Symbols, Statues and the Need for ‘Dependence’ Day

Bernie Diaz, July 3, 2020

I’ve been around for a while and I can’t remember the last time a July 4th weekend and upcoming Independence Day, seemed so dour or dark as this one- and that’s not just because the beaches of South Florida are closed down, due to our latest COVID-19 breakout as inconvenient as that may be.

Yes, the pandemic seems to be rearing it’s ugly head again, leading to a resurgence of new cases in most of the country, including at record levels in my state, now regarded as one of the nation’s “hot-spots.”  

But of almost greater concern to me, is the state of the United States of America, which seems more divided to me, than at any other time in my lifetime. The sexual revolution which began as a late 60’s – early 70’s drizzle, brought a tidal wave of cultural and political upheaval to our nation over the last two decades, but even that seems to pale in comparison at the moment, to the crisis of a country struggling to retain a sense of its own collective identity, as it prepares to celebrate (?) it’s 234th birthday as an independent nation.

Protest crowds across the nation have been defacing or toppling monuments and destroying statue after statue, while cities and states- particularly in the south to little surprise, are debating whether or not to continue the public display of the confederate flag and names of confederate veterans and leaders from their places of historical heritage, which still stand as symbols of slavery and racism to tens of thousands of African-Americans, particularly in the aftermath of the George Floyd police killing, among other high profile incidents in which Black citizens have been killed by white police officers more recently.

As we’ve noted in this space before, racism and race relations are “a thing.” It’s real and it’s real complicated (Cutting Through the Fog of Skin and Sin- Pt.1). Race is America’s blind spot – the biggest blight on an unprecedented record of national prosperity and blessing, perhaps without equal in world history.

However, the problem of race or better yet, ethnocentrism, has always simmered at the American surface, and certain events – from court decisions or cases of police brutality have lifted up the lid of pent-up prejudice and animosity, leading to heated rhetoric, race-related protesting and rioting, pouring gas on an already explosive flame.

In response to such civil unrest, we’ve argued here that the issue of race is more about sin than skin, and that a proper theology of God and a right anthropology of man, can help make sense of a crisis like ours.

America’s history on the one hand is great, and on the other hand, is checkered in more ways than one, and the American story changes depending on the storyteller.

There is the story of America’s founding, which began on the shores of New England as the result of missionary pilgrims of puritan sensibilities seeking a land to practice pure Protestantism and gospel witness in a new land. The original thirteen British colonies declared their independence in a fight for freedom and formed a federal government and system that was grounded in a Biblically influenced Judeo-Christian culture, which espoused values like law and order, traditional family and freedom – based on the principles of self-government and personal responsibility, in a culture which respected God and his providence over a people. That story is admirable and true.

Then there is the American story of slavery and race. A story of image-bearers of God, whose primary distinctive according to their “owners” who twisted scripture to suit their own depraved and economic desires, was a life of subjection based upon their skin tone and being profiled as inferior human beings, who were subjected often times to forced labor, discrimination, oppression and the violence of beatings, public lynchings and later fire hoses, from a legacy of unjust Jim Crow laws and segregation. That story is abhorrently true.

As Pastor and Author Kevin DeYoung posted, America’s history is mixed and its gospel relationship to race, has been often scrutinized: The history of God and race in America is, as Mark Noll (a notable evangelical historian) puts it, a “tangled history” filled with “moral complexity.” On the one hand, the Christian faith has been a prominent feature in American history and has often been a beneficent force at home and abroad.

Noll wrote, “Christian altruism, Christian philanthropy, Christian consolation, and Christian responsibility are not the only forces for good in American history, but they loom very large and have had very positive effects.” And yet, Noll admits that “the American political system and the American practice of Christianity, which have provided so much good for so many people for so many years, have never been able to overcome race.”

A true, non-fiction story contains tragedy and redemption- good and evil doesn’t it? Why should America be any different? Israel, God’s own “treasured possession”, a nation he unconditionally elected to be his own lighthouse of his love and law to the world, escaped four plus centuries in Egypt, only to enslave pagan neighbors themselves, disobey Jehovah’s commandments, commit the most egregious acts of idolatry (including infanticide), engage in their own civil war and face decades of captivity or isolation as punishment and discipline for their centuries of spiritual adultery.

It may be argued that the U.S. has been and is now suffering much of the same fate- and for some of the very same reasons as Israel did and does, including the rejection of her Messiah. God gave America a light. Christ the Cornerstone by way of his cross, provided a foundation for a powerful nation, rich in resources and knowledge, and yet, continues to fulfill God’s history of redemption in displaying a people that were taught, tested, failed, restored, retaught and retested again and again. That is the U.S.A.

What to do with the Signs and Symbols?

History should be taught and acknowledged. American’s checkered past should be celebrated and mourned at the right time and in the right place and in the right way. The land of the free, has not been so for some of its people historically, but it has been known as the ‘land of opportunity’ and remains the bastion of immigration world-wide. People still love to come and chase the ‘American Dream.’

My family of Cuban immigrants is grateful and indebted to God for his grace, having enabled my parents to come to America as exiles at the dawn of the communist dictatorship there.

Our nation is a just big reflection of our world- a creation of fallen, sin-cursed creatures who bear the creator’s image at the same time we rebel against our creator and fall prey to the “whole world (which) lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jo. 5:19b).

Let’s not destroy every vestige of our flawed but unique history as a country, rather capture and display it in its most gracious and appropriate venues. For instance, the Confederate flag in case some of you didn’t know, is the symbol of a coup- a failed experiment of a movement that wished to divide this nation and shed the blood of more than 650,000 lives over “state’s rights,” to keep and even expand a slave trade and culture that abused an ethnic people.

I respect and heartily approve the state of Mississippi’s bipartisan action to remove the long-revered image of the confederacy from its state flag. NASCAR racing has decided to remove the ‘rebel’ flag from flying over its events. That’s a big move. For opponents of that idea, what would they think of Nazi Swasitka’s still flying over Germany’s republic as a commemoration of that bit of history?

In the respect for law and order- decency and the love of neighbor, I think it wise to support the government removal of statues, monuments and like symbols from open, public places of some historic figures that obviously represented hate and racism beyond the pale (e.g. Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest of the KKK) and move them (not by the destruction of property by protestors), to museums, places of education and reflection, rather than memorial and celebration.  

Let’s remember, acknowledge and take the best we can from our heroes of faith and the flesh, as flawed figures who were human in every way, without blotting out their history, such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, to  David, Solomon, the apostles of the church like Paul, to more contemporary figures like Martin Luther, Washington, Lincoln, MLK Jr., Regan, Obama and Trump.

Would America be America, if it changed the name of our nation’s capital because the “Father of our Nation” and first President owned slaves at Mt. Vernon? Should his accomplishments and legacy be erased?

Each of the above figures among so many others, in their own way can claim accomplishments that will mark American history and found to have been sinners, corrupted by the world, their flesh and the devil to one degree or another, and yet did much and hopefully found redemption in Jesus Christ, in the final chapter of their story.

Let this Independence Day in our country, be a time of reflection and a cry for a day of dependence– more than ever for the grace and mercy of our God to restore and repair a broken nation.

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