It’s not often that I find myself wiping away tears in a denominational meeting, but I just did. The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the display of the Confederate battle flag.
This conservative evangelical denomination gathered just miles from Ferguson, Mo., to stand together against one lingering divisive symbol.
To understand the significance of this, one must note the “Southern” in “Southern Baptist Convention.”
This doesn’t speak to geography; there are SBC churches in all 50 states. It speaks to history.
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, over a controversy about appointing slaveholders as missionaries.
The SBC was wrong, and more than wrong. The SBC of 1845, and for many years after, was in open sin against a holy God, and against those who bear his image.
On Tuesday, the Convention voted, from the floor, to amend a resolution about the flag as it was reported out of the Resolutions Committee.
The proposed resolution spoke about the way that many people fly the flag out of a sense of family history or honor. The Convention voted to strike that language.
The committee version called for Southern Baptists “to limit” the display of the flag and to “consider” stopping flying it altogether. The Convention decided stronger language was in order.
In an amendment offered by former SBC President James Merritt, himself a descendant of a slaveholder, the Convention voted to say this: “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.”
Does this change the game as it applies to the crushing issues of racial injustice around us? Of course it does not.
But at the same time, we cannot dismiss this as just about symbols. Symbols matter.
The Convention recognized what the flag represents, and what it says to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ.
The flag hearkens back to a day when in order to justify idolatrous Mammonism, Southern religion wove a counter-biblical folk theology that stood on the other side of Jesus.
The flag also points to years of domestic terrorism against African-Americans, often with threats of physical violence.
Like James Merritt, I’m a descendant of Confederate veterans. But my family history is more complicated than just that.
I’m a part of another family now, a bigger family that spans heaven and earth, a people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language.
The Gospel frees us from scrapping for our “heritage” at the expense of others. The Gospel frees us, as the Bible says, to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). The Gospel calls us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). What hurts one part of the Body hurts us all.
As I’ve said before, the cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. On Tuesday, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, including many white Anglo Southerners, decided the cross was more important than the flag.
They decided our African-American brothers and sisters are more important than family heritage. We decided that we are defined not by a lost cause but by amazing grace.
Let’s pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. And let’s take down that flag.
Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.