In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in South Carolina, a cry has arisen calling for the Confederate flag that flies on the capitol grounds in South Carolina to be taken down. Russell Moore has joined in the call, and I have been called out on Twitter to do the same. Let me explain my reasons for declining to do so — I am declining to say anything about it, one way or the other. There are three reasons.
First, as I explained in another post after another shooting, it is unseemly to politicize these horrors when the families are still weeping. Whether the issue is gun control or something else, whenever a hard sell comes in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, the only thing it makes me want to do is wonder at how boorish some people can be. If this the case when the political issue is arguably connected, as with gun control, how much more is it the case when it is so obliquely related? Did the alleged shooter even know about the flag? Boorish behavior can be exhibited by either side. If one man starts a roaring debate in favor of gun control the same day of the shooting, the situation is not improved if an advocate of open carry does the same thing the next day. The families involved, who include godly Christian people calling for repentance and a turn to Christ, ought not to be distracted by apparatchiks trying to make some political hay out of their grief.
Secondly, when the appropriate time comes for us to discuss as a people what our response should be — and it will come soon enough — let us start with issues that stand a chance of being far more relevant to the shooting than a flag at the state capitol. Is the point to help solve the problem or is the point to make a grand gesture? Let me give you an example. If you insist on having a national conversation about these iniquitous shootings, then why don’t we start by talking about psychotropic drugs? Take all the mass shootings perpetrated in the last twenty years by young males under the age of twenty five. What percentage of the shooters were on prescribed psychotropic drugs? What drugs? How long had they been on them? And, most importantly, why do you not have immediate access to the answers to these questions? I will tell you why — it is because the industry that promotes better living through chemistry is a politically protected class, in a way that gun manufacturers and Sons of Confederate Veterans are not. So it is not enough to debate the political aspects of such shootings at the right time, it is also necessary to debate the right thing at the right time. Otherwise the clouds of grief just cover for the emptiness of the gestures.
And this leads to the last point. This is an issue that Moore tried to anticipate, although I don’t believe he dealt with it successfully. The issue of taking the flag down, or leaving it up for that matter, is an issue of symbolism. And as this kind of controversy demonstrates, we don’t understand symbolism very well. We don’t know how it works. We don’t know how the meaning of symbols gets assigned, we don’t have any clear way of determining what groups have a right to be offended by a particular symbol, who has a right to speak for those groups, or how we balance competing claims for the right to use the symbol. The Confederate flag can mean that you are at a KKK rally, that you are looking at a truck decal in a NASCAR rally parking lot, that you are at a Skynyrd concert, that you are looking a commemorative calendar painted by a memorabilia artist, that you are driving by a car dealership in rural Virginia, or that you saw a photo of Kanye West taking his confusions to a whole new level.
And if you don’t understand how the battle over symbols is being conducted, the chances are excellent that the flag at the state capitol will be taken down, a rainbow gay flag will replace it in a couple years, and the shootings will continue apace.
Our limitations with regard to symbols can be seen if we apply the same logic to the American flag. Moore tried to show how his reasoning with regard to the Confederate flag did not apply to the American flag, and when it came to the isolated issue of slavery, he has a point. But you can sin against blacks more ways than by slavery.
Here is Moore.
“The Confederate States of America was not simply about limited government and local autonomy; the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections of law, to a great evil. The moral enormity of the slavery question is one still viscerally felt today, especially by the descendants of those who were enslaved and persecuted.”
Right. But if we restate this, substituting Old Glory and the abortion carnage, what does consistency now demand? “The United States of America is constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections of law, of an even greater evil.” So why doesn’t the American flag represent abortion on demand? One great difference is that the descendants of this moral outrage will not feel the enormity a century from now because there will be no descendants. Fifty million children have died on the altar of American sexual convenience, and a disproportionate number of those children were black. This was in line with Margaret Sanger’s desire to eradicate human weeds, which means a lot more indignation should be directed at the Planned Parenthood logo than at the Confederate flag. The evil of Planned Parenthood is going on now. This is a gospel issue, but gospel issues have a way of getting obscured by gnats and camels. So there is a shooting in South Carolina, and a number of evangelicals scramble to call for the removal of a museum piece flag, but we think it would be in bad taste rather to say something about the Planned Parenthood centers in South Carolina that will — today — kill a black child for you for ready money.
So is the American flag out? No, I don’t believe so. This kind of symbol doesn’t function this way. The American flag represents what it used to represent, it represents what it ought to represent, and it also represents what it does in fact represent — what it currently covers and protects, which would appear to include the slaughter of infants, high levels of gender lunacy, insane levels of taxation, and unlimited porn on your smart phone. The interplay of all these factors are admittedly complicated. But I am reluctant to join in a stampede that would appear to me to solve nothing.
The grieving families in this have it right. Our response needs to be repentance and a turn to Christ. In this broken world, that is always the appropriate response.