered a “Christian nation” (here), freedom (here and here), love (here, here, here, here, here), and sexuality in general and within a Christian context (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), but I’ve shied away from expressing an explicit opinion on how Christians ought to interact with politics.
Christians have a complicated history with politics. We Christians often think ancient Israel’s theocracy applies to us and forget that Israel was explicitly a called people, forged into a direct theocracy by God Himself for a particular purpose, which was to climax in the redemption of creation through Jesus. Thus, Israel’s circumstance as a theocracy was unique.
Christians believe that Jesus will eventually return in order to finish the work of redemption He started and the Church is imperfectly carrying on. At that time, Heaven and Earth will unite and God will govern humanity directly.
Christians should rightly understand all governments that exist in the interim to be transitory and not precursors of God’s kingdom, because of course not every single human is a Christian and of course we don’t have the knowledge / compassion / love / mercy / ad infinitum of God.
That doesn’t mean Christians ought to have no activity within government, but that those engaging in politics must balance a delicate line between advocating for shared morals without crossing into an imposition of belief that non-Christians (and numerous other Christians) do not understand. Few if any Christian politicians do this well.
The reality is that Christians were complicit in demolishing opposite-sex marriage in the West to the point where the catch-phrase of “traditional marriage” is an enigma: there is absolutely nothing wrong with romance, but the moment we made marriage about romance is the real instance in which the “traditional” form of marriage died.
Marriage, “traditionally” speaking, was almost always about the context of broader families arranging for their children to be able to acquire the inheritances of the family – in other words, it harkens to a time in which the individual person was understood not as a strictly independent “I” but as a part of a group, the family.
This sounds alien to us as nearly every single philosophy we have internalized has championed the self as the sole arbiter of identity: our books, our movies, our music, our philosophers, our artists have screamed for more than 400 years that YOU ALONE have the power to define YOU.
In our rare moments of lucidity, we realize that “me alone” is not enough and that I need others, but being unable to comprehend our identity as being connected with others collectively, we search for another Autonomous I whom elicits romantic feelings in us with which to partner.
That generally being the extent of the depth of the covenant, divorce is frequent when feelings leave or change.
Within this understanding of marriage with which we all basically agree, there is no logical reason in which to oppose marriage between any two people regardless of sex (or for that matter between any group of people who as consenting adults desire to be in a romantic arrangement with each other; the only plausible objection would be concerning fairness of distribution of legal benefits).
For a Christian to suggest that the culturally-understood highest goal of fulfillment is limited only to those with heterosexual orientations is an act of cruelty and unfairness.
If one does not challenge the nature of our Western cultural ideals, then I completely agree with the prevailing cultural sentiment that marriage as understood in the West should be available to all as far as the law of the land is concerned.
Of course, I think the Christian is indeed compelled to challenge what has been implicitly assumed by all in the West to be the Holy Writ of Culture, but that would entail Christians letting go of our own sacred cows within the paradigm of Western culture.
We’ve all been asking the wrong question by focusing on who can be married. The more proper question should have been: what is marriage? Because only from a proper answer to that question can we understand each other when communicating about marriage.
As far as Christians are concerned within our own dynamic, we need to critique how compromised we have become by cultural forces thought to be Christian but are anything but (one example: I cringe every time I hear a Christian refer to his or her “soul mate,” a concept which is ancient, pagan Greek without any reference point within Christianity).
Foremost among all else, we are called to love everyone.
True love doesn’t mean what most think, but it also doesn’t include much that I see being written or hear being said by Christians.
While it’s certainly true that loving someone doesn’t entail agreeing with him or her, it’s also true that it doesn’t involve publicly lamenting how our nation is “going to hell” or “going to regret” this decision, because the general public only hears condemnation from statements like this: the disconnect is so large – even among fellow Christians – that the only thing such statements accomplish is additional damage and alienation.
Only after acknowledging our own complicity in the rancorous debates we unfortunately find ourselves in with those outside of the Church can we properly ask for forgiveness, repent, set our own house in order, then actively return to our actual vocation of properly embodying the Kingdom as a glimpse of creation’s coming restoration.
That is how the Church in the beginning grew in the midst of a culture that did not understand it: by allowing God’s power to work miraculously in it and through it; by offering an attractive alternative to being human than what popular culture espoused, a popular culture that shared many similarities to our own.
We only continue to harm others and ourselves by fighting with people who are unable to comprehend where we are coming from. In this situation, perhaps the words of C.S. Lewis regarding divorce are likewise applicable:
“A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members.”