February 1, 2016

The Flag in the Window

One and the same thing can be legally permissible and morally awful.

Bill Knott

When bitter wind is stinging my eyes, it’s hard to make me smile.

But the irony of a “Paintball Wizard” bus parked beside the most unpainted house in town made me grin in spite of the chill. The old home on this frozen side street would be blessed by any of the colors advertised.

Other colors draped in a shaded window made the moment even colder, though. Behind discarded toys and tools, a faded Confederate battle flag signaled loyalties unusual in this New England town. One hundred fifty years ago the local abolitionists who sent their sons to die in the fight against slavery would have demanded that it be taken down, that the house displaying it be locked and shuttered, that its owner answer for sympathizing with “the rebellion.” They fully understood the message of a flag that witnessed a half million deaths. And I suspect the current owner does as well.

It is, as Americans often say, “a free country,” by which they summarize First Amendment free-speech rights, including the personal display of flags and symbols deemed offensive. Constitutionally protected liberties permit a Nazi sympathizer to march publicly through a Jewish Chicago suburb—or Confederate flags to flutter over a million homes. But the political freedom to display historic symbols of repression ought never be confused with the moral appropriateness of doing so. One and the same thing can be legally permissible and morally awful, and Adventists have an old tradition of speaking truth to power in a culture in which the distinction must often still be made.

Let’s say it clearly: there are many things—symbols, words, structures, even flags—incompatible with the faith of Jesus just because they invoke the history of abuse or the evil ideologies that deem one race superior to others. Some Christians claim that they mean nothing sinister by using them. But ask those receiving the message of a flag synonymous with 140 years of lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, and the denial of basic human rights. Ask the members of the synagogue where walls were spray-painted with red swastikas if they got the meaning of the graffiti. All will tell you they did. American culture is no longer either naive or innocent, if it ever was, and neither are those affixing their window decals or wielding their noxious paint cans.

The earliest Seventh-day Adventists were unequivocal about the Bible’s insistence on racial equality, both now and in the world to come. They confronted their culture with the certainty of being unmistakably aligned with heaven. In these pages 160 years ago fearless authors denounced Supreme Court decisions, acts of Congress, and even U.S. presidents for abandoning the sacred truths enshrined in the nation’s founding documents—that all are created equal; that all possess God-given and “unalienable” rights; that governments exist to ensure full access, fair treatment, and yes, even happiness.

That vigorous commitment dimmed across the decades, until in many places American Adventism a century after its founding was as segregated and race-stratified as the culture. Sabbath by Sabbath we blithely sang the classic hymn “We Stand in Deep Repentance,” all unaware of what we really needed. Sadly, from Ellen White’s death in 1915 until at least the 1960s, this movement largely took its racial valuing from American society instead of from God’s Word.

Fifty years later we are still learning what repentance means—why it must transform our vocabulary, our conversations, our processes, and our structures. When we are willing to ask the aggrieved and mistreated what fairness looks like to them—and live with and through their answers—we will have made repentance real, and honored God by truly honoring each other.

This isn’t a conversation we can wish away or hurry through, and we will have hard moments on the way. But let’s get started, certain that heaven will yet teach us how to talk—and listen—to each other.