- - Monday, July 27, 2015

The Confederate flag has reached critical mass as a polarizing symbol of white supremacy over people of color. Symbolism ― the practice of attributing to things a certain meaning or character ― has forever been a part of our human psychology. Symbols are external things with internally imposed meaning. This involves the ongoing dance between the external and the internal that all humans must learn to regulate, individually and collectively. Dr. Carl Jung postulated that some of our symbols are universal among people and are derived from the “collective unconscious” of humanity. One such symbol or “archetype” may be the serpent, which generally is a representation of evil and in one’s dreams may be the symbolic unconscious representation of struggle with difference, conflict, fear and anxiety.

While the Confederate flag is not a universal archetype for “white supremacy” it most certainly has become a historical and cultural symbol of derision, oppression and white supremacy. Naturally, any symbol associated with an “anti-abolitionist” policy will be perceived as representing oppression and supremacy. However, there will also be some who only associate the flag with fierce independence, rebelliousness and a sense of Southern pride. Kid Rock, for example, has appropriated the Confederate flag as his symbol for “the unrelenting rebel.” Is he also sending a message of his belief in “white supremacy?” That would be very unlikely since he has no history of racist attitude or behavior and he has a biracial son and grandchildren. Nevertheless, his chosen symbol of being the “rebel” will certainly offend some.

Symbols can be powerful tools for dividing and bringing together, but there are much deeper and more core underlying beliefs and behaviors that cause a peaceful and loving coexistence or that cause derision with our fellow humans. During the worst times of the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, we had two groups of people who arguably treated each other as badly as any in human history. Yet, both groups held the Christian symbol of the “cross” in similar high regard. Of all the symbols in the Christian faith, the cross represents love, grace, salvation, forgiveness, redemption and the ultimate sacrifice for “all,” without discrimination. This powerful symbol in their shared faith was unable to overcome their hatred for each other. When two sides choose to view the other side in hateful ways, then evil behaviors will surely prevail. When such an historical rift exists, there must be forgiveness and a focus on commonalities, rather than differences, regardless of external symbolism.

What are we to think and do about this dilemma which is at the heart of our human right to our own perceptions and the meanings we choose to attribute to symbols? We are indeed different and unique and have personal rights … do we not? Some may say, “Sure we have rights, but they don’t trump the rights of others.” Just as with all conflicts or disagreements…we can become entrenched and inflexible and go back and forth with opposing rationale until the party with the “biggest club” wins. We all know that the “might make right” approach to conflict resolution is a primitive and unsustainable way for peaceful and healthy coexistence ― to wit ― Northern Ireland. The reason for our country’s racial tension is actually the very same reason for tension between any people with differences ― it’s simply natural to experience tension when there is difference. Tension isn’t good or evil; it’s what we choose to do with this tension that causes harmful division or healthy unity and partnership.

Our power is in how we choose to think, feel and behave. So, we are back to the basics of what we should be teaching our children before the age of Kindergarten… purposely treat others just as you would like to be treated. We will never achieve sameness or agreement on everything, but we can choose to treat others with respect, dignity, kindness and fairness.

I am reminded that every time I have caused my wife, the person I love and respect the most, to hurt wasn’t because we disagreed on something. It was simply because I did something or said something that was perceived to be disrespectful and unfair. Also, every time that I have been hurt by someone else, it wasn’t because of a disagreement. It was simply because I perceived them to be disrespectful, unfair and dismissive of me. Symbols and differences are not harmful, in and of themselves, it’s the way we choose to think about them and how we choose to act in relation to them.

When we treat each other with mutual respect ― the way we would like to be treated ― putting aside our harmful beliefs and symbols will naturally follow. Resolving any differences we may have in the context of mutual respect and with the belief that no one’s worth or value has supremacy over anyone else’s, brings about the natural removal, redefining and replacing of old and hurtful symbols. Only then will the symbolism of the Confederate flag be placed into historical context that promotes healing and harmony today. Becoming better at the dance between the external and the internal requires individual practice AND practice with a partner. Find a partner, keep practicing and we’ll continue to get better at the dance.

Gary Bernard is a pastor and a psychologist, and he hosts a show in Sirius.


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