Spiritual perspective on Confederate flag controversy
"The General Lee"
Dr. Deb Brown
Miami Interfaith Spirituality Examiner
The Confederate flag was removed from the top of the Florida State Capitol in 2001, but it showed up again during this past Veterans Day parade in Homestead, Florida, where the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) marched or rode motorcycles in the parade while wearing Confederate army uniforms and waving Confederate flags. Less than three months later, Confederate flags were brought to another Miami-Dade event called the Annual Kiss Country Chili Cook-Off and Concert in Pembroke Pines.
The SCV sought approval for a Florida license plate with the Confederate flag on it, but their proposal was denied. Still, there are currently nine states that do allow members of the SCV to buy a license plate with the Confederate flag on it: Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In 2003, the SCV division commander said, "We know the flag is controversial... But this [license] tag is not intended to be divisive." Proponents of the Confederate flag explain that it is a symbol of Southern pride and rebellion, as famously displayed by “The General Lee” car from the Dukes of Hazzard with a Confederate flag boldly painted on its roof. It is also sold at some popular country music concerts.
However, the NAACP and many other Americans are flatly opposed to any public display of the Confederate flag because it is viewed as a symbol of slavery, violence, and racism. The vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP said, “That flag is flown to strike fear in people, and it’s no different than a swastika being displayed in front of Jews.” He also condemned the flag as “a symbol of terrorism.” Last month the NAACP sought to shield students from any event where the Confederate Flag was present, and they are currently considering a boycott and protest march at Homestead’s major national attraction: NASCAR. Furthermore, the president of the Miami-Dade NAACP recently announced, “'We're calling a press conference on June 11 at Homestead City Hall.”
What would the spiritual Teachings have to say about all this? Some of their lessons aren’t particularly helpful in resolving the controversy. For example, the Teachings encourage us to honor our elders, including our ancestors. But would that support the use of the flag to honor Southern ancestors and Confederate veteran ancestors, or would it support the banning of the flag to honor slave ancestors? I don't think this lesson offers any helpful clarity.
The Teachings also place enormous importance on the freedom or liberation of each human spirit. But does that mean that people should be free to fly the Confederate flag, or free from the pain and fear of seeing the Confederate flag? Again, this lesson does not seem helpful.
The Teachings tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But each side would want the other to change, so this does not help us find a solution.
I think we get closer to an answer when considering the Teachings’ assurance that the flag itself has no inherent meaning other than the meaning that we give it with the power of our minds. Devoid of any meaning given to it by human beings, the flag is just a neutral group of dyed threads. The issue isn't the flag; it is the meaning that we give to the flag.
So what would happen if proponents of the flag suddenly let go of the meaning they have given to it as a symbol of Southern pride, ancestry, courage, or rebellion? They would promptly lose interest in displaying it. But then they would immediately start seeking another symbol of Southern pride, ancestry, courage, and rebellion, and that symbol could also be offensive to others. Symbols surround us constantly, and we can be inspired or offended by any of them because of the ideas they represent to us, not the actual symbols themselves.
Now let’s consider what would happen if opponents of the flag suddenly let go of the meaning they have given to it as a symbol of racism, violence, or slavery. They would promptly stop feeling offended when they saw the flag. They wouldn’t feel anything when they saw the flag. It would have no meaning to them because they have given it no meaning. I think this would be a victory for them, not for anyone else, because they would be claiming full control over their own peace of mind rather than relying on anyone else to make choices that would give them peace.
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