I just posted this on the Dialog Facebook page, really in response to a wonderful conversation I had with my friend Lauren this morning. For those of you who don’t look at that page….
I want to respond briefly [insofar as a theologian can ever respond to something briefly!] to Rob Saler’s post about the epidemic of black church burnings that is currently happening, and what we as theologians can do and say. This is a particularly poignant and pressing question for me personally, as I came back to Gettysburg after vacation to find several on our staff under heavy [figurative—but just barely] fire for making the decision to ban all displays of the Confederate Flag on our campus, including in historical reenactments. As you might imagine, that did not go over well with many. Additionally, it was very discouraging and frustrating to hear how many people didn’t even understand why there might be a problem: why it might matter to an institution—particularly an institution of theological education—that we stand against any and all symbols of racism and hate speech.
So, related to that, there was a piece in the Gettysburg Times yesterday criticizing the related decision of the National Park Service to pull all Confederate Flag merchandise [and challenging the negative conversation around the Confederate flag in general]. The author dismissed the action using the phrase “politically correct nonsense,” and also minimized the issue by saying the flag is “merely symbolism.” This is just one example of how white people dismiss black church burnings, white racism, and black outrage; and how white churches can argue that our liturgies and worship don’t need to change, that we shouldn’t name racism in church [too offensive], and that our preaching needs to be about “the gospel” and not “social issues.”
Lutheran theologians, however, know that nothing is “merely” a symbol. As Tillich reminds us, symbols participate in the reality to which they point, and in that way, symbols function to perpetuate and reinforce that reality. And while I’m willing to entertain the argument that the Confederate flag historically symbolized Southern identity [but frankly, I’m quite skeptical that it EVER could be/was disassociated from white power and slavery], the reality is that now, all over the world, it symbolizes racism and hate. [Remember, Tillich also said that symbols can live, die and change.] So, only someone who is insistently and willfully blind to the larger cultural context can say that the Confederate flag is “merely” a symbol, and people shouldn’t get so worked up. I beg to differ: we can get worked up, and we should be. That’s one thing the church can do: start talking and keep talking about the importance of symbols and how they function—and name them when they are demonic.
Second, I don’t know who came up with the phrase “politically correct,” but I really have grown to resent it, because, in my experience [say, emphasizing the importance of inclusive/expansive language for God, and the value of feminist theologians and theologians of color], it is a way to superficially and sweepingly dismiss all attempts to challenge entrenched ways of thinking, and open our eyes to new visions and our ears to new voices. It implies such work is merely pragmatic and pro forma, rather than something at the absolute heart of who we are as a society—to say nothing of who we are as people of God. There is nothing “politically correct” about listening to people who are oppressed and sharing their stories. There is nothing “politically correct” about standing against discrimination and injustice. And there is nothing “politically correct” about getting out on the front lines and walking in solidarity with the most vulnerable. That prophetic work is at the core of Christian witness.
I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst, right now, troubling the waters in ways that are painful, uncomfortable and even dangerous: this domestic terrorism against black churches feels like a visceral response from white power to the challenges to its authority popping up all around it. As my friend Lauren said, we should expect it to get worse before it gets better. However, we know the end of the story, and we can walk confidently, trusting in the God who is present always and everywhere, shining light in places of darkness. So, as theologians we need to continue to speak up, speak out, and walk together on the path the Spirit is creating for us, even when we can’t see the ending. We can do that much, at least.