Opinion

Confederate flag resolution a historic opportunity to correct the past

Ronnie Floyd, center, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, leads the panel discussion "A National Conversation on Racial Unity in America" during the annual meeting of the SBC in St. Louis on June 14, 2016. Photo by Van Payne, courtesy of Baptist Press

(RNS) I was sitting in a conference hall in St. Louis for the annual Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday (June 14) while my denomination debated a resolution on the Confederate battle flag introduced by an African-American denominational leader. As a longtime pastor and former two-term president of the SBC, I chose to stand and speak.

Before our many messengers from across this nation, I asked my brothers and sisters to strike the resolution’s language claiming that some people fly this divisive symbol out of a fond memory of their fallen ancestors, rather than hate. And I asked for the insertion of a reworded line: “Resolved, that we call our 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.”

I had no idea whether I would be reviled for these words, but I felt I had to speak.

Outgoing Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, center, speaks to reporters about the SBC's new "Empowering Kingdom Growth" task force during a press conference in the Baptist Press newsroom. Merritt, pastor of First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga., is the task force's co-chair, along with Carlisle Driggers, right, executive director-treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. With them is Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC Executive Committee. The news conference was held in St. Louis' America's Center during the SBC's 145th session. Photo by Kent Harville, courtesy of Baptist Press

Former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt, center, speaks to reporters during the SBC’s 145th session in 2002. Photo by Kent Harville, courtesy of Baptist Press

At our denomination’s beginning, we took the wrong stand on the issue of slavery. We cannot undo what our ancestors did, but I felt we had a historic opportunity to show that we have repented of these ungodly attitudes. The SBC has officially and publicly apologized for our racist past, but words without action are cheap and hollow.

One might say my life began “in Dixie land where I was born early on a frosty morning” in December. I grew up in the 1950s in the heart of the Deep South, a time many white Christians believe to be a golden age and many black Americans experienced as a kind of dark ages.

I didn’t go to school with anyone except other white kids until I started high school. There was a certain part of town where the “black folks” lived. It was an unspoken “no man’s land” for whites. Churches were totally segregated. It was just an assumed way of life.

My Confederate blood runs deep.  I have visited the grave of one of my great-great-grandfathers, James Vickers, who is buried in a Confederate cemetery in Lynchburg, Va. My other one, Stephen Merritt, fought in the Battle of Atlanta. When I was a child, the Confederate flag was as normal a sight to me as the American flag. Robert E. Lee’s birthday was as sacred as George Washington’s.

Yet, by God’s grace, I was protected from developing a racist heart. You might say my parents were prejudiced (like most in our town, they condemned interracial marriage). But they were not racial bigots.

But one decision changed everything. Early in my life, they hired an African-American nanny who became a second mom to me.

Emma was a great cook and I will never forget the first lunch she made for us. Mom and Dad came home for lunch and as we sat to eat Emma was nowhere to be found. Dad found her in the living room eating by herself. He took her by the arm and almost dragged her to our family’s dining table. He looked at her and said, “Emma, if you are good enough to cook food for us, then you are good enough to eat it with us.”

From that moment, she was not “the help.” She was family. I hugged and kissed her when she came and left. And she taught me as a 6-year-old that color doesn’t define us; love and mutual respect do.

That sentiment solidified and deepened permanently three years later when I devoted my life to a dark-skinned Jewish Messiah named Jesus who became forever my Lord and Savior. I remember clearly the night when Martin Luther King was assassinated and the sadness I felt, but even then I knew King was right: The only solution to racism is changed hearts. And only Jesus can change hearts.

Our nation, in some ways, has come full circle. From Ferguson to Charleston to St. Louis, many still harbor racist attitudes. It has become a barrier to even considering the Christian faith among many African-Americans. But as a Christian, I know that every Confederate flag in the world is not worth one human soul of any race.

I don’t believe this because of political correctness, but because of biblical compassion and spiritual conviction. We Christians believe we serve a God who has created every human in his image and who desires for people of every nation, tribe, tongue and race to know and worship him. We cannot pursue unity and division at the same time.

James Merritt is the lead pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo courtesy of James Merritt

James Merritt is the lead pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo courtesy of James Merritt

I’m grateful that our Southern Baptist Convention voted to accept both the resolution and amendment yesterday. I hope Emma, looking down from heaven, was proud that her little boy stood to speak and that his fellow Southern Baptists voted accordingly. But make no mistake: I am not a hero. The millions of African-Americans who have persevered under oppression and bigotry are the true heroes. They are the ones who deserve our admiration and respect.

By God’s grace, I hope this resolution will begin to mend broken bridges and tear down barriers of division in our nation. And I pray that this will be a clarion reminder to the 15 million Southern Baptists across our country that we do not march under any flag but the banner of a risen Jesus who prayed “may they be one.”

(James Merritt is the lead pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention)

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  • It’s a piece of cloth that some people like and some people do not. If you’re going to get rid of THIS flag, why not ALSO get rid of the USA’s flag?? The flag that was flown during many battles fought for the express purpose of violently seizing the land owned by Native Americans. It was flown by the people who carried out the Mai Lai massacre.

    If the atrocities committed by the people who flew a certain flag mean that no one should fly a certain flag, than it CERTAINLY means that the US Flag should ALSO be gotten rid of (and it also means I should take down the Raven Banner I fly in memory of my ancestor Harald Hardraada, since many of the people who flew that flag committed atrocities and contributed to the Irish slave trade).

    Unless you are stating that the oppression against Native Americans and Vietnamese is somehow… lesser… than the oppression suffered by African Americans, then you cannot call for removing the flag that the Confederacy flew without also demanding that the US retire its own flag, under which atrocities were committed.

    Alternately, we could just accept that the piece of cloth means different things to different people, and let anyone fly whatever colorful piece of cloth they wish. Just because I fly a Raven Banner doesn’t mean I harbor racist feelings against the Irish, and taking it down would not in any way be an act of compassion for the Irish. Likewise the many, MANY people who fly the US Flag are not endorsing the slaughter of Native Americans, the atrocities at Wounded Knee or Mai Lai. And it would be hypocritical and /heartless/ to assert that the crimes committed by people under the US Flag were lesser than those committed under the Confederate Flag. Perhaps we could extend the same sympathy we extend to OURSELVES when we fly our chosen flags to the people who prefer this /particular/ flag.

    And before anyone skips straight to Godwin and point to the fact Germany banned the Swastika, counterpoint: the fact that my grandmother suffered under the Nazis and was in a work camp didn’t stop her from displaying works of traditional Latvian art bearing Swastikas in her own home. Despite being a victim of the Nazis, she saw different meaning in her Perkun’s Crosses than we as Americans saw. And who, really, has the moral standing to tell her she was wrong??

    Edit: Also this line: “We Christians believe we serve a God who has created every human in his image and who desires for people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and race to know and worship him. We cannot pursue unity and division at the same time.” As a Baha’i, I totally agree. But you DO realize that ANY NATIONAL FLAG causes this kind of division, right?? Or do you not see nationalism and national divides as the tribal divides they are?? So this resolution is calling for an end to ALL flags, correct, and not just this one?? Because otherwise… while your goal is noble, it ain’t doin’ what you want it to.

    ALL NATIONAL FLAGS (and other national symbols) cause division in opposition to unity. That’s one reason why I personally fly a Raven Banner, which was a personal banner of a number of my ancestors, but was never a national banner. Unless you are calling for the ban of all national flags (heck, I could get on board with that sentiment), I really, REALLY doubt you are sincere when you say this is to mend divides between “people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and race”. To do that, you need to target more than just one flag…

  • I grew up in the north. The want of flying this flag is beyond my experience; it just essentially doesn’t exist where I’m from. Racism certainly does though. From family and friends and even myself at times I’m sure. As long as their are differences on the outside, we will have prejudice on the inside.

  • Pinch me, I’m dreaming — a Southern Baptist who actually makes sense? This can’t be real…

  • We’ll spoken. And absolutely correct. However facts and common sense seem to have little to do with the issue as it’s all about “Political Correctness” and the mind numbing rhetoric it drags along with it.

  • People who stump for the American version of the swastika are shameless in their mendacity.

    The confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy and segregation after the civil war. Whatever BS tradition touchy feely affections for it are forever tainted by that contemporary association.

    Talk to a neo confederate long enough and you find they really have no problem with that contemporary association anyway. The conversation inevitably becomes an apologia for slavery and segregation followed by white supremacist nonsense.

    Besides, I have ancestors who fought on the winning side of the Civil War. They gave their lives and efforts to burn all that traitorous confederacy nonsense to the ground.

  • Did you notice who’s not on stage?

    Apparently to Southern Baptists, women have nothing to say on racial reconciliation that men need respect.

    The resolution is a nice gesture, but one that is too little, and very, very late.

    Look at the top photo again. This is a denomination that’s obviously still comfortable with discrimination and segregating people because of what they are.

  • People flying that flag fought my great grandfather. The United States won. It should never have been flown again.

  • The Confederate Flag is and always has been a symbol of our past. Our history proves that a Civil War was what it took for this country to become united and ended the persecutions of slavery. Don’t destroy it! Don’t bury it! If you don’t like the Confederate Flag, then DON’T look at it! That flag holds the same glory in the hearts of men, that the US Flag does! Never, never forget the lives of men on both sides, that gave the ultimate! Whether North or South, the teachings and beliefs of each soldier guided their bravery. What we are today was determined then. We used to use that flag to show the south didn’t lose the war! They gained a whole Union! We used to use that flag to show the strength and determination of the South. You just can not erase history by hiding a symbol! Leave the racism out of it all together! Look at it for what it is! Would you want the memory your grandfathers, uncles, brothers bravery in battle be just wiped out? Southern Ancestors are just as important to a southern human being as the Northern Ancestors are to northern human being! You can not change the outcome! Show a lot of respect, the same type of respect you would like to have!

  • The Confederate Battle Flag was originally a symbol of men fighting for their belief in states rights. Some of their beliefs may have been wrong. However it is still a symbol of men fighting for states rights and not explicitly slavery.

    There is a difference.

  • As a symbol of oppression and racial hatred, it has no place being endorsed by public government efforts. If you want to display it, do it on your own property. Its your right. But don’t think for a minute it deserves to be glorified by our state flags and whatnot.

    “We used to use that flag to show the south didn’t lose the war!”…and that black people should remain as close to an inferior status as humanly possible.

    It is a symbol of our history. Not one which should invoke pride, but instead shame. That as a nation we would be willing to kill each other to protect the privilege to own people as chattel property. Then later as a symbol of the shame of segregation and officially legally sanctioned racism.

    “Southern ancestors” fought for a shameful cause and thankfully for the good of the nation, lost. We acknowledge that not every German soldier in WWII was a raving homicidal war crime committing nazi. But we do not think kindly of the symbol of the swastika or of Nazi rallies. We do not find it appropriate for Germans to be glorifying and mythologizing their Nazi past. They fought and died for not only the losing side, but an immoral ones. Much like the Confederates.

  • And it became the symbol of the KKK and segregationists. A connotation which survives until the present. That alone renders the whole “southern heritage” argument null.

    The swastika is a symbol in hindu culture and was used in Christian churches long before the Nazis acquired it. But good luck trying to use it today without invoking without raising hackles.

  • So, essentially you’re saying that the misuse of a symbol requires its elimination from history. Think about that as that would require eliminating a whole lot of history.

  • I am saying your argument that the symbol can be employed, in this day and age, in a manner which won’t be considered deeply offensive is completely ridiculous and dishonest.

  • I have known this man for years and I have been in the SBC for years. I have never heard racial commentary like I am hearing now from the media and by Government officials. James Merritt is the real thing.. If you can make reference to any racial remarks or illogical remarks from a specific SBC Pastor, lets see them or at least read them. Now individuals in the congregation are sinners coming to hear
    the truth and applying it to their lives. Seeking Jesus as I did and still do.

  • The Crusaders used the cross as their symbol when they
    butchered tens of thousands of men women and children in the middle east on 7 ~ 10 different
    occasions over the course of 200 years. Why not take it off of your church, Jim, you hypocritical fool?

  • Totally agree with you sir. Next, they will be taking away our crosses because some folk like to dress up in white suits and using their crosses for firewood.

  • People who fought for the Confederacy were fighting for the institution of slavery. I accept that. And anyone who thinks otherwise must ask themselves how the fugitive slave act was in any way “State’s Rights”.

    Here’s the thing, though. If you want to get rid of this flag, I demand you get rid of the United States flag as well. It was flown in wars to steal Native American land, it was flown in wars to steal land from Mexico, and it was flown in every Vietnamese village massacred by US troops.

    And the United States Flag was used as your ancestors, and MINE, on that “winning side” of the civil war launched a SCORCHED EARTH campaign against the South, destroying agriculture, resources, and human life (both slave and free) disgustingly in the name of preserving the union. No side in that war was wholly good nor evil. And before you DEFEND the North’s scorched earth campaigns, destruction of farmlands, and destruction of homes, consider the fact that it equally affected those freed slaves.

    Personally, I think a colorful piece of cloth is a colorful piece of cloth, and people who want to fly it can be fee to see whatever meaning they want in it.

    But if you want to hold a flag RESPONSIBLE for its atrocities then you are a HYPOCRITE to call for an end to this flag but not that of the flag of the US, which was used in FAR WORSE and FAR MORE atrocities then the Confederates flag was ever used..

  • Only to those so shallow as a symbol long gone in history actually has significance on their lives.

  • Hurling insults doesn’t change the fact it is currently a symbol of racism and that the “tradition and history” you want to commemorate represents centuries of horror for a good percentage of our population.

    You want to play silly revisionist denial games, so be it. But I am not buying any of that. The confederacy was a regime that considered slavery the cornerstone of its existence. You cannot minimize or excuse that with a straight face.

    If you want to play out your revisionist racist fantasies of being part of that era, join a reenactor group and you can wave it to your heart’s content. It doesn’t belong on a state flag or government symbols.

  • Cute but no. The modern use of the confederate flag is as a symbol of racism. You can’t ignore or minimize that. Your feeble analogy doesn’t change that.

    Your attempt to revise history to make slavers and their lackeys sympathetic is pathetic. The south deserved everything Sherman inflicted upon it. He brought the war to the homes of the rich plantation owners where it belonged. War is hell. A slaver society deserves whatever upheaval a democratic army on the march can deliver upon it.

    My suggestion is to pick up Soul of Battle by Richard Davis Hanson. He described Sherman’s March as similar to Epaminondas and his Thebans in his march to free the helots of Sparta and Patton’s drive to the Rhine. Great drives of democracy versus the evil of slavery.

    Plus there is the matter of your hatred of our nation. Only a complete and utter fool could think southern victory could ever have a result which did not blow chunks for America. Defeat of the confederacy began the rise of the US as an eventual world power.

  • You aren’t getting it right. Look to how it is used last. As far as I can tell the current use of the cross is as a symbol of christianity in general.

    If i was to use your premise, than swatikas would be great to sport in public places since it is a hindu and early Christian symbol. Everyone will naturally know to ignore the association with the nazis.:)

  • Well the SBC has a lot of history to atone for. Their entire foundation, why they split from Baptists in the first place was over the issue of their support of slavery. After the Civil War they were the house church of the KKK. That didn;t change until the rise of “Christian Identity” in the late 1970’s. In their defense, they apologized for their efforts in promoting racism….in the late 1990’s.

  • Obviously you fail to understand a symbol can be understood many different ways by many different people. How you choose to see it is a personal choice.

    “Hurling insults?” You have led a very protected and sheltered life if you consider anything I’ve said a direct insult.

  • That sounds nice but its a load of bull. How a symbol is used currently and what it represents is how people see it. That is among people who are being honest about such things. Besides, at best it is still the symbol of a defeated seditious breakaway state whose philosophical cornerstone was the enslavement of people. Commemorating that is still rather repulsive and offensive in this day and age. You want to celebrate that, do it on your own. No need for the government to do it for you.

    Sorry buddy , the Confederate flag is the American answer to the swastika (ancient hindu symbol) or the hammer and sickle (Agricultural and Industrial labor united!).

  • As this is America, and me not being an ignorant and deluded college student, you are welcome to your opinion. You have exactly the same magic powers I have: an opinion and a vote. Use them wisely.

  • From history, no. From display by those who love their neighbors too much to risk communicating the contemporary meaning, absolutely. It’s a matter of what you love more, your neighbors, or your symbol that represents oppression and persecution to those neighbors. It’s totally your call.

  • We understand very well that it can be understood many ways to many different people. But we also understand how it is understood and perceived by a significant portion of our neighbors, and love them enough to never ever want to communicate, intended or unintended, the meaning they perceive.

  • This resolution doesn’t ban or get rid of the flag or anything else. It exhorts CHRISTIANS to love their neighbors enough to voluntarily refuse to display it. Your freedom to fly it without consideration of your neighbor is in tact.

  • Good thing we live in a Democracy! Guess the way things are going, I will continue to fly my flag, not just on my house, but my car as well!

  • At no point did I suggest black people should be oppressed. If you want to add your own sick little twist, that’s on you? Racism is a nasty word that should never be used! And way to many use it as an excuse to holler foul just to try and get their way when all else fails. Diplomacy produces more positive results than screaming like a 6 year old because you didn’t get your way! I am proud of who I am and what my ancestors did on BOTH sides. I grew up on the Canadian border of NY, as far North as you can get, my ancestry fought for North and South, so my heritage relies on both. Try and stop me from flying that flag! The only bad thing is what you assign to it!

  • No you just want to honor their oppressors in some sick sense of reverence and tradition. Tradition which meant to them lives led in terror. There is no-good faith argument to be had for government use of the confederate flag in light of its meaning both at the time and now. “Southern heritage” is one which is implicitly racist and revisionist. To deny the voice of those decrying the evils of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

  • Nothing about that flag defines anything your rhetoric states. You want to rant racism, be my guest! Another tool infants use when things just don’t go their way!

  • Nonsense. It was the battle flag of a breakaway regime founded on the notion that human beings can be property. The “cornerstone” of its existence according to the VP of the Confederacy. It became the symbol of segregationist and violence against those seeking civil rights. It became the symbol of white supremacist violence against blacks. Its use defines its meaning.

    Your denial of all that history and connotation is hardly credible. Your arguments are no different than those concerning the swastika and hammer and sickle. Originally innocuous symbols now associated with oppression and terror. But you think an exception can be made, for reasons.

  • It is all about your magic magnifying mind. Pity you weren’t raised to understand that one person’s belief isn’t everyone’s opinion. What you think is about what you think, don’t worry about what I think. You can believe what you choose for the reason you choose, but the good news is, so can I! So bite me and have a great day!

  • How many times can you try to handwave the obvious and historical use of the flag?

    Insulting me doesn’t change the ridiculous and dishonest nature of your argument. Your “southern heritage and history” argument is simply a way to perpetuate the revisionist whitewashing of the past. To pretend that “southern history and culture” didn’t involve terrorizing black people. Well it does. You have no legitimate argument here. Your “it isn’t really offensive” argument is not supported by a shred of facts.

    To paraphrase poet laureate Mr. Vincent Neil, of Hollywood California, “Don’t go away mad. Just go away”.

  • So, using your criteria, all the country’s that have a rebel faction attempting to break away from their government are “terrorists and rebels” regardless of the fact they believe they should have self determination. Once a country is established, no one can leave, right? You can’t point a finger at our Southern states rebelling against the government for what they believed was persecution by the government (regardless of the reasoning 150 years ago) then turn around and say that those attempting to either leave a sovereign nation and establish their own nation or overthrow the existing government have justifiable motives today. But I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with some lame reasoning.

  • I repeat. “So, using your criteria, all the country’s that have a rebel faction attempting to break away from their government are “terrorists and rebels” regardless of the fact they believe they should have self determination. Once a country is established, no one can leave, right? You can’t point a finger at our Southern states rebelling against the government for what they believed was persecution by the government (regardless of the reasoning 150 years ago) then turn around and say that those attempting to either leave a sovereign nation and establish their own nation or overthrow the existing government have justifiable motives today. But I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with some lame reasoning.”

  • “Plus there is the matter of your hatred of our nation.” Really?

    I spent 26 years in uniform defending this nation during three wars and being sent to combat in Iraq at the orders of the government of this nation. How many did you do poser? None? I thought so.

  • Then maybe you should be talking about celebrating the flag of OUR nation and not one of a past failed breakaway regime whose success would have hobbled our nation severely.

  • My opinion is at least an honest one. Not based on making claims which strain any notion of common sense.

  • I think you are confused. I make no claims awry from common sense. Just because you can’t see others deny your point of view doesn’t make them wrong! Time to wake up and recognize the world doesn’t see everything your way. Mad kings and fools are the only ones that believe that!

  • Eric,

    That’s bad history and the acceptance of one of the most obviously false bits of slaveholder propaganda.

    Before they attacked the Union at Fort Sumpter, the Southern states all supported, indeed demanded, the use of Federal power to enforce Southern “property rights” in escaped slaves. (Search on “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”)

    Extreme supporters of Federal power: very difficult to beat that.

    -dlj.

  • This discussion has nothing to do with ISIS or Naziism. We are talking about a Confederate Flag. One has nothing to do with the other! I will defend my country against all enemies foreign and domestic ! I spent 2 tours in Vietnam doing just that! I won’t hesitate to do it again! You clearly know nothing of honor! Got to wonder how many of your ancestors fought for the south. Even Blacks fought on both sides. Provide proof to the federal courts that you are not delusional looking for a cause, then pitch your lame ass argument to them! Our justice system has legislators that decide what is right or wrong! What they decide is what is, no matter how much you stomp your feet or cry foul!

  • Go read your history lessons, then come back and we can have an intelligent conversation .

  • And to you, all sides that lose never existed. The South didn’t lose, they gained a Union! And that is history!

  • …Said the person thinks the symbol used by segregationists and white supremacy won’t be considered offensive to anyone. I saw your point from the outset and it was silly and dishonest. Having a point of view is not enough to demand respect for it or demonstrating its merit. Not every idea has merit. Sometimes an idea is just plain stupid.

  • Let me know when you win your CIB and at least one Purple Heart. Then we can discuss war, son!

  • Come to Clearwater, Florida fool. Be just as happy to put you down as any tyrant! You don’t have enough pubic hair!

  • Read: AMERICA-Imagine A World Without Her by Dinesh D’Douza and see that perspective and make your judgment then. It is a part of our Southern Culture. Would you rather have a Muslim or Satanic item put in its place?

  • Which state’s rights? If you look at South Carolina’s declaration of independence, it was clear that states had the right to permit slavery, but states, like Vermont, did not have the right to let blacks vote. If you look at the Confederate Constitution, you’ll see that states did not have the right to secede, nor did they have the right to ban slavery. This whole “states’ rights” thing was a story largely made up after the war to justify their actions.

  • If the Confederate Flag were truly long gone in history, we would not argue about whether or not to fly it. When George “segregation forever!” Wallace raised it over Georgia, it was as a live symbol, and that is within the memory of many still-living.

  • How can you support the flag of a nation that believed “once a country is established, no one can leave”, like the Confederates did? One can point a finger at rebels rebelling for unjust reasons, and find that other rebels with just reasons have justifiable motives.

  • All enemies foreign and domestic? The war where more people fighting for the US died than any other but WWII? A war engaged in completely on US soil? No, a small nation on the other side of the world is a much scarier enemy of the US.

  • Neither ISIS nor the Nazis ever managed a significant attack on American soil. The Confederates killed more Americans then the Nazis did, and vastly more than ISIS has. So we are talking about the flag of history’s #1 US enemy, foreign or domestic, of all time.

  • Maybe I should fly the Japanese Imperial Navy Battle flag for “heritage”. I am proud to say my ancestors were at Pearl Harbor or rather over it!

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