Growing up, hardly a day went by when I didn’t see the rebel flag (no one called it the confederate flag). It would be found plastered to the bumpers and rear windows of pickup trucks, emblazoned on caps and flown in various yards in the community. I’m from a small community in rural Alabama; I’m from the South, from Dixie. Memories of the Confederacy were all around me: monuments, streets and high schools named after Confederate leaders, the rebel flag. Relics of the Confederacy didn’t trouble me before. They do now.
What changed? Some might assume that I, a white Southern male, probably harbored some racist tendencies, but that I’ve now become more enlightened. I don’t think that’s it. I would honestly contend that racism has never been an issue for me, that my parents raised me to love others as myself, to treat them fairly regardless of race, economic status, nationality, etc. My issue wasn’t racism, my issue was perspective. What changed is that I stopped viewing everything from my limited perspective and began considering how others would perceive things. And in noting the arguments that have arisen this past week over events in Charlottesville and the removal of Confederate monuments, I would say that our problem isn’t racism, it’s perspective.
We will return to recent events, but first it would be helpful to consider that the New Testament addresses our need for perspective. It does this because it was written in a time of great societal tension, mirroring in many ways the tension in our own society. The tension wasn’t between black and white, but between Jew and Gentile… and it was every bit as fierce as what we’ve witnessed. The animosity was so great between the two groups that Paul was deemed worthy of death by his Jewish kinsmen simply because he preached to the Gentiles (see Acts 22.17-22). And while God had united both groups in Christ (see Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 2.17-19; Galatians 3.28), tension between the two persisted in the church. Both groups came into the church with vastly different perspectives, shaped by differences in culture and history. Jewish Christians would have been tempted to view Gentile brethren as outsiders; Gentile saints would have been tempted to view their Jewish brethren as strange, peculiar and arrogant. How could the “one body” survive?
Paul’s letter to the saints in Rome was written against the backdrop of Jew-Gentile tension in the local church. It is likely that when the gospel arrived in Rome it first spread in the Jewish synagogues and that the churches were comprised predominantly of Jewish Christians. But then the Jews were expelled from Rome, a historical event that is confirmed by the Biblical text (Acts 18.2). What happened to the makeup of the Roman churches during that time? We can only guess, but it is likely that they took on a Gentile flavor and by the time the Jews could return, there were more Gentile Christians in Rome than Jewish. This resulted in tension between Jew and Gentile within the Roman churches, a fact acknowledged by Paul within the text of his letter (Romans 15.7-13).
What hope was there for unity in the church? The only hope was the gospel! The gospel convicted both Jew and Gentile of sin (Romans 3.9-18) and revealed that both groups had hope only in Christ (3.21-26). Furthermore, the gospel compelled those who had experienced the grace of God to desire that same grace for others. Thus, Paul desired the salvation of the very kinsmen who persecuted him (9.1-3) and he counseled his Gentile brethren to not be arrogant against the Jews, but to desire their return to God’s fold (11.17-24). And finally, the gospel compelled them to try and understand each other. It would appear that the Gentile saints in Rome had a difficult time understanding the scruples of their Jewish brethren (see 14.1,10-13). What did Paul counsel they do? Come into total and complete agreement on all things? No. Rather, they should seek to understand and appreciate the perspective of their brethren. This may not result in agreement on every issue, but it would allow them to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15.5).
I’m not surprised that good brethren have different perspectives on recent events or that they disagree over the place of Confederate monuments in our society. I’ve seen several defenses made for these symbols of the South: to remove them is to try and erase history, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, the rebel flag isn’t a racist symbol, etc. I don’t agree with the reasoning and yet confess that the history of the Civil War is much messier and nuanced than we take time to consider. But all of that is beside the point, for what these arguments fail to consider is the legitimate perspective of other saints. Make any defense of the rebel flag you wish, but when it is an adopted symbol of the KKK, minority brethren have every reason to perceive that flag as a symbol of hate and oppression. Defend the character of Robert E Lee if you wish. I would agree that there was much admirable in the man (Abraham Lincoln would also agree). But when neo-Nazis protest the removal of his statue, our brethren of color have legitimate reason to view his statue as a reminder of a racist past. If Paul said he would never eat meat if it offended his brethren (1Corinthians 8.13), then we certainly don’t need to rush to the defense of flags and statues that offend our brethren today.
But the need for perspective isn’t one sided. When we see some brethren defending Confederate monuments or the rebel flag we might be tempted to conclude they harbor racism in their hearts. But that’s really not the case. As I’ve already stated, history is much messier and more nuanced than we often want to consider. The rebel flag, while clearly used as a symbol of racial superiority by some, came to represent a regional identity for others. I won’t say that racism wasn’t an issue in my small Alabama hometown, but most people didn’t fly the rebel flag because they hated black people. They flew that flag because it defined them as part of the South, a regional identity with a set of values different from the North… and many of those values helped shape me. So, while I wish that some of my brethren would no longer come to the defense of these relics from the past, I also hope they are judged fairly, that their perspective is taken into consideration.
We do have a problem. It’s not racism, but it’s a problem that causes great strain in the church. We rarely consider the perspectives of others, or seek to understand how brethren from different backgrounds perceive the issues of the day. May we learn to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15.7).
Thank You for those thought provoking comments, on a tough issue.
What a wonderful article! I agree wholeheartedly. (Nancy Hart’s,mom).