Some of the national debate which has ensued following the shooting of nine Christians in Charleston revolves around whether to furl the Confederate flag, as it is now being used as a banner under which many of the white supremacist groups fly.
I want to add to some of the thoughts on heritage and the banners under which we fly, but from a different angle. I believe that flags, badges and symbols of our heritage matter, but they should not be our primary and defining identity any longer as Christians. And neither should the color of our skin for that matter.
Paul writes to the Philippians:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4-11
There are a lot of reasons for me to take pride in my heritage in the flesh. Like Paul, I can make great boasts of my heritage as an American, as a Southerner, as a descendant of pioneer Floridians. There are amazing things about my heritage in the flesh. The Holt family was in Virginia before the Mayflower landed. Yet as I have learned more about my family line, there were some real victims and scoundrels too! The first Holt in America was an indentured slave to the first doctor of Jamestown, and his great-great-grandson left slaves to his heirs in his will.
We were personally responsible for killing many Native American Indians following the Indian massacre of 1621. The Holts helped burn Jamestown to the ground during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. I had great-great-grandparents on both sides of the North-South war—which ones should I identify with? I have family that emigrated from Germany, my grandfather flew 30 bombing missions over Germany killing at least hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans. Another grandfather, a ship captain in the Navy, hated the Japanese for their atrocities in the Great War. Two generations later, I drive a Japanese-made car. My ancestors were instrumental in founding Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, and Union Theological Seminary. At least one of my ancestors was a member of the KKK. Articles about his death and funeral describe how white-robed hooded men burned a cross on his grave in his honor.
In my ancestry, there are war heroes, victims of injustice, victims of abuse and violence, pioneers, racists, slaves, doctors, pastors, college deans and presidents, missionaries, and the like. I personally was trained by the best seminary professors and am the third generation to graduate from the University of Florida! (Go Gators!) How am I to define myself, and how are you going to define me?
If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, certainly I do. If anyone has reason to be ashamed of the flesh, I do too. We learn our history in order to learn from it. But as followers in Christ, it must not be what defines us. Can I, with Paul, sacrifice my confidence in the flesh?
When I was at the University of Florida, I joined the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. Our symbol was the rebel flag. On Old South days, we would all dress in Confederate uniforms, we would build a fort in front of the fraternity house and fly the Confederate flags proudly. I learned the principles of being a Southern gentleman. I had a picture of Robert E. Lee over my bed. My Junior year of college, I gave my life to Christ. The Lord set me free and changed my perspective about a lot of things. I gained a new identity in him. One of the things that I did was move out of the fraternity house to go live with Christian brothers. I learned the true meaning of brotherhood, and it wasn’t what I had been experiencing in the fraternity house. Now that I have greater understanding of all that the flag represents, I would never want to fly under the banner of the Confederate flag, and I have not done so since giving my life to the Lord. The things I once took great pride in, these things no longer define me.
Does that mean, that I have denied my southern heritage, yes and no. I know my personal history and my family heritage, I can evaluate it and myself. I see how I have been shaped in my attitudes and heart dispositions in both positive and negative ways by my inheritance in the flesh. But however I am identified by my inheritance in the flesh, it must now be redeemed and subsumed in the Lord. I am a new person in Jesus Christ. As a follower of Christ, I want to be known by Jesus Christ. May others see Him lifted high in my life! So if you want to know my identity, I would display my banner of Christ alone. All other loyalties are submissive to that one allegiance. With Paul, I would become all things to all people that I may win some for the cause of Christ. I would gladly furl any flag that is a barrier to Christ being glorified in me. 25 years ago, I furled the Confederate flag for that very reason.
What about you? How has your heritage in the flesh shaped your own understanding of yourself and your own identity? Can you with Paul count all confidences in the flesh (race, historic heritage, nationalism or tribal identity) as a loss for the sake of knowing Christ? What makes it so hard to let go of worldly pride of heritage?