More than rending the Confederate flag

Jul 7, 2015 by

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Tearing cloth is not enough to show you are sad; let your heart be broken. — Joel 2:13

Kriss

Kriss

In the Jewish tradition, as part of the period of mourning after a death, the mourner wears a torn piece of clothing. After the terrorist shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., attention focused on symbolically rending the Confederate flag by removing it from places of honor.

Sometimes symbolic action is all we can muster. But the prophet Joel warns us that rending cloth alone is not enough.

Less than 48 hours after the shootings at Emanuel, an African-American friend asked me if I had done anything in response. I rattled off a few things: a prayer in class, a post to social media, an awareness of the vigil at Philadelphia’s own Mother Bethel AME Church and my own sense of remiss in not being able to attend. He asked how I felt about it, and I responded that I was simply sad. My friend told me that he was angry and that continuing to pay attention to the story only made him more angry, so he had to stop watching, reading, listening.

It’s not that I’m so pacifistic that I don’t get angry. But I only felt deeply sad. I immediately remembered visiting the memorial to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., a few summers ago and recollected the opening scene of last year’s movie Selma. I imagined myself in an intimate midweek Bible study with people I had pastored. I remembered the genuine hospitality of AME churches where I’d attended and been one of only a few white folks. I couldn’t wrap my head around the emotion, but I hadn’t considered anger.

I was mourning that civil rights progress and a black president hadn’t really gotten us nearly far enough. I was disturbed by the actions of a white supremacist, barely old enough to drink alcohol legally, who murdered nine faithful sisters and brothers in a historic Southern church.

I was stunned by the loss of possibilities and realities in the lives of Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor and Tywanza Sanders.

Tobin Miller Shearer wrote an expose last year on Mennonites’ relationship with the civil rights activist Vincent Harding. Harding’s 1981 book, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, is part of the #Charles­ton­Syllabus, a crowd­sourced list of resources to educate about the context of the shooting at Emmanuel. Harding was for a while among us as Mennonites, in the midst of his struggle for justice.

We’d likely move to beatify him now if we did such things, but in his years of ministry and preaching among us he wasn’t as readily received and honored. His voice was too strident for some, his actions too radically inclusive. He left frustrated with the Mennonites and our inability to fully embrace his work of redemptive freedom.

There likely won’t be a Confederate flag available to purchase for rending by the time you read this column, and that would be fine with me. But I wonder what it might mean to let ourselves be angry about the terror that many white folks have stood by, watched and perpetuated. I wonder how to let our hearts be broken but not become paralyzed by guilt. I wonder what a white Mennonite active response might look like — one that is more than sympathetic or symbolic but part of God’s liberating work for us all.

The Spirit is on the side of freedom. That’s where I want to be too.

According to civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, “the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” I’ll continue to mourn. My heart is broken. The cloth has been rent. There has been abundant grace from Emanuel AME. The hard and long work of repentance and restoration continues.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.


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  • Laura Brenneman

    Yes. Thank you for your words, Steve, and for the W.E.B. DuBois quote. It’s what I need to hear, especially in my broken-heartedness after last week’s MC USA convention and worry about the denomination’s commitment to peacebuilding theology.

  • Dale Welty

    I have had a large Confederate flag and a US fleg for many years in my basement office and I plan to keep them. It does not offend me. Perhaps sometime I will take them outside and display them. Dale

    • Conrad Ermle

      I see why you are an x-menno. You missed the essence of the Message, the first principles. Most Mennos don’t fly any flag…US, Confederate or Gay. — Conrad Ermle

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