Bree Newsome, an African American woman, was hoisted over a fence by a white man (a purposely symbolic pairing), which allowed her to scale a flag pole while reciting Psalms and prayers, and temporarily—but beautifully and defiantly—take down the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s capitol grounds. In a statement made after her release from jail, she declared: “My prayers are with the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed everywhere in the world, as Christ instructs. If this act of disobedience can also serve as a symbol to other peoples’ struggles against oppression or as a symbol of victory over fear and hate, then I know all the more that I did the right thing.”
I am one who stands in awe of Bree Newsome’s stance against fear and hate. The Confederate flag needs to come down, and stay down. I join my voice with the countless others who have spoken out against the violence and oppression it has stood for.
But in thinking through the particular reasons why the Confederate flag needs to come down, I have come upon an additional series of difficult questions. Primarily: If we are against the Confederate flag, how do we feel about its “American” counterpart? You know, the one flying over the White House? You know, the one children in this country are taught to pledge allegiance to?
You know the flag I’m talking about.
The flag with stars and stripes that endorsed slavery and the creation of institutionalized racism in the North.
The flag that endorsed the violent removal of Native Americans from their land.
The flag that proclaimed “manifest destiny” as it fought to steal land from Mexico.
The flag that authorized not one, but two atomic bombs to be dropped on the people, the humans, the civilians of Japan.
The flag that declares “freedom” while flying remote-controlled weaponry over weddings in Pakistan.
The flag that is worn on the sleeves of police officers hiding behind shields and riot gear, while subduing black communities by force.
My purpose here is not to recount all of America’s sins. But I would have us think long and hard about the ideologies promoted by all flags, for no flag is completely innocent. Nor is any flag implicitly always guilty. But as for our flag (if you, like me, are American), it is worth noting that it has paradoxically and simultaneously represented the ideologies of: Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, deists, atheists, racists, imperialists, hippies, civil rights activists, immigrants, militants, patriots, and homegrown terrorists. Flags have tricky, complex histories. But they are essentially ideological, and we don’t necessarily get to pick and choose the ideology we want it to stand for.
Furthermore, the more we insist on our version of what the flag stands for, the less likely we are to hear the voices of those the flag has oppressed.
What, then, shall we do with flags? How shall we proceed?
Let us look again to Bree Newsome’s emboldened vision: “I see no greater moral cause than liberation, equality and justice for all God’s people. What better reason to risk your own freedom than to fight for the freedom of others?” Liberation is the fight for the rights of others, the fight for the freedom of others. In contrast, if we review the aforementioned list of American sins enacted on behalf of its flag, how many of those might fall under the breaking of the Greatest Commandment? You know, the one upon which hangs all the law and the prophets? The one that accounts for your liberation as being dependent upon the liberation of your neighbor?
There is thus a way forward, and I believe it necessarily involves letting go of flags and embracing people.
In doing so, we might reclaim (or redefine) what it means to be a patriot. Whereas patriotism nowadays invokes the flag-wearing nationalist, the original Greek would remind us of its roots: as patriotes, that is, “fellow countryman”, or better yet, from patrios “of one’s fathers”. Our fathers, of course, have sinned. But what about the Father from whom Christians profess all life began? What would such a patriotism look like if we reshaped it to be more inclusive than divisive? Probably a lot like footwashing, like feeding the poor and taking care of the sick, like hearing the voices of the oppressed, like the laying down of arms, like humanitarian efforts rather than ceaseless bombing, like the laying down of flags. Perhaps we might seek a patriotism that acknowledges our common humanity rather than insisting upon our superiority—the latter, of course, which will inevitably be uttered this Fourth of July weekend in proclamations of how we are “the greatest country on earth”, and how “God bless(es) America”.
Fierce flag-waving and flag-insisting nationalism will get us nowhere close to the reconciliation we need—a reconciling with all those we have oppressed and wronged. Our first steps must be to recognize our sins and beg forgiveness. I mean a serious reckoning. A deep, long and serious reckoning. As Bree admonished, “It is important to remember that our struggle doesn’t end when the flag comes down.” But it would sure mean a lot, as a first step, if we all dropped our flags and embraced each other, in a true act of patrios.
All direct quotes excerpted from Bree Newsome’s statement released to Blue Nation Review. For the complete statement, see: http://bluenationreview.com/exclusive-bree-newsome-speaks-for-the-first-time-after-courageous-act-of-civil-disobedience