The Flags We Fly

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After the massacre of nine worshippers in a Charleston, S.C. church, amid questions and grief, the writer challenges the ideals of the flag.

Last year my wife and I took a trip to Eastern Europe for a ministry project. We bounced around to several countries preaching the gospel, serving the poor and seeing the sights. What really grabbed my attention on this trip was the flags that flew atop the buildings. Flying high all over Athens are the blue and white horizontal stripes with white cross that flap and fan the blue skies of Greece. In Istanbul it is the white crescent moon and the white star across a solid red background. I gained a deep sense of the great significance of a flag. They all bear the complex history of those countries. They tell the story of losses and victories, pains and struggles, sacrifices and injustices that the nation has celebrated and suffered.

Seeing all those foreign flags made me feel isolated and alone. I thought about how back home our American flag flies for us. For the moments that I circled their cities looking down on their flags I sensed appreciation for our American flag, momentarily.

Then I came back home where our flag has a very complex history too. It flies high above our capitol buildings and our schools, in our churches and at our homes with the same conflicted histories as flags do elsewhere. We pledge allegiance to that flag and to the republic for which it stands. But every time we say, “with liberty and justice for all” a large group of people roll their eyes and grumble under their breath for the lack of local satisfaction. For many there still seems to be no justice and for many liberty seems to be so elusive.

On Wednesday night, our local liberty and justice was threatened yet again, when an armed White male walked into a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, befriended the people, sat in on the Bible study for about an hour, and then opened fire on the congregation, killing nine people including the pastor.

This one hit close to home for me. Not only do I pastor in the inner city where this always possible, but I was also born and reared in Beaufort, South Carolina, an hour and a half from the site of this terrible tragedy. The pastor, Clementa Pinckney, also a state legislator was born and raised in my hometown. I remember seeing him around town and shaking his hand. As a young Black man he was like a distant mentor. He represented hope and promise and success. I looked up to him. I am still looking up.

But then I look up at our flag. I wonder about our flag. Is there liberty and Justice for Pastor (Representative) Pinckney? is there liberty and justice for the other believers who were slain? Is there liberty and justice for
Jonny Gammage, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Leon Ford, Oscar Grant, Jordan Miles, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Walter Scott and the countless others? Is there liberty and justice for Black people in America? Can we live and worship in peace? Can we trust that the government will protect us and avenge our fallen loved ones? Does the flag fly for us too?

When someone found the Facebook page belonging to the assailant Dylann Roof, we saw him in the surly South Carolina swampland, wearing a sadistic scowl and sporting across his chest two, extinct flags. In particular, they were the former flags of Rhodesia–now Zimbabwe and apartheid era South Africa. Both flags promote the painful past of white power. They remind us of the brutality and injustice of colonialism. They promote oppression and subjugation of people of color. South Carolina flies another flag that promotes some of the same ideals as apartheid era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. This flag flies in front of the state’s capitol building. It is the confederate flag.

The confederate flag was placed atop of the dome of the capitol in South Carolina in 1962. I was a student a Beaufort High School decades later when conflict over the flag became so heated that superstars began promoting a boycott of the entire state. It was moved to the front lawn on July 1, 2000. And today, while the flags all around the state were flying at half mast, the confederate flag on the front lawn of the state capitol was still flying high. South Carolina is my home state, but I’m ashamed of that flag. I left South Carolina years ago. And I’m reminded of that old saying, “This world is not my home.”

When I was a child they taught us a song in church, that says, “There is a flag flying high from the castle of my heart…and the King is in residence there.” I still love that song and I believe it. It is true, there is a flag in my heart. Every now and then I find myself humming that song. It is one that I sing to my son. That flag flying in my heart is closely akin to one that hangs in my
church. That flag is the Christian flag. We teach the kids the pledge to the Christian flag and it says that we are “one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and in love.” I sometimes struggle with that flag, too. That is why I go to church.

As I was praying this morning, I caught myself praying for Dylann Roof. I stopped in my tracks. I did not want to pray for him. But the flag in my heart promotes peace and freedom, mercy and equality, love and justice. I was fixated on the justice. But the King of my heart overruled my selfish anger. He promised me that He will bring justice. Another King, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “the arc of history bends slowly toward justice.” I’m anxious, yet hopeful. I’m angry, cynical and disturbed by all those flags. Yet, I’m steadied by the one in my heart. I await the work and the words of our Lord and King. He has the final say.

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