The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past.
― Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
In the aftermath of the tragic killing of nine people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a racist domestic terrorist, there has been an overwhelming call to remove one of the ubiquitous symbols of the Confederacy-the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (see above). It was not without irony that the thousands of mourners paying their final respects to the church's beloved pastor and highly respected state senator, The Rev. Clementa Pickney, filed pass an American flag flying at half-mast while the Confederate flag (by state law) was flying at full mast. The Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley within days of the shooting called for the state legislature to vote to remove the flag, which is happening this week. In a similar vein, The Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama ordered the removal of four Confederate flags the week following the shooting. Parallel actions were taken in Virginia and Mississippi. While there has been some opposition to the flag's removal, presidential hopeful and former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush reflected a growing consensus when he stated that South Carolina should do the same thing that they did in Florida: remove the flag from the State house and "put it in a museum where it belongs."
"In a museum where it belongs......." As a historian this feels right to me. Museums are places to remember, honor, and hopefully learn something from the past. As a kid, Civil War history was my first love. I read every book in the school library on the subject; I would reenact great battles with my toy soldiers; I never grew tired of visiting Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, and Antietam. As a child, I visited the graves of both Stonewall Jackson's body and his left arm (worth looking up-maybe). In high school honors history then later in college, I developed a more complete understanding of the complexity of the “War Between the States.” It was necessary for the South to be defeated in order to eradicate the institution of slavery and preserve the Union. But there were important founding values of the Republic lost as collateral damage. When I visit Gettysburg, I am still moved when I retrace the steps of the doomed brave Virginians of Pickett's Charge, even though if I had been there in 1863, I would have been shooting at them. And in 2015, I believe it is time to retire their battle flag.
I could not help but find a parallel to the Confederate flag debate in the extreme hostility of certain Christian groups to the Supreme Court's ruling declaring marriage a constitutionally protected right for same sex couples. Ironically one could argue that the pro-family and "strengthening of marriage" folks could see this as a victory for the institution of marriage and the promotion of monogamy. But many echoed Sen. Ted Cruz's lament that the ruling was part of "the darkest twenty-four hours of our nation's history." The junior senator from Texas must have skipped his history classes while at Princeton.
I do understand the convictions of many conservatives and appreciate some of the values that they believe are at stake in this debate. The way many Christians read their Bibles about this topic makes it hard for them to be open to change. In the past I was sympathetic with the traditional Christian position and still think that marriage between a man and a woman is the normative ordering of Creation. But even a superficial reading of "holy" history will find that the mystery of God's plan unfolds in very disordered ways. Jesus seemed remarkably comfortable with those "outside" the norm. Christ was crucified in an orderly fashion by the government at the urging of the leading religious voices of His community. Why every generation seems to forget this or at least fails to get the cosmic punch line is lost on me.
There are conservative and liberal religious ideas and philosophies of Biblical interpretation that frankly need to be put in the "museum of world views past." Because the Church is based on the living "tradition" this does not necessarily mean that they are merely to be put away and forgotten. On the contrary, our faith's foundation is built on the past and many of Christianity's best and most important ideas are ancient. We can learn much about prayer and faith from people who thought the sun revolved around the earth. But we should not consult them on physics, biology or cosmology. Some theological ideas and approaches to the Bible are analogues to flying a Confederate Flag-they are lost causes that no longer make any sense to a living faith, for faith can only be lived in the now. Though "Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow;" we are not.
Christian Wiman observes that because of the Incarnation "there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present." He goes on to state that 'if every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they pledged their very lives.... "*
I trust the tradition and I believe in the genuine fundamentals of the faith of which the "fundamentalists" only get partially correct. The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit makes the Bible a dynamic conduit not a dead letter. A living faith learns from but does not cling to the past. It must be fully present to the present, because that is where God is. If we cling to that which is dead, we too may miss the very one we call Lord.