Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Day I Changed My Mind About the Confederate Flag


I am a Yankee-- more specifically I am a Yankee from the Great State of Ohio. I have lived most of my life in Ohio, though I spent two years in North Carolina attending graduate school.

Growing up a Yankee I learned about the Civil War from a white northern perspective. We must always remember that when it comes to reading history, perspective is everything. I am thankful that my parents instilled in me a real vision of all persons created as equal in the image of God regardless of their skin color. I am thankful I did not grow up in a racist home. It was from that perspective that I understood the terrible and evil atrocity of slavery in America.

But my upbringing did not instill in me the knowledge of the subtleties of racism. I don't blame my parents for that. We lived in a white world, for the most part, and we were shielded from those subtle forms of racism that African Americans experienced regularly.

But as I got older and my world became larger, I began to realize that racism and racial discrimination were intrinsically embedded in American society in ways I had never realized. One aspect of that embedded racism was the symbolism displayed by society. There are more than a few of those symbols, but the one I speak of in this post is the Confederate battle flag.

As a young man, I began to hear the calls rising from some quarters demanding removal of that flag from government property because of its racist overtones. I confess at the time that I did not understand that perspective. Sure, I understood the connection between the battle flag and the Civil War and the South, but I reasoned to myself that it was silly to get worked up over a symbol and not everyone, I thought, who has a Confederate battle flag or the flag of the Confederacy (the Stars and Bars) on their bumper surely is a racist. I bought into the line from those who said that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism, but a display of southern heritage and pride, much like my fellow Buckeyes who fly the state flag of Ohio. That was my perspective until one day that I will never forget.

When our children were young (they are now grown and gone), we would vacation in the south--Virginia, North and South Carolina-- and we regularly visited historical sites. On one particular occasion we were in Charlottesville, Virginia visiting Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. We had given our children money for vacation to spend on whatever they wanted-- souvenirs, et al. At the time our son, Joshua was really into flags and had something of a collection. When we were in the gift shop after our visit to Jefferson's house, he naturally gravitated toward the display of various small flags. He pulled a Confederate battle flag from the kiosk and brought it to me for purchase. At that moment, I had an epiphany. As I looked at that miniature Stars and Bars, I was not sure I wanted him to have it... and as I stood there, I was not quite sure why. I hesitated for a moment and then told my son that he could not buy that flag. He would have to choose another.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about that moment attempting to make sense of my dis-ease. As I put words to my concerns, it was clear to me. I did not want my son owning a symbol that could not be divorced from the belief that certain people could be property. I could not let him display something that in its original context promoted legalized slavery to the extent that some people were willing to kill and be killed for its preservation. And I had to explain to him why I would not let him buy it. Today, Joshua is twenty-five, but he remembers that incident and is grateful for the lesson he learned.

Because of history, certain symbols get so wedded to ideas and movements that it becomes impossible to see the symbol and not think of those ideas and those events that made them prominent; and no amount of denial can change that. During the reign of the Roman empire countless individuals were crucified, but because of Christianity when someone sees a cross today, only one particular crucified individual is remembered. The swastika originally was a symbol of good fortune. It also was used in early Christian and Byzantine art-- a gammadion cross-- a symbol of the death of Jesus. But because of the Nazis employment of that symbol, it is not possible to see a swastika today without recalling to mind the evil of the Nazis. The swastika is forever embedded with that evil. Would anyone today seriously suggest trying to employ the swastika once again in our church sanctuaries as a symbol for Jesus' death?

After my new found epiphany, I began to do some research on the Confederate battle flag, and Confederate symbols and monuments. It reinforced to me even more that it was impossible to separate America's history of slavery from the symbols and statues of the Confederacy. History has a way of dispelling our cover stories, and to say that the Confederate flag is only a symbol of Southern heritage is a cover story that can only be believed when one is in a state of denial. The attempt to divorce our symbols from the context that gives them meaning is to commit willful amnesia as to who we were as a people so that we can deny what we have inherited and must still confront today. To quote Civil War historian, William C. Davis, "Symbols matter. They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudices and fears. Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them, changing over time along with our actions."

When we remove the symbols of our racist history from monumental status to the displays of museums, we are not denying our history, but putting them in their proper context. Indeed, the Confederate monuments themselves, erected in the twentieth century during Jim Crow, were themselves an attempt to erase the sordid history of slavery and replace it with the fictitious notion of the Lost Cause. As displays, they tell the story of who we were; as monuments they proclaim who we still want to be. As displays they remind us of the values that our ancestors embraced; as monuments they continue to proclaim those values as somehow still important. When a community places a monument in public, it is a declaration of what the people who put it there value. No one should be duped into believing that a monument in public makes no moral claims. When communities continue to embrace those monuments, they are affirming the values of those who put them there in the first place.

We must remember the worst of our history. That does not mean we have to idolize it in the town square or on government property.

Symbols matter.


Allan R. Bevere is the pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church (Ohio) and a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He serves on the ACN Steering Committee. He blogs at allanbevere.com.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Nonviolence As I See It Now

The first week of August this month marks the 75th anniversary commemorating the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan at the end of World War II.  It is a solemn annual event marking Japan’s loss of life, and honoring Japan’s Hibakusha, its now elderly atomic blast survivors.  After the war, many Hibakusha went on to become lifelong peace and justice activists, working to teach the next generations of the horrors of nuclear warfare, and to rid the world of the planetary scale of violence of nuclear weapons.  Many other Hibakusha went on silently to lead normal lives, keeping secret their survivor’s guilt, carrying their wounds and memories quietly into the grave.  Most remaining survivors are now in their 80s, and many more pass away each year, which renders more poignant and urgent the obligation of the rest of humanity worldwide to take up their mission for global peace and unity.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be in Hiroshima, Japan.  I had traveled there with colleagues and a group of American students taking a cross listed course in Peace and Conflict Studies/Asia Studies.  We had to rise in the wee hours to commute to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, and be seated in time for the annual August 6 Commemorative Event, which begins at 8:15 a.m., marking the precise moment the atomic blast vaporized much of the city of Hiroshima and most of its residents:  most were unarmed civilians:  women, men, children, the elderly.  I have had few ‘life changing’ experiences, but this was one of them.  I was stunned to see that we seemed to be among the very few Americans there, despite the historic moment of it being the first time a U.S. diplomat would be attending the event.  A few Japanese people approached me, thanking me—someone from the nation that so irrevocably harmed them—for being there.   It was humbling to experience this event from the perspective of the vanquished ‘enemy’ our American history books portrayed the Japanese to be. 

Thanks to my whirlwind bundle-of-energy colleague, Dr. Akiko Jones, who puts her nonviolent mojo into her award-winning Japanese language teaching and our local Cherry Blossom Festival, I have had the honor to become acquainted with one of the Hibakusha, Dr./Ms. Hiroko Nakamoto.  As a little girl, Sensei Nakamoto survived the blast that fateful day.  She went on to recover from her physical wounds, and to have a successful professional career, all while transforming her trauma into advocacy and supporting programs and institutions of learning that teach peace.  Sensei worked her peace magic in Japan, and in the U.S., including here in Ohio.  She used her own financial resources, moxy, and persistence to build a new peace park commemorative zone along the riverbank by Hiroshima’s train station.  Her life’s peace work demonstrates that nonviolence involves patience, hard work, and an unbounded love of all life.  Beyond being brilliant, as an octogenarian, she is one of the most fun, delightful, young-at-heart people I have ever met, with a mischievous sense of humor. She taught me that a life of nonviolence is the fountain of youth. 

I have been studying and teaching about the peacebuilding Communication practices of diverse leaders and nonviolent activists for some 25 years now.  As a grad student I flew from State College, Pennsylvania to San Francisco, California to see and hear the Dalai Lama in person—along with many other renowned nonviolent leaders at a major Peace conference.  I also attended lectures on nonviolence by luminaries such as Myrlie Evers Williams, widow of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers (who was murdered in his own driveway in front of his children), and a bona fide activist in her own right.   She had no rancor, only a steely reserve, an unshakable dignity, and an aura of steadfastness, as she discussed the work that faced nonviolent activism in some 15 years before Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated America’s conversation about our checkered history of aspiring for all “to be created equal” but falling far short of that ideal in reality.  I attended other keynote addresses by nonviolent leaders and thinkers who view themselves as citizens of the world, like Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi. I had the good fortune to hear author/activist Arundati Roy speak of the growing need to address systemic violences of globalization’s rapacious greed, crushing poor people, wildlife and natural world ecosystems in its path.  When I lived in Alabama, I got to see and hear in person Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, who came to speak at Troy University where I worked in 2006-07, and where Lewis recounted with mirthful irony, his college application in 1957 had been rejected due to segregation.   Nonviolent leaders usually have a good sense of humor.  Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “Love your enemy, it will ruin his reputation.”

These nonviolent leaders’ collective teachings convey that righteous anger is a good first step toward, as Nelson Mandela aptly called it, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom.’  Anger is a useful energy, if channeled carefully, to shift into action peacebuilders ranging from community organizers, students of peace and conflict studies, to citizens or protesters in the streets.  But anger does not sustain the hard, grueling, lifelong labor needed to work for equity, for peace with justice.  The next steps in that long walk involve networking, organizing, and not giving up.  As any of the Nobel Peace Prize winners would say, each in her or his own way, nonviolence means sitting down and talking or negotiating with one’s adversaries, as fellow human beings.  “Your enemy is your greatest teacher,” says the Dalai Lama.  Experiencing nonviolence directly through the readings, writings, orations and leadership of such luminaries has given me inspiration and fortitude to keep moving forward, step by step, in my own small way, in my own life and work.  So here I am, writing this reflection on nonviolence and its meaning to me now in this time of fearsome pandemic and brave citizen-driven calls for changing how our nation and world understands, and behaves to curb, systemic racism.

From nonviolent leaders what I have learned, and what I know about nonviolence now, is this:  there isn’t a specific way for any one person to take on an issue that will make the world a more peaceful, justice-filled, or equitable place.  There is no prescribed path for anyone among us to take up the Hibakushas’ mantle to advocate for the United Nations’ passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons:  globally, there are about 13,000 nukes, unimaginably far more destructive than those the U.S. used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Taking actions for nonviolence, justice, and peacebuilding can be as small as planting a tree in one’s yard or in a park, as Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai showed millions how to do worldwide.  Actions may be as weighty as pursuing a career in global diplomacy or, as the tiny nation of Bhutan has demonstrated, creating a new and different (non-economic; pro-sentient beings) metric to measure modern life or success:  Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Whatever nonviolent thought or action you try, however small or big, it’s ok.  Nonviolence takes time, it will be waiting for you.

Author makes the peace sign at Miyajima Gate, Japan, in 2010.

About the Author: 

Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication (SMC), and Affiliated Faculty in American Culture Studies (ACS), Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program (WGSS) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Dr. Gorsevski’s research focuses on contemporary rhetoric of peacebuilding, social justice and environmental justice movements. Research interests include environmental rhetoric and critical animal studies, international/intercultural rhetoric, political rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, media criticism, and nonviolent communication. Her sole authored books include: Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Communication and Social Justice series of Troubador Publishing, 2014) and Peaceful Persuasion:  The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004).  She has published in journals such as Journal of Multicultural Discourses; Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; and Environmental Communication.  She serves on the Steering Committee of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.