As South Carolina officials remove the Rebel Flag from the Confederate Memorial on the steps of the State House today, some people are fed up with what they see as politically-correct politicking and race-baiting. They feel that their cause, their heritage, and their very voice is being systematically stripped away. I have wrestled with my own feelings. I grew up seeing the flag as a symbol of heritage, not hate.
I’ve been pondering that phrase: “Heritage, not Hate.” What is the heritage that we are so eager to preserve? What is a heritage in the first place? When most people think of their heritage, they are thinking about a way of life, a value system—traditional Judeo-Christian values, for example. They are thinking of bravery, justice, liberty, sacrifice, and so on. Surely these qualities are part of heritage. But the dictionary actually defines it as something less abstract: “Heritage is property or possessions that descend to an heir.” A word search in the Bible produces a similar meaning. A heritage is property or a possession (or even a people) that is passed on from one generation to another. It is an inheritance.
So, what is my heritage? According to tax records, my ancestors operated a thousand acre farm near Jackson, Mississippi in the antebellum period. And though the evidence is not certain, it appears that they owned several slaves. Confederate apologists are quick to point out that most families in the South did not own slaves. However, all white Southerners benefited from an economic and political system driven by white supremacist ideology and the injustice of slavery. My ancestors owned slaves, and they understood the Civil War to be a direct threat to their freedom, to justice, and to their livelihood. My family heritage (property, possessions, and people) were being attacked, and they bravely rose up to defend it against what they saw as an overreaching US government. William Wallace Sibley, my great-great-grandfather, bravely fought with the Satartia Rifles, a local regiment of the newly formed Confederacy. Against great odds, he walked across the entire Southeast fighting to defend his heritage. He was part of a Confederate Army that was out-numbered and out-supplied. He was part of a Confederate nation whose cities were burned and pillaged by total war Yankee generals. And though ultimately they lost, many around the world, even today, admire their courage and skill.
No wonder so many Southerners are proud of their heritage.
But as I sit here writing this history, proud of the bravery of my ancestors, I can’t help but think to myself, “How would I feel about my heritage if I were black?”
If I were black, my ancestors would have been somebody else’s heritage.
No wonder the rebel flag, a symbol of white heritage, is inherently offensive to our black neighbors.
After the war, my family lost their land, moved deeper into the hills of Mississippi, and became subsistence farmers. My heritage was literally lost at the end of the war.
Ever since Appomattox, white Southerners have attempted to reestablish that heritage through racial segregation, religious sentimentalism, and yes, reverent symbolism. That’s why the removal of the flag feels like an assault on our heritage. But, let’s be honest, each of these attempts has proved to be a false hope, and has actually increased our pain, the injury of our minority neighbors, and the rule of hatred among men.
Southern heritage was lost in the Civil War. It is not something we should want to reclaim.
And this, my friends, should not be a concern for Christians. Why were we ever looking for a heritage in a land where “moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal?” For those who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have something far, far better. We have something that transcends all historical periods and nations of men. We have something that transcends culture and race, black and white.
We have Jesus, and he is our Heritage.
“In Him we have obtained an inheritance.” (Eph 1:11). “[And] you, [the multi-ethnic church], are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet 2:9-10)
I recently heard a story about a black family who bought land and built homes on the property that their ancestors had once worked as slaves. What a redemptive experience it must have been to gain a heritage where your family was once oppressed and subjugated! It’s the feeling we should all have as believers in Jesus as we rest and receive the Heritage that God has given us by his grace.
As the Confederate Flag comes down in SC today, I urge us all to mourn. But do not mourn for an earthly heritage that was lost 150 years ago. Mourn instead for those who do not yet have a heavenly Heritage. Mourn for the ways we have failed to love our neighbors. Mourn for the loss of innocent lives. And let us rejoice in the true and lasting Heritage we have by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.