This post originally ran May 25, 2016.
I begin by saying that I think of the American flag with affection, respect and sorrow. I think of what it used to represent, what it ought to represent, and what it periodically still represents. The sorrow has to do with what our ruling elites are insisting that it must come to represent, and the grief is over their many successes in that endeavor. Despite this, I do not yet believe the American flag is a lost cause. Take that as the starting point.
But if our rule in these matters must be the logic of those demanding that any and all vestiges of the Confederacy come down, we will soon enough discover that this is a knife that can cut in all kinds of directions. In all of this, the issue is not so much what you do as why you are doing it. If you admit a false principle into the settlement of public disputes like this one — and I hate to be the one to bring you the sorrowful tidings — the false principle does not disappear when the dispute does. It remains there, propped up in the corner, cocked and loaded, waiting for the next dispute. And because of the times we live in, there will be a next dispute, probably in about three weeks.
None of this has anything whatever to do with a desire for a do-over at Gettysburg. I am carrying no water for a neo-Confederate anything. If you think I am, then that simply means that you are not grasping a point that is dangerous to miss. I am not fighting yesterday’s battles. I am fighting today’s battles and some of tomorrow’s. If you want me to believe that the flag in South Carolina should come down because of sins x, y, and z, then I am simply inquiring why another flag should not come down because of far more heinous sins X, Y, and Z. Don’t accuse me of racialist sins I have despised all my life, and then call me stupid. Answer the question. I’ve got all day.
And it won’t do to say that the American flag is the flag of an extant power, an actual country, because that just means that application of this grand principle might take some actual courage. If you refrain because fighting adversaries who are armed and dangerous is . . . well, dangerous, then you are exactly the kind of person who would have played it safe in 1850. People kept their heads down then too.
Let me explain what I mean, and I want to ask you to hear me out.
In 1969, the baseball hero Jackie Robinson said this about the American flag in an interview with The New York Times. “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day . . . When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”
This is not the moment to white-splain to Jackie that this feeling would be appropriate with symbols that were used to oppress his people a century and a half ago, but is not appropriate with regard to what he thinks of as oppression right now. So while I would want to differ with Robinson’s course of action because we see things differently, if we have already admitted the principle that what matters is his feelings and not the facts as understood and processed by millions of other people, and scores of subcultures, where are we?
So the problem applies to both flags, simply on the basis of the history of race relations as normally understood. But let us apply additional biblical standards to the situation and see what happens.
From the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the American flag flew over race-based chattel slavery, constitutionally recognized. That was 72 years. The Roe v. Wade decision happened in 1973, wrapped up in penumbral evasions and lies, but still done in the name of the Constitution, the flag of which is Old Glory. That means that abortion has been a settled constitutional right for 42 years now. In another 30 years we will have been chopping babies up in the name of the Constitution for as long as blacks were bought and sold under the aegis of the Constitution.
And screw this into your minds — our treatment of the unborn is far, far worse than slavery was and involves many more millions of people. “As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich. They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge” (Jer. 5:27–28). If there is one cause we have absolutely refused to hear, it is the cause of the fatherless.
Since the shooting in Charleston last week, approximately 15,000 children have lost their lives in this country; legally, according to the nine black-robed Nazgul; safely, at least if you don’t count the baby; but scarcely rarely. Blacks make up about thirteen percent of the general population, and yet are represented in about 35 percent of the abortions. That is disproportionate enough to lean genocidal, and to make it the actual legacy of the very white bones of Margaret Sanger. That means 5,250 of these children, slaughtered legally since last Wednesday, were black. Who speaks for them? I don’t count because I have a picture of Stonewall Jackson in my office.
Isn’t that the limit? I have spoken out repeatedly against this racial monstrosity from my enclave here in Sherwood Forest, while most of the Big Voices for Racial Reconciliation cannot be persuaded to give a tinker’s damn about it. John Piper, God bless him forever, is an exception. When it comes to this subject, President Obama is a partial birth abortion ghoul and a large number of people from the soft evangelical middle voted for him. Twice. But what did they vote for when they did that? They voted for the continuation of a policy that on average takes one out of every four black Americans out of line and kills him dead. And everybody who voted for Obama, white or black, voted for that and ought to retire from lecturing anybody else over race relations ever again.
The 15,000, white and black, who have lost their lives since last week do not have any makeshift memorials springing up anywhere. No flowers propped against fences and no teddy bears left for the nameless. Nobody in any position of significant influence speaks for them with any kind of moral authority. But since we are talking about racial justice here, let us just address that aspect of our national tragedy. Since Roe, about 13 million black children have been executed. 13 million. That is roughly the total population of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Nebraska. So black lives matter, do they? And coming back to the point, what flag flew over the courthouses that continue to authorize this crimson carnage? What flag was still flying there just this morning? How many more decades before the great principle of flag indignation kicks in? Would the populations of ten more Midwestern states do it? It only took Hitler twelve years to ruin the swastika forever. How many years do we get?
So when I move from the shooting in Charleston to abortion, I am not changing the subject. We are talking race-based murder in both instances. 13 million. It appears plain to me that some folks don’t want a future for black people, and it also appears to me that a lot of other well-placed people are prepared to let them run with that plan. Are you one of them? If you tripped and fell over my earlier statement about Stonewall, then perhaps it is because you are more concerned about a gnat in north Idaho than about the caravan of camels that our evangelical leadership specialize in swallowing.
Some Christians have not realized the magnitude of the problem because the unborn have no voice. They really are defenseless. But in the Bible, innocent blood cannot really be silenced because whenever it is shed it cries out from the ground. In our case, it cries out from the polished linoleum floors of our abortion mills. God is just and will not be mocked. We will reap what we have sown, and our only possible refuge from righteous judgment over the blood we have shed is in the righteous blood that Pilate shed.
If the men of Sodom can rise up to condemn Capernaum, then the men of old Charleston can rise up at the day of resurrection and condemn us. They did things that appall us, true enough, and we are right to be appalled. But we do things that would appall them and they would have every right to be even more appalled.
John Rawls once said that your concept of the ideal society should be constructed without you knowing where you were going to be born into that society. This is just one more variation on the Golden Rule, and by this measure, if you were going to be conceived as the child of black parents in North America, would you prefer Charleston in 1850 or Chicago in 2015? I know which one involves a certified nurse counting up all your pieces so that they can make sure they throw all of you away. Be honest. Be brutally honest, and in the light of that honesty I would then invite you to rethink everything you thought you knew about racial reconciliation. You are not living in the kind of country you thought you were, and the myths you were taught about our recent history are just laughing at you behind your back.
The only way the ethnoi can be reconciled to one another is through the blood and water that came out of Jesus’ side. But if we go this route, we must teach the nations to obey all that Jesus taught. That means His Word is authoritative over everything, and He wants His people to do far better with racial reconciliation than to be MSNBC’s echo chamber. A good start in racial reconciliation would be for everyone to start loving the truth more than we love flattery.
All this said, I know that the Confederate battle flag has been used in some awful ways, and if we are speaking the truth we must include that one. By now the families of the Charleston victims must have seen photos online of their assailant brandishing one. Their feelings about it are completely justifiable, period, stop. Our task there is simply to weep with those who weep. My task is simply to ache with them as my brothers and sisters, pray for them, and do my level best not to compound their grief.
In addition, I have white friends whose “unreconstructed” days really were mixed in with racism and bigotry, and their way out does need to be repentance and walking away. I have no quarrel with any of this.
But the one thing we will not be allowed to walk away from is the strategy that is being run on us. As Trotsky put it, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you. That is something we must come to understand. The people behind all our symbol controversies are the same people. Their fellow-travelers change, as do their tools and patsies, but they are relentless about the same thing, over and over again. They say that a “heritage not hate” sticker really “is too” hate. But do you really want to put them in charge of what is “really hate”? They are the same people who say that bakers who will only put hetero-figurines on top of their cakes are driven by hate too.
So while we labor at all these things we have to remember this is one screwed up planet, and consequently the same sort of thing can be said (legitimately) of virtually any other symbol. It is even true of the cross. Do you have a cross in your sanctuary? Try showing a picture of that cross to the father of a bride whose wedding was blown up in Yemen by a wayward drone, sent to him by the “crusaders,” the Americans.
The reply comes back that the cross has an important and necessary meaning that is not contaminated by those mistakes and abuses, and the Confederate flag only means KKK rallies and redneck drinking parties. What needful meaning could possibly be there? Said the people who are just days away from the Supreme Court mandating same sex mirage for all fifty states, which states will all put up with it docilely even though the overwhelming majority of them don’t want anything of the kind.
We badly need a doctrine of the lesser magistrates and a robust understanding of nullification, and we need a symbol for it. Now I would be happy for the battle flag to go into the history books. Let us make way for a new symbol of resistance to federal tyranny. What do you suggest? A fighting gerbil on a yellow background? Like a kinder, gentler Gadsden flag, one that won’t be so off putting?
Whatever symbol it is, our adversaries will see to it that it will be identified with racism in about ten minutes. That is precisely what happened with the Gadsden flag at Tea Party rallies. Here was a movement dedicated to the most non-racial thing ever — basic budgetary math — and they were immediately assaulted for their racism. Whatever flag you pick, they will demand that you make it small enough that they can’t see it. And then they will accuse you of a micro aggression with your micro-flag. They have been running this play enough times that we really ought to recognize it by now. The play is this — they must be put in a charge of all definitions. And my response to that is, let me think about it, no.
None of this is said in defense of continuing the serious use of the flag as a symbol of resistance. It does have a lot of baggage. But because I acknowledge this, I am then am accused of inexplicable foot-dragging. Just take it down, man! But what I am acknowledging is a history of sin. See my essays in Black and Tan, particularly the chapter addressing what it means to be “regenerate but unreconstructed.” I believe that every Christian should always be prepared to confess sin, biblically defined. What I am rejecting is demonization. And to simply go along with what they are currently demanding is to help establish their authority to demonize. I don’t want to accede control of that process to them. I don’t want them to have the demonization gun — I know where they are going to point it next.
So I do want to replace the flag but I don’t want to do it in a way that enthrones totalitarians, giving them complete control over our dictionary of symbols. These are the people who don’t know the difference between boys and girls. These are the people who fiercely condemn female circumcision in Saudi Arabia and applaud genital mutilation by another name in California. These are the people who are willing to call people racists if they want to spend less than we take in. So mark me down as happy to replace the flag — but I just don’t want to replace it with a white one. And I understand the rainbow is taken.
In the meantime, the kind of Christian leader who gets worked up over a decal on a pick-up truck belonging to the sort of good old boy who spends half of every paycheck at Cabela’s, but who has no visceral reaction whatever to that big Planned Parenthood logo which he drives by every day, where today’s horrors are actually being perpetrated, is not, apart from repentance, going to be part of the reformation we so desperately need.
And last, in writing all this, I should say I am not worried about forfeiting any choice invitations to the great banquet of Reformed evangelicalism. I wasn’t really getting those anyway. Having spent half my life knee-deep in opprobrium, I might as well use the peculiar advantage afforded by such a situated perspective to do what Arthur Koestler once advised. “One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up.” Having done so, I will now shut up.