His words jolted us.
“How can they do that?” he screamed. “This is America! No flag is supposed to be above the American flag.”
We looked at each other, wondering at his sudden outcry. I wasn’t sure if what he said was an actual American law or protocol, but it made sense. In America, loyalty should first be given to the United States and only secondarily to another nation.
No one else felt as irate, but we all tacitly agreed he was right, leaving it at that.
The Battle of the Flags
High school summer days meant only one thing for me and my friends: vacation at the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina. We rented a large house and filled every room with as many friends as we could.
We always rented any house that sat right on the beach, and one particular year, our house had a crow’s nest. We sat on this rooftop platform for hours, talking about anything and everything. One of those nights, my friend Dennis noticed the house next to us had hoisted a British flag on their flagpole. He expressed his anger in loud tones, not caring who heard.
As I sat there listening to his outrage at this disloyalty, I began feeling uncomfortable with how he decided to respond. He went to his truck and brought the Battle Flag of Virginia — often mistakenly called the Confederate flag — and hoisted it over our house.
He did not hoist the flag under the U.S. flag, but rather all by itself over our house. Though the confederacy was not internationally recognized as a new nation, it conceived itself as a separate nation. The inconsistency seemed lost on Dennis.
The Obligation to Love
When I first saw the Battle Flag, I was uncomfortable but remained silent. I knew Dennis did not raise the flag to offend me, the only one of African descent in the house. I knew he was my friend, and I did not think of him as racist. His anger was for the integrity of the United States.
But I grew more and more uncomfortable until I could bear it no longer.
I took Dennis aside and told him how I felt. He did not respond in anger, but took the same argument I had heard many times before.
“The flag represents Southern heritage, Southern hospitality, Southern pride,” he said.
I, too, felt no anger. Rather, I felt sympathy. I knew he meant this, and I understood he did not associate the flag with oppression, hatred, slavery, or even race and racism. I also knew we were truly friends, and if we could not solve this, it might destroy our friendship.
So we spoke kindly of our feelings and our concerns, and we listened to one another.
I told him the flag has been used as a club, and, as with the swastika, it is not a neutral symbol. It stressed me. Without word, it conjured ideas of slavery, thousands of lives spent to save this nation from itself, and even more lives wasted in the name of White Supremacy over the years.
It was the opposite of welcoming to me — it said to me, “Do not enter!”
The important thing I tried communicating to Dennis was that, within the context of a friendship, we must understand each other on more than a factual level. We also must look at the emotional level and understand sometimes even logic and truth cannot be explained sufficiently when pain is involved.
When it comes to friendship, facts and logic aren’t the only things that matter. I am not suggesting there are no logical reasons for removing the confederate battle flag, but the greatest reason is love. We have the freedom to do many things, but we have the obligation to love.
Avoiding the Stumbling Block
Love is the essence of 1 Corinthians 8. The apostle Paul wrote about the question of eating food sacrificed to idols, but his point is that love is the goal, not freedom.
Some people feel the freedom to eat, and some feel convicted not to eat.
“Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated” (1 Corinthians 8:7).
Paul does not simply trample on their weakness. He encourages those who are strong to love the weak. “We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do,” he wrote.
His argument is simple: If you exercise your freedom in a way that is not loving, it is sin.
We are free to do anything that is not inherently evil, but even in those good things, we must act in love, or we sin. When we sin against our brothers and sisters and cause them to stumble, we sin against Jesus Christ.
The two pictures are not identical, but the call to love is exact.
Knowing this truth, I also tried to be sensitive to Dennis’ conscience. He was trying to communicate that he felt invested in the flag not because of the symbolism that hurt me, but because of his loyalty to family and friends. My conscience was wounded, but he was free to wave the flag.
From Zealous Anger to Deep Love
We ended our discussion as peacefully as we began, but I made it clear that if the flag remained over the house, I could not remain in the house. While the flag may stand for “Southern hospitality,” I did not feel that hospitality had ever been extended to me in particular or African Americans in general. Since I didn’t think he would take the flag down, I planned on leaving in the morning.
But as I stood outside the next morning as we gathered to go out for breakfast, I noticed the bare flagpole.
It held my gaze for a moment, and then I turned to look at Dennis. He didn’t smile and didn’t say a word. He just shrugged his shoulder. I nodded a thanks, and we never spoke of it again.
Instead of an eroded friendship, we gained a deep respect for each other. I never asked Dennis about his thought process or how he moved from zealous flag raising to a quiet removal. What had he surrendered in order to love me?
Perhaps a great deal, which made me feel deeply, deeply loved.