This post was written after the June 17, 2015 mass shooting and murder of nine African Americans during a church prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina. These thoughts were born out of my own family history in the state for four generations before and during the Civil War. I shared this post not to invite debate but to help to end it. This is my story, a piece of my life, and my perspective.
The Civil War ended 150 years ago, but we’re still fighting over its most visible and enduring artifact. The racially-motivated murder of nine African American Christians in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has only underscored and elevated a long-simmering charge that the Confederate flag has become a divisive symbol of oppression, racism, and discrimination. Not everyone who privately displays the “stars and bars” believes those things, but those associations with that flag are inescapable. And while it may represent a cherished and honored history for some, it does not for those whose forebears and families were enslaved and oppressed under it.
The sad reality of the War Between the States is that both sides were guilty of dishonorable behavior and decisions. The war was, on many levels, an epic and tragic failure of humanity. It was a bad war that exacted a heavy price for the good it accomplished. I’ve read all the “yes but” arguments cited to justify criticisms against one side by pointing out corresponding wrongs by the other, but they all miss the point. It all comes down, for me, to one irreducible wrong: slavery.
The indisputable fact is that the South seceded from the union to protect its own self-defined “right” for one person to own and enslave another human being. Cut through all the documents and history and that, essentially, is what the fighting was all about. Regardless how corrupted, inconsistent, contentious, and messed up the process of abolition and emancipation was on both sides of the conflict, though, Lincoln and the North were on the right side of history–abolish slavery, preserve the union.
There was a time in my life when I was caught up in the southern narrative. There is a powerful pressure to conform to the predominant conservatism of southern culture, and challenging the “states’ rights” and “war of Northern aggression” narratives might lead to suspicion of “Yankee” sympathies. In that part of my story, there was absolutely no racial animus, but while in the culture I found myself defending some vaguely defined principles of southern independence from Federal interference. I had to distance myself from that culture before I could clear and correct my vision. And even then my family history affected my focus.
You see, my family in 1861 was wealthy, white, and living in Columbia, South Carolina. We owned slaves, and a plantation, and were an influential family. We lived in the former governor’s mansion, a magnificent home—the largest in the state—surrounded by a colonnade of thirty arched columns, in the very center of the state Capitol, the very heart of the Confederacy. Thomas Boston Clarkson had seven sons who were officers in the Confederate Army. William, my great-great-grandfather, commanded the sharpshooters during the attack on Fort Sumter that began the war. Just two months before Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox, our home was personally ordered to be burned to the ground by Sherman. Our family lost everything. My view of the Confederate flag does not come out of a detached, theoretical, intellectual opinion. It comes out of real history and family.
Personally, I deeply regret the stain of slavery on my family history, but I can still take pride in my family heritage. I honor and value their sacrifices, bravery, and resilience. I cherish their stories. But I honor those things in spite of the war, not because of it. What I feel about my family history is not because of their southern heritage, but because of their rich Christian heritage. They trusted God, helped build churches, and lived out their faith privately and publicly. They knew they were lineal descendants of Thomas Boston, an 18th century Scottish pastor whose theological works, still in print today, affected generations. Treasured sermon manuscripts, preserved by the family, were lost in the fire. After the war, William tried unsuccessfully to work the land, then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to become a train conductor so honored and beloved that his death in 1892 made headlines. One of William’s sons became a Supreme Court justice in North Carolina known for his outspoken Christian faith and beliefs. William’s namesake son moved to Texas, and his son would become my grandfather, an architect whose art deco building designs are still celebrated and preserved a century later. He designed the ornate double-spired Gothic cathedral in downtown Fort Worth for First Methodist Church, the first church I attended.
I want to remember the good things in my family’s historical heritage. I want to know their incredible stories. They are a part of American history, and a part of my history. I am a part of their Christian heritage. That doesn’t mean I need to defend my forebears participation in slavery and secession, and neither do I need to vilify them. They were all caught up in their own story, and I want to imagine that time and distance from their part in the southern narrative of the Civil War might have cleared and corrected their vision, too. At least one of the sons apparently was opposed to slavery, so that gives me hope. But now, six generations of Clarksons later, the Civil War is history. We’ve moved on. We can all see more clearly now. And I believe the Confederate flag should be left in the past, where it belongs. A historical artifact.
Rightly or wrongly, the Confederate flag has come to represent history, beliefs, and ideologies that are not just antithetical to Christianity, but antagonistic. Because of its public use, or misuse, by offensive and patently racist groups and movements for 150 years, the flag has become a symbol of oppression and hatred for many African American citizens. For leaders who politically represent the diverse citizenry of their southern states, there is absolutely no justification for displaying the Confederate flag on public property. It is a symbol of disunity and the oppression of some by a privileged few. It can never be a symbol of unity and equality, liberty and justice for all. And for those who name the name of Christ, there simply is no answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” that would include defending a symbol that contradicts the love and inclusion that the Savior taught. Jesus would tell His disciples to leave it, like a disgraced and discarded idol, and follow Him.
The offense of the Confederate flag is not a made-up issue by liberals trying to impose politically correct rules on their ideological opponents. It is a real offense. The wrong that needs to be righted is not some specious offense against those who believe state governments should sanction and support “their” flag in the name of southern pride; it is the offense against those who have too long endured and suffered from continuing racial division and tension in our country. The Confederate flag is a contentious wedge that has been jammed in the cracked earth of our cultural and racial divide for too long. It’s time to remove it, to give the schism the chance to close and heal. That’s what Jesus would do. That’s what we should do. It’s time to waive the flag.