Last week’s racially motivated massacre of nine African-Americans at a South Carolina church has renewed debate over the Confederate flag, which accused killer Dylann Storm Roof can be seen displaying in photos. While some point to this and the flag’s association with groups such as the Ku Klux Klan as evidence that it is an expression of hate, others have argued that it’s simply a symbol of their cultural heritage.
But it’s more than just a symbol. A flag is a rallying cry and a show of allegiance. Next week, on the Fourth of July, many of us in the United States will proudly fly the Stars and Stripes not only as a flag, but as our flag. What looks like a mere piece of cloth on its own quickly transforms into a statement of identity as soon as it adorns our homes.
In this way, flying a flag is not a celebration of heritage but identification with it. I can celebrate my German heritage by eating bratwurst in October, but I identify as American, not German.
Perhaps even that is the wrong thing in which to place my identity. After all, if I am in Christ then the old things have passed away and I am a new creation. My identity isn’t in my geopolitical or cultural heritage; it’s in my spiritual heritage and the family of faith we find in Hebrews 11.
This means my allegiance can’t be to any flag, national or otherwise, because my identity is in Christ. As Augustine said, we are either citizens of the earthly city or citizens of the heavenly one. We can recognize that we’re called to submit to the authorities of the earthly city, but we can do so without calling it home. As it says in Hebrews, we’re all strangers on earth, longing for the new creation.
We’re Christians first, called to mark our freedom in Christ with acts of love.
Maybe, then, we need to lose all earthly paraphernalia: baseball hats, band t-shirts, bumper stickers, anything that expresses our affection for this fallen world. We could adopt an aesthetic of asceticism and remove any opportunity for distraction from the world to come.
As extreme as it sounds, this is exactly how we tend to interpret our identity in Christ. Anything else that a person identifies with can only interfere with our true identity. We can retain the uniqueness and individuality with which God made us, but we cannot let such things become idols. The real issue is whether we identify more with our earthly heritage or our heavenly family.
I refuse to believe that most of the people who fly the Confederate flag are racists. But I will challenge any one of them who also claims Christ to explain how they can still support the flag while fulfilling their obligation to love their brothers and sisters. We may be Americans with certain rights and freedoms, but we’re Christians first, called to mark our freedom in Christ with acts of love.
Fly the flag or take it down. At the end of the day, the flag is not what matters. The bigger question is whether your allegiance to a flag is greater than your love for another. Because only those who misunderstand their identity in Christ would purposely cause others harm.