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The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate?

When I was young I used to think that I could separate the Confederate flag and my love of Civil War history from the darkness of the slavery issue that actually led to the war. Some of my Southern friends who also wanted to sanitize the Confederate flag and the heritage associated with it would appeal to the South succeeding over states rights. It would become clearer as I grew up that the number one states right the South was fighting for was the right to own slaves. As as young man, I was so naive. Here is a blog with a little bit of my story. I hope you find it helpful.

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I Was A Confederate Flag Loving Southern Boy

As a Southern boy born in the rural South in the 60’s and early 70’s I grew up flying the “Stars and Bars” proudly from the front porch of my house and from my clubhouse (the old smoke house attached to our family home).  I was the ring leader of a rough and tumble group of boys who loved playing army, camping out with our dogs, fishing, playing lost trail, whiffle ball and best of all werewolves, the favorite game of the neighborhood that I proudly invented.

Sometimes when we would play army we would play the Civil War.  For hours we would reenact Civil War battles in our back yards, out in the woods, and on the hillsides and creeks near our neighborhoods.  I loved pretending to be a Confederate soldier as I proudly wore my “Johnny Reb” grey cap and waved the “Stars and Bars” on a thick wooden dowel as my flag pole.  I would joke that we were reenacting the war between the Yankees and the Americans.  Those were fun times and they were naive times.  As children it was about play.  We did not understand the deep implications of the racial injustice, human trafficking, slavery and oppression of black people that the Confederate flag represented to so many African Americans.  As a Southerner and a small child I was proud of my Confederate heritage. I believed in heritage not hate.  Like I said I was still naive.

In spite of my naivete I had a great role model of tolerance and racial inclusion in my mother. At an early age my mother had saved me from racism and hatred. She invited black people to our home and encouraged my friendship with my first black friend LC who became my best friend in the second grade. He would come home with me after school, have dinner and play with me.  Some of our neighbors did not like it, but that did not matter to my mom.  She warned me when I was seven years old that if she ever heard the word “nigger” come out of my mouth that she would wash my mouth out with soap.  She changed my life.  LC told me later that he looked at my mother as the mother of all the kids who came to my house to play.

Around the age of 13 I came to faith in Christ.  It changed everything. I loved everyone.  I wanted to go out and hug everything and everyone.  I told everyone in my public high school about Jesus. I evangelized everything that moved. My friends used to get frustrated with me because when they began evangelizing their fellow high schoolers they said, “I have already heard this stuff.  Jeff Burns has already told me all about Jesus and the gospel.” Some of my “disciples” handed out Bible tracts and said, “Read this booklet.  It changed Jeff Burns’ life.”  These funny memories still make me laugh.

* * * *

During high school I led some of my black friends to Christ and wanted to invite them to church.  Why not? The gospel of Jesus destroys racial, gender and social/economic barriers.  At least it did for the early church (Galatians 3:28).  This was one of the main reasons it spread so swiftly through the Roman Empire.  House servants and slaves led their Roman masters and their children into the Kingdom of God.  These early Christians believed that when they took the Lord’s Supper together that they were experiencing paradise restored on earth.  Slaves, masters, men, women, children and neighbors sat at the same table, broke bread together and worshipped in an unsegregated space.

This early collection of diverse humanity believed that the kingdom of God had arrived on earth in the person of Christ, and the impact and implications of his gospel were taking humanity into a reality of peace on earth and good will towards ALL people.  Through the gospel they could opt out of the violent, oppressive and unjust reign of Caesar’s kingdom and opt in to a kingdom where love, forgiveness and unity reigned under the Lordship of Christ.

Is it any wonder that by the third century over 50% of the Roman Empire had embraced the Christian faith? (See Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in A Few Centuries) It was only when the church got in bed with the Emperor and exchanged the gospel of love and peace for political power and favor that the church morphed into something that could embrace war, genocide, slavery and racial, ethnic and economic segregation. I guess loving God, loving neighbor and treating other people the way we wanted to be treated and making our enemies our friends made the church and its new lover the Empire too uncomfortable.

* * * *

I was excited to invite my black friends to my church, but I was told not to do that again.  My pastor instructed me that they have their church and place and we have ours.  The people in my home church either gave them dirty looks when they came to visit or completely ignored them. My black friends never came back.  My pastor would shamelessly called black people “niggers” from the pulpit.  I confronted him about this and we had heated arguments over this issue. I deeply loved him like a father, but I would not back down.  I think deep down he knew he was wrong, but his pride and the acceptance of racism by many people he shepherded got in the way.  My experience was normative for many white evangelical fundamentalist Baptist churches in the South.  I cannot indict all of them but this was my experience. It would not be my last.

I decided to become a minister when I turned 16. I wanted to make a difference in the world and change things in the area of racial injustice, gender inequality, and social/economic separation. You might say I felt called to be a prophet to my own Southern fundamentalist faith community.  Little did I know that a prophet is without honor in his own community, and that prophets often get rejected and some times destroyed.

 I went off to Bible college, seminary and even completed an earned doctorate.  I pastored fundamentalist Baptist churches both Southern and independent for 11 years.  I was shocked to find such a high degree racism and segregation so entrenched in some of these Southern “Bible believing” churches that I pastored.  I found out after we left one particularly difficult church that several of my key leaders had been involved in the KKK at one point in their lives.  One of these men had threatened me on occasions that I would get into big trouble if I kept letting “niggers” come to the church.  He said, “Preacher, if you want to mix with niggers you need to take your wife, get in a car and head back to Virginia.”  I will share more of these stories in future blogs and my upcoming ebook, but let it suffice to say that some of these men proudly displayed the Confederate flag either as bumper stickers on their vehicles or the “Stars and Bars” flew from their front porches.

* * * *

I love being a Southerner and I am proud to be a native born son of the South.  Even Martin Luther King, Jr. loved his home, the South lands and considered himself a son of the South.  There are better ways to honor our Southern heritage than displaying the Confederate flag on state buildings and our state flags and ignoring the fact that the Civil War had nothing to do with defense of the brutal oppression of blacks and the perpetuation of their enslavement.  I think all true Southerners, both black and white need to begin a discussion on what makes the South a unique place and what are the good values, traditions, and practices  along with our redemptive analogies and symbols in our history that all of us can be proud of no matter what color we are.  Can you think of any?  I would love to hear from you on this one. Please check back in to read my upcoming posts about the common and best elements of EVERY Southerner’s heritage.

Below are two discussions I would like to share with you.  One is a Facebook post from a black farmer from Virginia.  He is the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms.  Check out his website. (This was a FB post and not a blog entry) He shares how he felt when he went to by hens from another farmer and saw the Confederate flag flying on the porch as he pulled in the driveway. This is an outstanding post.

Also, here is the link to an excellent blog post on the Confederate flag by a Southern evangelical pastor by the name of Perry Noble. He comes from a place that many Southern conservative evangelicals can relate to concerning the racial issue in the church.  Why I Changed My Mind About The Confederate Flag

Today I drove out to Orange to pick up some new hens. When I got to the designated address, I was greeted by the rebel flag. Normally I leave politics out of my posts here, but this might offer some insight into what it’s like to be a black farmer, and why there are so few of us.

There’s a very good possibility that the folks living under this flag don’t have a racist, prejudiced bone in their bodies. For them, the stars and bars represents bluegrass, big-ass trucks, bourbon, old barns, bobwhite hunting, and some cool facets of southern life that don’t begin with the letter B. Look at their Facebook profiles, and you might even see them in the company of a lot more brown folks than you’ll find in the overwhelmingly White social circles of supposedly progressive people that wax indignant about the flag.

Unfortunately, I’ll never find out. Why? Because there’s an equally good possibility that the folks living under this flag are among the thousands you can find, right this minute, on the forums at advocating violence against Black people from behind Confederate flag avatars.

If I knock on the door, Paula Deen might answer. She’ll feed me biscuits, call me ‘yall’ even though I’m alone, invite me to her next cookout, and hopefully have the good sense to leave me out of any plantation-themed weddings.

But if I knock on the door, Dylan Roof might answer. He’ll stick a gun in my face, sick his dog on me, club me with a blunt object, or otherwise precipitate a sequence of events that will leave one or both of us dead, blind, or crippled.

As a person of color, I have to make a judgment call about what the rebel flag means to the person flying it. Does it mean “heritage, not hate” or “heritage of hate?” Giving you the benefit of the doubt means I have to risk my wife becoming a 29 year old widowed single mother… so no thanks. Which is really too bad, because this really gets in the way of good business when you’re a Black farmer and so many of your would-be associates insist on flying the damned thing instead of doing what we southerners are supposedly best at: not being rude and inconsiderate.

End rant.

Sylvanaqua Farms's photo.

5 replies on “The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate?”

Given my Eastern Ky, hillbilly heritage, part of me really likes the independent, “we don’t need you” theme best summed up by “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams, Jr. This song and theme make me feel emotional and proud and even patriotic in a way, and unfortunately, I think it is the same for many others who have come to accept the stars and bars as a symbol of this this theme, motto, mantra, way of thinking. The fact that this flag represented the confederacy during the civil war has always prevented me from embracing it as a symbol of that “country boy can survive” attitude. If I put myself in the shoes of an ex-slave after the civil war and saw that flag on government buildings it would indicate to me that the institutions and way of life that that flag represented were still in effect. While slavery was not the only issue being fought for during the civil war, it was the overarching issue and in many ways the most important. (As an aside, I think every American should visit the Gettysburg visitor center and sit through all the videos, but especially the last one on the circuit in order to gain a better understanding of the war’s causes and significance.)
I don’t know his political position or really anything about him, but I watched Judge Andrew Napolitano on the Daily Show the other day and I agree whole heartedly with what he said about the confederate flag and the issue of freedom of speech.

Well said Shanna. I loved your commentary. I can relate to you on this one as a person who loves being Southern but struggles with the issue of the flag. I will check out the link to the Daily Show.

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