False Flags and Public Grief

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

On Wednesday evening nine men and women were murdered during a bible study at their church. No murder is normal, but this was less normal than most. It was the killing of nine black men and women by a white man, Dylann Roof, because of their race, and the church in which they were shot was of a denomination founded over 200 years ago when church officials pulled black people off their knees and stopped them praying. The shooting was about race, undertaken by a man who decided others shouldn’t live because of the colour of their skin – designed, the US Justice department said in a statement, ‘to strike fear and terror into this community’.

Many words have been written and many more will follow. I doubt any will carry the force of those spoken by the families of the victims who stood in the court on Friday and offered their forgiveness to Roof. Some of the words have been angry, some have been defensive, others dry, but most quenched in tears.

Twitter was ablaze with anger that two of America’s gravest indignities combined to orchestrate this horror. Gun crime in the United States is a travesty that should be indefensible. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had in mind the liberal gun laws advocated by second amendment defenders, and if they did it’s high time that amendment was struck from the bill of rights. In the last 6 years Obama has come to the podium 6 times to give speeches following mass shootings.

The second scar on America’s conscience is the deep racial tensions that pervade across the country. Those words do not do justice to the pain suffered and that continues to haunt America and is endured by men and women because of their skin. As Jon Stewart put it: “I honestly have had nothing other than sadness that once again that we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend does not exist.”

And as the words of forgiveness cut through the anger, one symbol continued to flutter and flaunt its obstinate recalcitrance in the face of fury.

Above the South Carolina State house flies three flags, the state flag, the US flag and the old Confederate flag. On Thursday the first two were lowered to half-mast out of respect.

First, the technicalities: unlike the other two flags which are on a pulley the Confederate flag is fixed and can therefore only be removed and not lowered, and the removal of any of the flags flying from the building requires a vote of the state legislature.

Second, what was always going to be about race and gun crime is now also about a flag.

For some that’s a distraction from the grief experienced by the families and close ones of those who died. Others say it’s politicising a tragedy.

Russell Moore, president of the ethic and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written perhaps the most important post of the past few days. Important because of his role in one of the largest evangelical groups and one which has a significant public voice that is associated with religious and moral conservativism. Important because he is the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Important because it is unexpected. Important because it is timely, prophetic and unequivocal. And important because it recognises the importance of symbolism.

Others have been far more equivocal and refused to comment. I’m not asking everyone to have an opinion, but if you’re going to write this, then you deserve all the flak you get.

To say that this is a time for grief and a time to leave politics to one side is to sanitise grief and partition politics. When anger is burning it offers a clarion call, when pain is raw it exposes the wounds we might otherwise try to deny. When tears and fears are all we have to offer they etch deep a testimony that politics is always personal.

Because if it isn’t, what is politics about? Is it about the maintenance of faraway institutions or managing systems and structures? Because if we take people out of the equations – people who cry and shout, and experience joy and happiness, people who, this week, are asking not just ‘why’ but ‘why again’ – all we are left with is a faceless, soulless set of bodies that serve no one but the inertia of political gridlock.

Grief can make things happen. Aged 13 I walked into church one Sunday morning with my family, we were late and the announcements had begun. As we pieced together what the pastor was saying it became clear a member of the royal family had died, the Queen Mother we first supposed, then realised it was Princess Diana who had died in a crash in a Paris subway in the early hours of the morning.

On that occasion a flag mattered too. The royal family, and the Queen in particular, were away in Balmoral, and protocol until 1997 dictated that when the Queen was in residence the Royal Standard flew, when away no flag was displayed, and never was a flag flown at half-mast. Even when a monarch died the flag of the next most senior royal in residence at the palace is flown.

But combined with maintained distance and what the royals presumably considered dignified silence, the empty mast became the may-pole around which the British tabloid press strung the Queen. “Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?” cried the Sun, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” proclaimed the Daily Mail.

Protocol be damned. The rules were changed. A nation was in grief. The Union Jack – which now flies whenever the Queen is not in residence – was flown at half-mast on the day of the funeral, an act now repeated when members of the royal family die or on significant moments of national mourning such as after the 5 July 2005 bombings.

I’m an outsider, and one who has already told Americans to rescind the second amendment. But the Confederate flag is more than historical memorabilia – if that was all it was it would be in a museum and not flying over a government building.

Like the empty pole on Buckingham Palace, the Confederate flag flying is like defiantly sticking a middle finger up at those in pain. It’s like revelling in the memory of wounds inflicted on others.

And it’s also just a flag, just a symbol, just a piece of cloth with colour, stripes and stars. But the arrangement of those colours, stars and stripes matter. Taking it down is not going to solve race relations in the United States but it would be a significant symbol, one which empathises with pain.

I’m a Brit who doesn’t get the obsession with flags. I don’t get why it’s such a matter of importance, I don’t get why churches drape their alters with flags. But I do get symbols, and Christians the world over should know better than most their role, after all at the centre of our faith is a symbol.

Symbols can become rallying points, in fact they often are. The Confederate flag is now a focal point and not a distraction. The question is, which way will it blow?

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