by Ed Keithly
Deputy Director of Transition Ministry
Diocese of Virginia
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Sewanee (The University of the South) was my first summer as a counselor at St. George’s Camp. On a day off, I bought a bandana at the Basye Community Store that featured two crossed flags: one the US flag, the other Confederate. Under the two flags it read, “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” There are photos of me posing on North Mountain wearing the bandana bandit-style (tied around my neck, covering my nose and mouth).
Of course I wasn’t defending slavery or calling for the South to rise again, but I wore it. I wore it because it gave me a vague sense of rock-and-roll transgressiveness. I wore it as a symbol of rebellion and belonging at a time when I was seeking both: acceptance by the elite Southern culture of Sewanee, and rebellion against the invisible forces exercising authority over my life.
I saw it as a middle finger to no one in particular. Except that it was. Although he said nothing about it, it was a middle finger to my fellow first-year counselor, Howard University student, priest’s kid, and Charlottesville native, Christian (not his real name). It was a middle finger to each camper of color at St. George’s.
If Christian had confronted me about my bandana, I probably would have cited those well-worn Confederate apologies (“It was a battle flag!” or “The War was really about states’ rights!”). I would have said that I didn’t intend him any offense. I would have said I didn’t mean it that way. But I don’t get to decide what a fraught symbol like the Confederate flag means. None of us do.
No matter how well-intentioned its use is, the Confederate flag is just as much a symbol of white supremacy as a Nazi or fascist flag. In (or en route to) the United States alone, 12.5 million people were enslaved and killed by the Atlantic Slave Trade. Over the centuries, countless more lived and died in bondage—were killed by those bonds, by their white masters who fastened the chains. The Civil War was fought over the right to continue to enslave and kill African Americans for the benefit of White America. Full stop. Speaking of the Confederate Constitution, Alexander Stephens praised it for its articulation of the “proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”[i] That is, a civilization predicated on white supremacy.
After Charlottesville, it’s painfully obvious that white supremacy is alive and well in this country. But we have to keep reminding ourselves that white supremacy was established by slavery and has been woven through the fabric of the United States every day since: by Jim Crow, by George Wallace, by the John Birch Society, by Steve Bannon. White supremacy has been woven in to our society by the systemic demons of tax policy, school systems, and popular media. By the symbols and signifiers that say White is normal. White is better. White is right. White is in charge and don’t you ever forget it.
Confederate monuments honor the leaders of our country’s bloodiest attempt to defend white supremacy. Richmond’s Confederate monuments are not historical artifacts of the Civil War, but Jim Crow era exaltations of white supremacy. These monuments were erected at times when our white forbearers sought to reassert dominance through violence while recasting the Civil War as one fought by gentleman generals defending a benevolent institution.[ii]
We build museums to teach us about our past. We erect monuments to say what it is about our past that needs to be honored. Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Maury on Monument Ave. honor white supremacy while teaching us nothing about its ever-present legacy.
These Confederate symbols are ours to reckon with as a country and as a Church. In schools we teach on the history and evils of Nazi Germany and South African apartheid, but continue to “teach the controversy” over whether the Civil War was about slavery or states’ rights, despite the latter being a red-herring myth propagated after the war.[iii]
We should be disgusted by and opposed to the Nazi flag, but its use on American soil is an appropriation. We can be proud of the stand we took against that flag in World War II—America stood up against the enormity of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. But our national (and Church-wide) discourse is too silent on America’s own white supremacist past and present.
If we ever hope to end white supremacy in this country, we can’t just point at external evils and tell them to go home. We have to face the evil that we’re already at home with.
I think we, as a Diocese – especially as a Diocese seated in Richmond, Va., in the Capital of the Confederacy – need to denounce outright the deification of Confederate history—through monuments, through flags, through the stories we tell, through the stories we don’t. If it would be too divisive to do so, we need to walk towards a future where such a denouncement is possible.
With our silence and ahistorical defenses of Confederate symbols, no matter our intentions, we are allying ourselves with the worst of what we saw at Charlottesville. We can say, and even mean, that we don’t keep these symbols around to hurt or out of hate, but we still provide cover for hurt and hate. If Christian had ever looked me in the eyes and said, “I wish you’d throw out that bandana,” I pray that I would have had the compassion to do it on the spot.
On July 12, 2017, I underestimated the threat, the hate. I wanted my Saturday. I didn’t show up in Charlottesville. But I still have to find my way home from it. The directions home are easy to give, but hard to follow: When I cause pain or allow it to be caused, I have to acknowledge my wrongs, seek forgiveness, and try to make it right—in that order. There can be no reconciliation without repentance. I can’t say “I’m sorry” with a Confederate flag over my mouth.
I have to let go of my well-worn excuses and seek Christ in my brother. I’m not ready to seek Christ in the neo-Nazis and Bannon disciples, but, when I am, I pray that I’ll find Him there, too. I have to start by admitting that there is something of them in me.
[iii] See Apostles of Disunion by Charles Dew