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Changing symbols, changing minds

By Staff | Jul 22, 2015

Earlier this month I signed a petition urging the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House in South Carolina.

Hundreds of thousands of other folks have done the same.

And there is little question in my mind that such action needed to happen. The flag symbolizes a movement that sought to undo our nation based on a desire to perpetuate slavery.


Keeping it aloft only antagonizes at this point. It needed to come down. Yes, put it on display in museums as a reminder of the past–but it has no place on a governmental institution.

The South Carolina governor and legislature did the right thing.

All that said, however, taking down the flag is low-hanging fruit. The biggest risk in doing so is receiving unsolicited e-mails and social media posts that ultimately can be stopped with a keystroke or two.

And in some ways it is a distraction. Not that it is unimportant, symbols are very important.

As a pastor I deal in symbolism all the time. But to really make lasting changes we need to do far more than merely eliminate or change the symbols around us.

What we really need to do is change our hearts and minds.

Let’s be clear. The attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was racially motivated. It was a hate crime. Let’s not get distracted from that reality.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is far from the first such attack in the history of the Black church. Time and again, innocents have died and buildings have been burned.

Not because somebody was mentally ill. Rather, because somebody was filled with hatred.

The folks at Mother Emanuel know that better than I ever will, I suspect. But they also know that the only way to combat hate is with love and forgiveness, and their witness has been amazing!

Mind you, forgiveness does not mean saying, “What you did was OK.” It doesn’t mean saying, “Don’t worry about it!”

Rather, forgiveness means letting go of one’s need for revenge. Don’t misunderstand, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences to be paid by the perpetrator.

There are.

The question now, however, is what are we going to do besides taking down a flag? How are we as individuals, as religious congregations and as a nation, going to bring about real change in the way we think and feel about race?

Yes, we need to clean up our language, and stop sharing racist jokes. Yes, we need to take down the flags.

But we also need to take a deep, long look at the ways we systemically and institutionally perpetuate racism.

And more than that, we need to look deep in our hearts and, with the help of God, root out all that prevents us from living lives of love and forgiveness.