Symbols and Enmity: Why Oklahoma Baptist University is Removing an Image of the Confederate Flag

March 29, 2016

President of Oklahoma Baptist University, Dr. David Whitlock, announced last month a decision to remove a small stained glass panel containing an image of the confederate flag from one of its chapel windows. The panel appeared among other symbols relevant to the history of Oklahoma, re-narrating its story by displaying several of the more monumental plot points. This window was installed many decades ago to remind onlookers of what has happened to and among us. It hardly needs pointing out that the window could only display and never control the meaning of the images cast translucently in the Raley Chapel nave.

The decision to remove the confederate flag panel from the window was the right decision. We laud President Whitlock and his administration for the wisdom and courage to see the flag for what it now represents. It is clear that the confederate flag represents far more than idiosyncratic nineteenth-century regional disputes, southern unity, or even some nostalgic pride in lost forms of life. If this symbol unites any longer it does so at the cost of deep, deleterious division; a source even of enmity.

The confederate flag should have no place amongst a people united by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. To better reinforce this truth we shall need to get a clear picture of the power symbols carry in our lives and then discern how this particular symbol clashes with the great symbol of reconciliation—the Cross of Jesus Christ. If the flag fails to unite and only divides the Church, then by extension it has a similar but exaggerated effect within wider society. A scratch in the church is a hemorrhage in the world.

Symbols by their nature carry power they do not themselves fully control. They portray or disclose meaning in ways determined in part by original intention and in part by the exigencies of present circumstance. The meaning of a symbol may therefore change over time, and it is often remarked that symbols may likewise seem to take different meanings to different people. The swastika, hammer and sickle, union jack, star of David, skull and crossbones, and UN circle of stars, to name but a few examples, all evoke feeling but do so in different ways and to varying degrees in different places. Flags are particularly notorious for coming to mean more than they were ever intended to mean. They take a life of their own. And that is certainly true of the “stars and bars”; an insidious source of pride to some, a picture of hatred to others. No catalog can comprehend its fuller meaning and significance for us as a nation or as a Church.

The flag’s appearance in the Raley Chapel window at OBU is set within a larger panel telling incompletely a very regional story. It is one symbol among many. But for our brothers and sisters of color, and indeed for many white members of the university community, the pane of glass leapt from the window like an assailant. For them—for us—the flag is emblematic of a political attitude that is unavoidably theological and racial. Whether the Civil War in which the flag became representative was really one of “northern aggression” is here beside the point. In the decades following the war’s completion the meaning of the flag would be fully deconstructed, and mostly by those who worshiped it most fervently. You see, symbols do not merely represent a thing, but express the otherwise inexpressible and thus formatively shape human sensibilities in often powerful and imperceptible ways: flags don’t just tell us something, they also makeus something. Thus, the confederate flag is for our brothers and sisters of color thesymbol of white Southern supremacy, evoking a sense deep-seated hatred, hostility, and even the threat of legalized terrorism.

Only the hopelessly naïve southerner could possibly suggest that the flag is merely a regional trope, for it has now far too regularly been the backdrop to overt racial animosity. In fact, for many African Americans, there is often a distinct feeling that the animus has never really ceased, but instead reincarnates itself in ever more pernicious ways. No symbol today quite conveys the message of racism and exclusion like the confederate flag. As a symbol it has evolved into an icon.

Historically, flags have carried tremendous political symbolism. Whether we are conscious of it or not, flags are the object of allegiance. Here in this country the Pledge of Allegiance is memorized at a very early age. Desecration of the flag was a federally punishable offense until 1989. We feel strongly about flags. They’re evocative. The confederate flag is not somehow uniquely impotent in this regard. It has not been, and never will be, neutral in its presentation. The flag doesn’t just signal a difference of opinion, but already reflects unacknowledged, longstanding resentments and divisions.

Some will wish to retort here that folks who take offense at the confederate flag should educate themselves on the flag’s history, and in the meantime get a slightly thicker skin.  If somebody takes offense, in other words, it’s the offended party’s problem. Flags just do their thing. In response to this claim consider Paul’s instruction offered toward the end of his epistle to the Romans:

let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-19)

And later: let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Now, of course, we fully recognize that Paul addresses here the customs of eating or not eating under the law, and not of rebel flag raising. Nevertheless, the theological rationale of the exhortation is directly applicable to the confederate flag: is the act you undertake in any way a stumbling block, hindrance, or harm to another brother or sister? If so, then according to Paul “you are no longer walking in love.” To paraphrase: do not let your appreciation for a flag cause another to stumble or to ruin one for whom Christ died.Thus, when some raise high the confederate flag as a partial associative identity, they should bear in mind that their act is accounted by people of color as tantamount to hate.

In this regard we must likewise acknowledge the American Church’s occasional complicity in perpetuating the power and meaning behind the confederate flag. No church or denomination is unaffected by racism, we realize, but for many of our minority faith-communities, the unwillingness to rebuke or denounce the flag on Christian grounds is almost as grievous as actively hoisting the flag itself. The deafening “silence of friends,” to quote the memorable phrase of the late Martin Luther King, is piercing.

The theological and moral question here is whether love will be extended to our brothers and sisters of color by removing from their view a symbol of anguish, enmity, and terror. If you believe this exaggerated then may we implore you to ask a person of color, particularly one who lived through the mid-century civil rights struggle, to offer theirimpressions of the confederate flag. We believe you will find it both deeply educational and evocative.

But in truth it shouldn’t have to come to that, for if one cannot see that a brother and sister is plainly more deserving of love than a flag, then not only do they “destroy the work of God” (Rom.14:2) but the central symbol of Christianity itself has been mistaken. The Church is united not by flag but by Cross. Following Jesus Christ in discipleship requires taking up one’s cross. The cross companies us in our travels with Jesus, and in this way unites us as a people of faith. We carry our crosses together. The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of humanity’s reconciliation with God and in turn the symbol of the Church’s unity under his throne. No thing, and certainly no flag, can match the bonding power of the Cross. As Bonhoeffer puts it so eloquently in Discipleship, “peacemakers will bear the cross with their Lord, for peace was made at the Cross.” Jesus is our Mediator and all our brothers and sisters are those to whom Christ comes.

The glass panel of the confederate flag has come down from the chapel window at OBU because President Whitlock wisely understands that as a Christian learning community this political symbol estranges us from one another. Our distinguished Raley Chapel is the place we gather to celebrate God and the life he has given us together for a time here on Bison Hill. Its purpose has always been to facilitate our assembly and to bring us together around common purposes, to enclose us in a sanctuary for prayer, singing, and receiving the word of the Lord.  And now, thank God, when the sun makes its western descent we no longer see the red and blue hues of the confederate flag cast darkly on chapel seats. Our brothers and sisters of color can gather for chapel each week without its quiet reproach. A symbol of enmity has been expunged from the very place where our unity is most beautifully and meaningfully embodied.

Galen Jones

Assistant Professor of Church Planting, Floyd K. Clark Chair of Christian Leadership at Oklahoma Baptist University.  Read More by this Author

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24