Symbols are powerful. Symbols participate in the reality they represent. They carry some of the presence and energy of whatever they point toward. A soldier will risk death for the flag because of what it means to the soldier.
As a priest, I live in a symbolic world. For me a cross is a holy symbol. Consecrated bread and wine carry the presence of Christ for my community. An icon of Paul connects me with the living spirit of a beloved mentor and saint. For someone to desecrate these things that I love and honor would be to violate some of my deepest, most cherished values.
A sign means one only thing. A red octagon with the word STOP is unambiguous.
A symbol can have many meanings. A symbol can change meanings. A cross that is on fire surrounded by men in white robes means something very different from our church's altar cross flanked by similarly white-robed servers. An angry mob outside a U.S. embassy might burn an American flag to express clearly that our flag has a different meaning to them. From prehistoric times almost every culture in the world regarded the swastika as a symbol of well-being and good fortune. Hitler changed that.
I am a son of the South. A fourth generation Mississippian, My grandfather delighted me telling the story of his great-uncle Billy's dramatic escape on horseback after the Yankees captured him. "Col. Reb" was the sports symbol for both my high school and college teams. We sang "Dixie" like a football fight song and waved Confederate flags like pom-poms. As a teenager, it was beautiful to me and filled my heart with excitement and loyalty, like an arena-filling Hog Call will warm the heart of a loyal Razorback. But I don't feel that way anymore, not about that flag or about Dixie. Their meaning has changed.
Now when I see a Confederate flag, it looks a lot like a Nazi swastika or a burning cross. It expresses racial bigotry. It speaks threatening and aggressive thoughts. It attacks and insults my values. The only place I want to see a Confederate flag is in a veterans' cemetery or a museum. And yet, still in my memory there is a warm place for a symbol I once loved.
There are two statues of Confederate soldiers in my hometown. My feelings about them are complicated as well.
On one hand they are embarrassing relics. I know their presence hurts and angers my friends of color. They remind me that my ancestors tried to sever this nation in order to protect their right to own other human beings as slaves. They remind me of the heritage of racial discrimination that is part of my inheritance as a white Southerner -- the Klan, Jim Crow laws, segregation, a biased legal system, structures of economic injustice and discrimination. I know a few of the Confederate statues were initially motivated by Civil War widows as a memorial to their loved ones' sacrifices. But I also know that most of these monuments were erected as expressions of defiance for a lost cause that only went underground, an energy that continues to threaten to erupt with new violence and intimidation against our black neighbors.
Yet these statues are also connected with the beautiful memories of my hometown and its central public places. They have a warm place in my heart. I know other people attach different emotions and thoughts to these statues, their presence and the history they bespeak.
It would be OK with me if every Confederate statue were in a veterans' cemetery or a museum. But I don't think that is a workable solution, nor would it be understood by a large number of people of good will. These symbols have many meanings.
St. Paul advises us to bless our persecutors and enemies, to forswear vengeance, and to overcome evil with good. (Romans 12)
It seems to me that it would be good to place a different symbol nearby wherever we find a Confederate statue. Maybe a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And let it be at least a head taller than the Confederate. For places with a Confederate mounted on a horse, why not add other heroes of freedom like Sojourner Truth or W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass or Arkansan Maya Angelou.
Confederate statues stand as part of our complicated reality. But we also remember great heroes of freedom, equality and racial justice. Let's give ever greater public honor to the better angels of our nature.
Commentary on 09/05/2017
Print Headline: A monumental challenge