OF FLAGS AND CROSSES

I have had the good fortune to travel back and forth across the American South more than once over the past few months, at a time when painful conversations have been taking place about racism and the legacy of American slavery, from the 50th anniversary of the Selma Marches in March, to  the tragedy at Charleston on 17 June. I have been away for some time – living abroad for two decades – and it has been strangely reassuring to be part of the flesh-and-blood conversation taking place in Louisiana and Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama during this challenging time.

When I heard the news from Charleston, I found myself hoping, after the first reaction of pain and anger, that this time would be different. That the world had changed, that people of all races and faiths would rise up and refuse to accept a crime of this kind. And in a modest way, I do see signs that things have changed. Not enough, and anyone in their right mind must feel impatient, but there is a mood of openness in the soul-searching that I do not remember from twenty years ago. Trying to sum up his own feeling of self-reflection, the Alabama political reporter Kyle Whitmire put it this way: ‘Hate is seductive, and it’s hardest to recognize in ourselves.’

RISD St Andrew

Claude VIgnon (1593-1670), The Martyrdom of St Andrew, Collection of the Rhode Island School of Design (source: http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/2759_the_martyrdom_of_st_andrew)

People from all walks of life seem to be looking for ways to express their solidarity, from the vigils that have been held in Charleston and elsewhere, to the President’s moving eulogy for Senator Clementa Pinckney, to the widespread enthusiasm, much of it coming from individuals identifying themselves as white Southerners, for finally abandoning the painful legacy of the so-called Confederate flag.

Most striking to my eye have been the actions of two women: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call for the flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse on 24 June and Bree Newsome’s widely publicised Confederate Flag Pole Climb at the South Carolina State House four days later, which has been celebrated by the national media as a ‘significant piece of socially engaged performance art’.

Like many Southerners, I was surprised to discover, in the brou-ha-ha about that flag, that the flag we know as the ‘Confederate flag’ was not actually the flag of the Confederacy 150 years ago. It is a rectangular variant of the Southern Cross, a battle flag first adopted by the army of Northern Virginia and later by other battle units during the Civil War. It became popular in the 1930s as as a knock-on effect of publicity for the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, which seems to have chosen it for its graphic qualities and used it to great visual effect. After 1948, the flag came into widespread use in the context of Southern politics, both by politicians themselves and by terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is deeply distressing that a small and determined group of people has tried to resurrect this legacy, and the reign of white terror that accompanied it, by burning Black churches in recent weeks, and one can only hope that their cause will fail miserably.

It is worth stopping to think for a moment about the cross on that flag. It is the Saltire or St Andrews Cross,  borrowed from the flag of Scotland – a martyr’s cross. According to an early medieval legend, the apostle Andrew – who later became the patron saint of Scotland – was martyred on an X-shaped cross. The St Andrews Cross first saw use in Scotland in the 13th century, and like many flags which trace their roots back to the medieval period, it represents an army’s claim to fight not only on the side of God, but on behalf of a martyr. Outrage at what the martyr suffered is meant to inspire the army’s blood-lust.

You can see where I am going with this. Our age has its own martyrs: the men and women who died in Charleston, and the countless others who have suffered at the hands of madmen and extremists during the last 150 years – and not only in the South.

Those of us who were raised on stories of great-grandfathers and great uncles who died for the Confederacy wrestle with a strange mix of loyalty and humiliation. We know that the only thing the rest of the world remembers about them is their failure to end slavery in an orderly way all those years ago – along with the nightmare legacy that has resulted from that failure. And frankly, when we are being honest, we blame them for that failure ourselves, and forgive them if we can.

I can’t exactly explain why I find the idea that the Southern Cross is not what I was led to believe it was so reassuring, or why I find it helpful to discover a deeper, sadder message in it by seeing the cross of a Christian martyr – a vestige of the long history of the suffering of the righteous – winking through behind the stars and colors. I suppose it is the satisfaction of dismantling the emotional power of a  symbol that was used, in the twentieth century if not the nineteenth, to convey a message of hate, and discovering instead a hidden history of human endurance, a history that can never be silenced.

For a remarkable 2007 podcast (with transcript) of the distinguished theologian James Cone speaking about the link between the Cross and the Lynching Tree, click here.

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