While largely quite myself, I have followed the news in the US in the last week about the shooting in Charleston. It hit a little harder than usual because of the common table connection of the AME and United Methodist Church. It was felt more closely that these are my people, my tribe, even though I have not ever met them or had the privilege of worshipping with them.
After I heard the news I kind of braced myself for the expected social media debate to follow about gun control, but I have been honestly surprised about the debate raised in regard to the confederate flag and whether or not it is a symbol of racism. As I have watched both sides of the argument on social media, having a wide range of friends, I have by and large seen people talking past each other as if they are not talking about related subjects. One side is focusing on the racism inherently displayed any time the confederate flag is visible and others about the flag as a symbol of “heritage and not hate” and with a history of standing for economic rights and state sovereignty. What has failed to be stated by anyone is that we are actually all talking about the same thing and if we continue to fail and put them together in the historical context of the American Civil War than we will also continue to fail to put them together in our many current contexts of conflict, war, and oppression.
This morning I read Ezekiel 27-28 and appropriately enough found this:
Ezekiel 28:16 – “But because of your trade, your oppressive business practices piled up, and you became impure. So I expelled you from God’s mountain.”
Ezekiel 28: 18 – “Because of your corrupt trade, which surpassed your many other sins, you made your sanctuaries impure.”
Of course the American Civil War was about economics and state sovereignty…And it was just as obviously about racism because that the fact of the matter is that the majority of institutionalized racism (which is simply oppression based on ethnicity instead of a different categorization) is based in economics. The above Bible passage talks about Tyre, a port city who became rich through corrupt practices including oppression of others. This oppression and corruption according to Ezekiel is the chief sin, the largest offense. Female Gentile Mutilation (FGM) in my part of the world is largely about the worth of the bride, the money paid to those elders performing the ceremonies, and to make the practice of polygamy easier, which is another practice based in economics. FGM and racism are connected in that they are both oppressive and they were both at different times economically motivated. While people may talk about tribal traditions in the defense of FGM the reality is the it was started because of family economics and has seen a decline in recent years because those economic practices are themselves changing. Racism in pre-American Civil War south is much the same way. The slave trade from Africa to the US, started when the US was still a colony, was economically motivated and racially justified. It was done initially not out of a hatred of Africans, but out of a need of labor. It was however accepted because of an arrogance about racial superiority and it was maintained by sermons, false science, and a lowering of a group of people to a status that was less than humans, numerically defined by the American government at one point in its history as 3/5ths human to be exact. The American Civil War was a war over economics and state sovereignty, but we cannot forget that the economic factor being debated was not industrial versus agriculture or capitalism versus socialism, but rather a justification of keeping human beings enslaved so that an economy could continue uninterrupted and those wealthy individuals in power could continue to stay that way. It was economically motivated racism. That is the problem that many do and should have with the confederate flag. It symbolizes a group of states that at a point in history felt justified in the oppression and dehumanization of hundreds of thousands of human beings because it filled their pocket books AND because these humans were of a different race. Justified enough to go to war.
The challenge today is that while the economic motivations of racism in the US have largely (though not totally) died out the institution still remains. We have allowed the feelings of racial superiority that made permissible the owning of another human being for economic purposes to continue long after the economic reasons have faded. We have allowed them by continuing to lift up the heritage, not as a piece of history where it rightfully belongs, but as an everyday part of life, as a flag flying over (at full mast) a currently operating government building. When we allow the symbols to continue to live on than we are also perpetuating the feelings that accompanied them, long after the economic value that started the whole enterprise has faded.
When you say that the war was over economics and has nothing to do with racism, remember Ezekiel and remember that so many of our biggest sins are perpetuated in favor of our pocket books, from slavery to FGM to Boko Haram to many of our wars in the Middle East. That does not justify the sins or excuse us, but when we continue to see the results of those sins over a hundred years later still haunt our streets, our cities, and our churches it should not call us to defense of those old symbols, but rather repentance, reconciliation, and reformation. Oppression, conflict, killing, and hate the world over happens for economic reasons. That is not a justification. Money often motivates our most grievous sins as the prophet Ezekiel points out. The question remains that as Christians are we willing to follow the path laid out by our faith? Are we going to repent, reconcile, and transform? Are we going to leave behind the symbols of institutionalized racism and find better ways to celebrate that which is best about our culture instead of some of the worst?