Seven things (revisited)

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Almost exactly a year ago (July 9, 2015 to be precise), I posted a little piece called “Seven things I want to believe.” These weren’t predictions, per se, more like short observations, hopes, and expectations.

Even so, I thought it was worth it to look back and see how these panned out. In case you don’t want to read any further, here’s the short take:

I got some right (Clinton-Sanders and the Iran nuclear deal), I got some incredibly wrong (Trump and the Grateful Dead), some partly right but wrong in tragic ways (Confederate flag and dialogue on race, ISIS sympathizers and domestic terrorism), and one (Han Solo origin pic) where it’s too soon to tell but the signs are promising.

On to the original list, with an update for each.

1) Republican voters are not so completely alienated from the political process that they will actually cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

Wow, did I get that one wrong. It’s some comfort knowing that virtually everyone else got it wrong too, but still. Come next week the billionaire (maybe) blowhard (definitely) with authoritarian tendencies will officially go from presumptive to official Republican nominee for the White House. Who saw that coming a year ago? I sure didn’t.

2) The chances of reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear ambitions are better than 50/50.

This one did pan out, despite intense political opposition in Congress. But in the end, Iran agreed to terms, it’s nuclear weapons program has been almost completely dismantled, most economic sanctions have been lifted, and the way is clear for the country to re-enter the international community.

It also represents an impressive diplomatic victory for Obama’s legacy which will make the US safer and the region more stable. Assuming some psycho blowhard doesn’t become the next president and tear the thing up.

3) Removing the Confederate battle flag from the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse will be the start of a meaningful national dialogue on race.

We’re having dialogue, that’s for sure. But black men are still dying at the hands of police, protests are still roiling American cities in ways reminiscent of the late 1960s, and racial politics still seem paralyzed. And we still have Rudy Giuliani.

4) The Grateful Dead are done.

Dear God, they’re actually on tour. Well, at least the creaky remnants.

5) Bernie Sanders will force Hillary Clinton to actually compete for the Democratic nomination.

Nailed this one. Not only did Clinton have to compete, she had to compete all the way into June before locking up the nomination. Sanders has dragged his feet on endorsing Clinton for the last month, trying to use every last ounce of the influence he won during the primaries to try to push her and the Democratic Party as far to the progressive left as possible.

And it has worked. Clinton has embraced a number of the proposals he championed, like a $15 national minimum wage and free (public) college education. Tomorrow Sanders and Clinton hit the campaign trail together.

6) FBI arrests of supposed ISIS sympathizers actually foiled July 4th terror plots.

Who knows if they did or didn’t. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. After all, we still got San Bernardino and Orlando. Given the nature of domestic terrorism and patterns of radicalization, we would be foolish to assume that those will be the last.

7) The Han Solo origin movie will be awesome.

This one is too soon to call. But based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the trailers for the upcoming Rogue One, I am more than cautiously optimistic.

Hell, I’m downright giddy.

The church and that flag

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The Lee memorial windows at Washington National Cathedral.

 

I wrote a lot last summer about the controversies swirling around the place of the Confederate flag in contemporary American society. As I said then, my feelings on the issue are more than a little mixed.

To recap: I agree that the Confederate battle flag has no place flying over any offices of government or place of public authority, as it used to fly over the state capitol grounds in South Carolina; I am less troubled by the local statues and monuments to those who served in the Civil War that dot the landscape of the American South; and I am untroubled by the flag’s presence at historic battlefields and in cemeteries marking the final resting places of those who fell in that terrible struggle, even as today we acknowledge that they died in defense of an indefensible institution.

With that background, let me note two recent developments.

A little more than a week ago, the Washington National Cathedral announced that it would remove from two stained glass windows depictions of the Confederate flag, replacing them with plain glass. One set of windows (shown at the top of this post) memorializes Gen. Robert E. Lee, the other Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.  Washington National is a cathedral of The Episcopal Church (to which I belong). Lee was a lifelong Episcopalian while Jackson was baptized into the church but later became a Presbyterian.

While the church was divided during the Civil War, it’s split was never formally recognized, and once the war ended the Southern dioceses were swiftly welcomed back into the national church and little more was said about the past unpleasantness. The modern church has worked quite hard to overcome its own history of racism and advocate for a broad anti-racism social and policy agenda.

As controversies go in the Episcopal Church, this is pretty modest stuff. As the cathedral explained in a press release, the flags will be removed from the windows, which will otherwise remain in place to serve as a catalyst and focal point for a larger discussion of race and the legacy of slavery.

The other recent development in church-flag relations is far more interesting and significant. As The Atlantic reported:

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the U.S. with 15.8 million members, on Tuesday adopted a resolution that said the flag was an emblem of slavery, and called members to discontinue its display “as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.”

It’s hard to overstate just what a big deal this is. The Southern Baptist Convention owes its existence to a rift in the 1840s between northern and southern Baptists over whether slave owners could serve as missionaries. After the Civil War, the institution that would become the SBC split again when freed blacks left to establish their own association of churches out from under the thumb of white “supervision.”

Into the 1960s and through the Civil Rights era Southern Baptist pastors and congregations were for the most part reliable defenders of racial segregation and vehement opponents of integration. The denomination only elected its first African American president four years ago.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s moral and public policy agency, explained the SBC’s reasoning in a compelling and powerful blog post:

It’s not often that I find myself wiping away tears in a denominational meeting, but I just did. The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the display of the Confederate Battle Flag. This conservative evangelical denomination gathered together just miles from Ferguson, Missouri, to stand together against one lingering divisive symbol. …

As I’ve said before, the Cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. Today, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, including many white Anglo southerners, decided the cross was more important than the flag. They decided our African-American brothers and sisters are more important than family heritage. We decided that we are defined not by a Lost Cause but by amazing grace. Let’s pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors.

And let’s take down that flag.

Good for the SBC, and good for all of us trying to find our way out of the legacy of America’s long and bitter racial past and into a better, more just, and more inclusive future.

Confederate flag update: Hypocrisy watch

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The flag still has its defenders. (USA Today photo)

By a vote of 37-3, South Carolina state senators voted this afternoon to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house. The measure moves next to the state House of Representatives, where it must also pass by a two-thirds majority before Republican Gov. Nikki Haley can follow through on her promise to take the flag down.

Despite the lopsided vote, there were still some interesting moments from the Senate debate, courtesy of Sen. Lee Bright. While others have pointed out how the good state senator used the opportunity to launch into an anti-gay marriage rant, another of his remarks caught my attention.

Bright argued that calls for the removal of the flag were being driven by an emotional reaction to the misuse of the flag by accused white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who had posted online photos of himself wrapped in the Stars and Bars before slaughtering nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month.  Said Bright:

I’m more against talking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high.

I wonder if the senator is just as careful not to blame an entire people for the acts of a few when the terrorism is carried out by those who claim to be Muslim.  Somehow I doubt it.

 

Context is everything

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I wrote the other day about the Confederate flag and the renewed controversy over that symbol in the wake of the mass killing by a white supremacist terrorist in Charleston, S.C. I want to revisit the topic briefly to try to make a few points more clear.

I accept the argument that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol, but I want to continue to argue that it is more than just that, and like any other symbol, context is key to our understanding of its meaning. So let me present two visual examples to try to make the point.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Confederate cemetery in Marietta, GA. In this context, marking the grave of a soldier killed in the war, I struggle to read the flag as a hate symbol. I see it here as a recognition of an individual’s sacrifice in a long, brutal struggle, even if we cannot today know the motivation for which he fought and ultimately died. We cannot know whether he was an eager volunteer or an unwilling conscript. All that we can know is that he was one more victim of a war which has defined the American experience in ways positive and negative.

In this context, the flag represents history and memory, not hate. It should continue to fly in such a setting. I see this as akin to and consistent with President Obama’s perfectly reasonable admonition that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.

The second example, below, is by now a familiar one. It is the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse, and while all the other flags were lowered to half staff to honor those slain at Emmanuel AME church, by state law this one can never be.

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In this context, the symbolism of the Confederate flag is painfully, obviously clear. It is a statement of defiance against racial equality and forced desegregation, and of longing for a past in which one group of humans could legally own another group of human beings. As this excellent article from the The Atlantic makes absolutely unmistakeable, in this context the Confederate flag is a symbol of proud, unabashed racial hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy.

The Confederate flag has no business flying over the offices of any level of government in any state, especially in South Carolina, and especially today. And so I join the voices of those who call for it to come down.

But let it remain where it today belongs. In cemeteries, at war memorials, historic battlefields, and yes, museums. It needs to continue to fly in such contexts to remind us of how far we have come as a people, and how far we still have to go.