Symbols matter. Of all people, God’s people should understand that because the Bible is full of powerful signs and emblems – the rainbow (Gen. 9:13), Passover (Ex. 14:1), the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-28) and baptism (I Pet. 3:21), to name a few.
So it has never made sense why any Christian, regardless of cultural heritage, would embrace a symbol as loaded with divisive history as the Confederate battle flag. Flying the flag is not inherently wrong because it has many different meanings. But when the interpretations can include a heritage of slavery, oppression and bigotry, displaying the flag isn’t exactly an effort to “be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
The good news is that in 2016, more than 150 years after the Civil War that divided the nation and spawned the flag, the Southern Baptist Convention finally has taken a bold stand against it. A denomination rooted in the defense of slavery and the Confederacy repudiated the flag on Tuesday.
“There is one thing no one can deny: This flag is a stumbling block to many African American souls to our witness,” James Merritt of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., said before the vote at the annual Southern Baptist Convention. “… All the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.”
Southern Baptists have been focused on racial reconciliation since 1995, the year the denomination condemned slavery as a historic evil and vowed to eradicate racism among its members. More recent convention resolutions have voiced concern about ongoing racial injustice and tension in the United States.
But it took the murder of nine blacks in a Methodist church a year ago to change public opinion about the Confederate battle flag. South Carolina removed the flag from statehouse grounds a few weeks later, and it has been under attack ever since. A few days before the Southern Baptists’ vote, the National Cathedral announced plans to remove stained glass that depicts the flag.
Following as it does the lead of the secular world by a year, the Southern Baptists’ resolution looks a bit politically opportunistic. But Merritt, the great-great-grandson of two Confederate soldiers, emphasized that it was driven by “spiritual conviction and biblical compassion,” not political correctness.
He took the microphone for the “seminal moment” of the flag debate, offering an amendment that changed the resolution in two ways. It deleted recognition of the flag as a memorial to the valor of Confederate soldiers, and it urged Southern Baptists, as “a sign of solidarity” with African Americans, to stop displaying the flag.
“Today, we can say loudly and clearly to a world filled with racial strife and division that Southern Baptists are not in the business of building barriers and burning bridges,” he said. “We’re about building bridges and tearing down barriers.”
Russell Moore, president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged that the vote was symbolic and won’t “change the game as it applies to the crushing issues of racial injustice.” But “symbols matter,” he said, especially in a denomination that rebellious Southerners created just before the Civil War so slaveholders could serve as missionaries.
“The SBC of 1845, and for many years after, was in open sin against a holy God and against those who bear his image,” Moore said. Now the convention has sent the much-needed message that “the cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”