The Confederate Battle Flag

South Carolina Confederate FlagImagine that after the emancipation of the slaves, the whites in the South put their attachment to this peculiar institution behind them and, in the paternalistic manner appropriate to their supposed innate superiority, made a concerted effort to improve the lot of their former slaves.  Imagine them making a sincere effort to educate Afro-American children, as much as they could be educated, establishing local governments that protected the rights of all citizens, and creating separate public and private facilities for whites and “coloreds” that were truly equal.  This fantasy is pretty close to the southern society as I imagined it as a child growing up in Richmond, Va in the 1950s.  In such a world, the native talents of African Americans, not only in music and athletics, but in all areas of human endeavor, would have flourished, and the fallacy of white supremacy would have soon become obvious.  There would have been no need for a civil rights movement.  In such a world, the Confederate Battle Flag could be used to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought under it, and few would object.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

However, reality gave us something different.  Soon after Reconstruction ended, things became ugly.  Perhaps Ida Wells described it best:

Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching, that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.  But Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South… and they had committed no crime against white women. This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’

I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all this had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been thrown down, and the guardians of the public peace and confidence scoffed away into the shadows, and all authority given into the hands of the mob, and innocent men cut down as if they were brutes.

Lynching was just the bleeding edge of a systematic reign of terror inflicted on the descendants of slaves throughout the South.  Everywhere they turned, blacks faced repression.  The prisons became a source of uncompensated labor in a system that was every bit as vicious as slavery.   Jails were kept full through a combination of by discriminatory Jim Crow laws and grossly unfair law enforcement.  The separate schools and other facilities provided for “colored” people were vastly inferior. Voting rights were suppressed.  For black people in the South, freedom and democracy were but distant dreams.

When the federal government, after years of pressure from the civil rights movement, finally began to protect the rights of its African American citizens, white southerners adopted the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as the symbol of resistance.

The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans’ groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.

[from Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South]

In 1962, South Carolina defiantly raised this flag above its state capital dome, as if to proudly declare to all the world that, in South Carolina, white supremacy reigns!

Apologists for the flag are right that most of the soldiers fighting under General Robert E. Lee had nothing to do with slavery; they were just defending their homeland.  But the story of this flag did not end in1865.  It continues to this day.  The Confederate Battle flag is not the flag of slavery; it is the flag of segregation, of white supremacy, and of resistance to federal authority.

Dylan Roof flag

Dylann Roof latched onto the most hateful part of his southern heritage: the lawless terror that Ida Wells was decrying so long ago.  Some want to label him an isolated madman, but he is part of a long tradition.  He even repeated the old pretext, “You rape our women,” as he killed those nine people in church.  When confronted with the picture of this young man, deadly phallic symbol in hand, posing proudly with the Confederate Flag, thoughtful conservatives finally understood that the government needs to disassociate itself with this symbol of “of our all too recent, all too awful history.

Reactionaries cry out in pain and try to deflect the conversation in any way they can.  However, the flag has already been removed from the dome of the statehouse, and soon it will be removed from the statehouse grounds entirely.  True, this is only a symbolic gesture, but symbols matter.

Nikki Haley said, “The murderer now locked up in Charleston said he hoped his actions would start a race war. We have an opportunity to show that not only was he wrong, but that just the opposite is happening.”

Let us pray that she is right and that this symbolic act marks a new beginning for the South, and for our country as a whole.

Praying with Muslims

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Charleston Wang, photographer. www.wangnews.net. Used with permission.

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Credit: Charleston Wang, http://www.wangnews.net.

What do you do when a mass of gun toting citizens, self-anointed guardians of some misbegotten fantasy about the way things should be, gathers outside your place of worship with the explicit intent of being as obnoxious and offensive as our constitution allows?  Invite them in.

When this happened at a mosque in Phoenix recently, the president of the congregation, Usama Shami, did just that, inviting people to join them in prayer.  Two, both wearing t-shirts bearing profane insults to Islam, accepted the offer.  They found the experience of observing devout Muslims in prayer transforming.  Removed from the vitriol of the demonstration outside, they were almost surprised to realize that Muslims were people.  One reported, “It was something I’ve never seen before,” the other left saying “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt.  I won’t wear it again.”

Recently, I had a similar experience observing Muslims in prayer, though, since I entered with less prejudice, it was not as transforming.  I had been involved in an interfaith dialog entitled “Rooted in Abraham”, a set of weekly get togethers among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  It was hosted alternately at the (Catholic) Centennial Barn, the Valley Temple, and the Clifton Mosque.

The so-called protest in Phoenix (it might have been just a money making scheme on the part of the organizer) points to the value of having open paths of communication between the faith communities, so that a mutual, coordinated response can be easily organized if it is needed.  However, for now, this was just a group of interested people getting together, sharing their experiences, learning from each other.

Of course, this is a self selected group: we who attended were willing to share our experience without insisting that others agree with a particular theological tenet, and were, for the most part, willing to listen and perhaps learn from people with a different point of view.  Some were thoroughly grounded in one of the traditions; others were more loosely affiliated with a faith community or frankly seeking guidance for their own spiritual journey.  Those more concerned with orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, did not choose to participate.  For example, Christian evangelists might have thought it a waste of time, because there would not be much opportunity to turn anyone to Christ, and they typically do not think that other religions have much to teach them.

Interfaith LogoThe format of the dialogs is one that has been honed over the years.  A topic, such as “Extremism” or “The Role of Women”, was chosen for each session.  The evening began with a representative of each faith speaking for about 10 minutes.  Then there was a short intermission, with snacks, before we reconvened in groups of six to twelve people.  These small discussion groups worked well, except when one person was inspired to speak at length, showing little interest in what anyone else had to say.

The emphasis was on our shared humanity.  In such a setting, we tend to see our differences as superficial, less important than perhaps they actually are.  The tone was reasoned and cordial rather than passionate or fervent.

For me, the most memorable evening was the one held at the mosque.  The topic for the evening was “extremism”.  The small group session that I was in was particularly lively.  Some in our group were disappointed that it ended so soon, but it was time for evening prayer, the ṣalāt al-maġrib.

We visitors were allowed into the sanctuary behind the men who were gathering for the evening prayer.  The women prayed in the balcony upstairs.  The men stood in a row, shoulder to shoulder.  The prayers were led by an Imam with obvious skill and devotion.  At the appropriate times, all bowed together, putting their heads to the floor, in total submission to God.  I attempted to follow along in the back, but the movements were too unfamiliar and too distracting for me to achieve any sense of reverence while doing them.  However, I did come to an appreciation for the formal daily prayers of Islam.

When they pray in this formal way, they orient themselves to their place in the universe: where they are on the surface of the earth in relation the sun and to Mecca, their point of reference. The time of the prayer is determined not by the clock but by  the natural cycle of the day, different at each time of the year and each place on the globe.  They pray with their entire body, indeed, with their entire being.  Five times each day, they reestablish their connection with the universe and with the greatest good that they know.  It is easy to understand the continuing appeal of this tradition in our modern world that so often seems rootless, disorienting, and distracted from those things that we profess to be most important to our lives.

ovymehMy local meeting, Eastern Hills, has been hosting a monthly interfaith prayer service, jointly sponsored by Greater Anderson Promotes Peace.  Our suburban location, far from any mosque or synagog, led to limited participation from some faiths, but a couple of Muslims occasionally attended.

The format of these gatherings is based on the unprogrammed worship in the manner of Friends.  For one thing, this is what we know how to do, and for another, we imagined that this is free from dogmatic content.  Our idea is to bring people together and ask them to pray for peace, in whatever way they found most meaningful.

Having witnessed Muslims praying formally in their home sanctuary, I think we were right that praying together is a key to a deeper connection with others, but that we were naive in thinking our format was flexible enough to really accommodate people from such a different tradition. We are coordinated by the clock, not the position of the sun in the sky.  We are oriented to the center of the room, not to our place on the globe.  The arrangements of our chairs interfere with praying with our whole body. One Muslim woman adapted, and offered a prayer, but it was not the same experience that I later saw in the mosque.