My friend was visiting family in Arkansas last year when Emmanuel AME church people were brutally attacked and murdered in a Bible study at which they’d welcomed their killer. Conversation about the “rebel” flag surfaced. She was told that it represented their history, the lives of ancestors lost in war and more. She was told it was an expression of their right to free speech.
There was a feeling that didn’t set right within me, but it took several hours for the words to emerge. Who would want to undermine free speech?
Symbols are powerful, sometimes more powerful than words. I thought of another flag with another symbol that represents genocide, particularly to people who are Jewish. The Nazi flag can be carried at parades and the like without fear of government interference or reprisal so long as no physical violence is involved. However, it is itself an expression of violence and experienced as threatening to many people of good will, let alone people who lost family in the genocide in WWII Germany.
All or parts of the Confederate Flag have been visible on flags in Southern States for over 100 years. Those symbols represent genocide and terrorism to African Americans and have for generations. Those symbols represent genocide and terrorism to many people of good will, regardless of our race. It is allowed, as a matter of free speech, to be carried by private citizens flown on their front porch or their car. It should never be allowed as part of a government building or activity which represents ALL of us.
And I would challenge private citizens who claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who said, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” If I love my neighbor, then why would I express myself in a way that threatens and terrorizes my neighbor? As a Christian, my right to free expression ends where it steps on the humanity of my neighbor. Ah, there’s the rub. Perhaps what is missing is the recognition of one’s neighbor, the humanity of a person not like me.
When the good Samaritan stopped to help the man who’d been robbed, beaten and left for dead, he was the neighbor in the story Jesus told. The neighbor was the person who “came from the wrong side of the tracks”, the outsider and foreigner. To the ears of those listening from Judea, the Samaritan was not fully human, yet he was the one who demonstrated how one inherits eternal life: love God and love your fellow human being.
Then of course, there is the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We may feel that the times we are in are fraught with friction and antipathy and they are. This crisis is an opportunity for people of good will, especially Christians, to speak up about what it means to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.