On Tuesday, June 14, 2016, during its annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) made what I believe to be one of the most historic decisions in American Christian history. It adopted a resolution repudiating the Confederate battle flag. Other than electing Fred Luter as its first African-American president, in 2012, no other decision is as significant in terms of promoting racial reconciliation and ethnic diversity within the SBC.
The resolution urged “brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters.” (You can read the entire resolution here.)
James Merritt, former SBC president, offered an amendment to the original resolution, submitted by the Resolutions Committee and Dwight McKissic. This amendment made the overall language of the document more definitive. Messengers at the meeting approved both the amendment and the amended resolution by wide margins. Watch Dr. Merritt deliver his amendment below:
In 1845, the SBC was founded by Southern slaveholders who wanted to be allowed to serve as missionaries while continuing to participate in the heinous institution of slavery. The resolution is the latest in a series of steps the SBC has taken to repent of its sanctioning of chattel slavery and systemic racism. Back in 1995, a resolution was adopted in which the SBC asked for forgiveness from African-American Christians.
Personally, I abhor the Confederate battle flag. As an African-American male, I see the Confederate battle flag as being forever linked to lynching, the brutal murder of Emmett Till and legalized segregation in the Jim Crow South. I cringe every time I see the Confederate flag in the same way I would if I were to see the auction block on which one of my ancestors was sold.
However, there is a segment of professed “Bible-believing Christians,” many of whom are white, who don’t have a problem with the display of the Confederate flag. In fact, a few spoke in opposition of the resolution at the SBC annual meeting. Some persons both inside and outside the Convention argue that the flag actually represents “heritage, not hate” or “southern pride.” Others argue that the flag is a symbol for state’s rights, and thus, any American should have the right to display it. I contend that just because something is a legal right, doesn’t make it morally right.
I would even go as far as to say that no Christian who claims to believe in the authority of the Bible should ever display the Confederate flag, publicly or privately. I’m not making this assertion based upon political correctness. As Merritt stated at the annual meeting, “This is not a matter of political correctness. It is a matter of spiritual conviction and biblical compassion.” Ideally, the flag should only be displayed in historical museums, next to other symbols of oppression, such as the swastika. If this were done, people could learn or be reminded of the heritage of hate that has enveloped much of American history.
To Christians who insist on flying the Confederate flag because it is their “right” to do so, I say the Christian life is ultimately not about individual rights. Now, please don’t misconstrue my premise. I believe that the Bible affirms basic human and civil rights, as well as the need for the people of God to openly stand upon the biblical principle of justice. Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute…” Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
To paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, “all people are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” However, it should also be noted that, when we profess faith in Christ, we are to give up the self-centered pursuit of our individual rights. In describing the cost of discipleship, the Lord Jesus said, in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Paul did not selfishly demand his full rights as an apostle of Christ, for the sake of the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 9:19ff, he said, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them . . . I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Paul understood that, in view of his desire for both Jews and Gentiles to come to faith in Christ, he needed to set an example in the area of self-denial. I believe that the Christian who insists on flying the Confederate flag, knowing that it is highly offensive to many, is simply being selfish.
Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The believer who is defiant in the display of the flag is not demonstrating the Christian virtue of humility. Further, he or she is not considering the interests of others, be they followers of Christ or not. In Romans 12:18, Paul issues a strong challenge to God’s people: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Let’s face it, the display of the Confederate flag, no matter what your personal view of it, does not promote peace among people, but rather, it stirs up strife. Why? For many, including myself, it is an ugly reminder of the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. In this historic case, the Supreme Court determined that persons of African descent could not be American citizens, whether they were enslaved or free. The Confederate flag hearkens back to a time when people of African descent were not considered full human beings made in the image of God.
Merritt described the Confederate flag as “a stumbling block” for many African-Americans to the witness of Southern Baptists. In another comment that produced a standing ovation among many of the messengers present, he said, “All the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.” God forbid that any Christian should make a flag more important than one soul.
The SBC is to be commended, as in one “seminal moment,” it set the example for many other Christian groups to follow. I am thankful to be a part of an SBC family in which corporate repentance is the order of the day.