Posted on August 3, 2015


By now everyone surely must be aware of the raging controversy over the Confederate flag. What does it mean, both the flag and the controversy?

It is a symbol of course. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about symbols, like the principal symbol for Christianity for example, the Cross. While the physical symbol is devoid of any value, it can, and does, like the Confederate battle flag, mean many things to different people.

We are surrounded by symbols, which according to the dictionary means “an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality.”

Where fire and controversy enter the equation is, of course, in interpreting what the symbol stands for.

Justice is, for example, symbolized by the balance or scales. “Lady Justice,” herself a symbol, is often depicted with blinders, indicating that “justice is blind.” It weighs, in theory at any rate, all things equally, without bias.

I participate in a jail ministry, and I have seen very few people with wealth or resources in jail. They have the money to pay the bonds, to hire good attorneys, and to often get “justice” not according to their offense, but according to their income.

I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Justice is not blind. Perhaps one eye should be covered on Lady Justice, and the other left to peek out at what remuneration may be forthcoming.

Symbols are part of our lives. They transfer a meaning visually that is immediate and meaningful to the viewer.

The Confederate battle flag is one of those symbols that, like the Cross or the German swastika, have multiple meanings.

The swastika, which we associate today largely with Nazi Germany, in fact is an ancient symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that doesn’t carry the Nazi message of hate and depravity. In the religions of the Indus valley, it carried a message of luck and auspiciousness.

People die for symbols. A battle flag carried into the middle of a fighting zone, like during the Civil War, with musket balls zinging around you in a deadly swarm, or cannon balls cutting you down, was a symbol of bravery and courage. If it fell, someone tried to pick it up and continue. If it was captured, it was carried off as a trophy by the victors.

That hundreds, and then thousands, and then hundreds of thousands died in the Civil War invested that symbol with immense importance.

It represents for many Southerners, and those with Southern roots, courage and bravery.

And if it isn’t transparently clear, the Confederate flag was also adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, devoted to maintaining the purity and superiority of the white race, as a symbol of what they stood for.

So, the Confederate flag symbolizes both Southern bravery and courage during the Civil War, and racism.

So, the question becomes: what to do with it? Fly it to honor to remember Southerners who fell during the Civil War, or remove it as a symbol of racism and bigotry? You may think the answer is simple. It isn’t.

My great grandfather from South Carolina fought in the Civil War but he didn’t own slaves that I know of. He was defending his land, not slavery or high blown political ideals like states’ rights.

The Cross is another symbol that transmits very different meanings. For Christians, it is a symbol of their beliefs.

Both the Cross and the representations of the Ten Commandments are under attack today in our country because some Americans interpret these symbols of Christianity as representing religion—broadly conceived—which should not be supported by the State.

For radical Muslims in other parts of the world the Cross is a symbol of oppression and Western imperialism. It represents the old Crusading spirit that challenged Islam with fire and sword.

Symbols are complex representations of what we believe and hold dear. I’m for as much liberty as possible in how we deal with these issues.

U. S. Marines, in 1775, painted a rattlesnake on their drums, with the pointed slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me,” as they prepared to meet British troops on their way to deal with the rebellious American colonists.

Now, there’s a symbol! A snake usually doesn’t gain a lot of sympathy because it is also symbolic of Satan tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

But it also was an American rattlesnake which Benjamin Franklin observed, “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

I always had a soft spot for Marines. Their symbols are clear and hard to argue with.

Published Sunday July 26, 2015 as “Symbols Can Be Powerful and Controversial” in The Tuscaloosa News.