The Confederate flag and Christian perfection

Recently, the Confederate battle flag, revered by an alleged shooter, quickly became the focus of controversy and sentiment for revilement and removal after the senseless slaughter of nine innocent worshipers at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Walmart quickly moved to withdraw Confederate-related merchandise from its shelves, and not long after, the state legislature and governor of South Carolina agreed to remove the flag from the State Capitol grounds in Columbia. Debate has since arisen in other states with regard to pursuing a similar course.


What could the Confederate flag possibly have to do with the Adventist debate over character perfection? Interestingly, it may be more than we realize. Perhaps the Confederate flag and all that it symbolizes, helps illustrate the manner in which so many of us come to accept the mixture of good and evil in our heroes and therefore in our own lives. 

Allen Drury, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Advise and Consent," described America in a later book as “always heretofore strong through all her weaknesses, decent through all her indecencies, great through all her faults” (Come Nineveh, Come Tyre: The Presidency of Edward M. Jason, 426). Those defending the use of the Confederate flag seem to view its symbol in much the same way. What causes some to recall a heritage of slavery and injustice causes others to recall a heritage of chivalry, honour, and the defence of one’s home and family. The Confederacy, like so much of American history and indeed of life itself, therefore becomes an example of accepting the co-existence of right and wrong.

Some years ago, the TNT television network aired a mini-series on the political career of the Alabama Governor, George Wallace, who in 1963 stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent the admission of African-Americans. Later he publically repented of his racism in a speech to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s former congregation. In reviewing this mini-series, Joel Stein observed for Time, that Wallace was portrayed as “a villain who [chose] his evil not out of malice but out of weakness” (August 25, 1997).

However, whether sin arises from malice or weakness, it is always sin, and the resulting pain and sorrow is no different in either case. In other words, Wallace’s segregationist policies were no easier for African-Americans to bear because they may have been the result of weakness rather than malice. 

When Senator George McGovern spoke against the Vietnam War in the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign, his critics claimed that it was accidental when Vietnamese civilians were killed or maimed by American bombs. The Senator correctly responded that whether by accident or design, the suffering and death inflicted were the same.                                                                                                                                    

We all know that the wife-beating husband who claims, “I hate what I’m doing, but I can’t help it,” does just as much harm as the one who vainly attempts to justify his abuse. Either way, the wife gets hurt.

When we attempt to justify sin by inherent weakness, we face a practical problem with a Christian experience that leaves people imperfect. In fact, such a Christian experience explains why the perfection debate is so persistent and divisive in contemporary Adventism. We are challenged to ask two simple questions: Does the Christ of scripture offer an end, here and now, to the bad choices that make life miserable for ourselves and those around us? Or does He merely offer a formula to achieve our frail best, while forcing others to live with our shortcomings?

Many who reject the possibility of sinless obedience here on earth claim they’ve never met a sinless person. (Considering the unpopularity of true holiness throughout the ages, even when manifested perfectly in the life of Christ during His incarnation, one is tempted to ask such objectors if they’re sure they would recognize a sinless person if in fact they did meet one.)


Perhaps the best answer I have found to such objections is the reminder that all of us, at numerous times, have met men and women who through God’s grace have overcome sins of every stripe. Every time we meet a Christian who through divine power has conquered such sins as: greed, racism, sexual immorality, alcoholism, and tobacco or other drug addictions, we see the fulfillment of the Bible promise of victory over sin. Therefore we must honestly ask ourselves, “If God can give people complete victory over these sins, which sin in my life or another’s is beyond heaven’s power to resolve?”

We would do well to remember the long forgotten pledge, still in the sacred script, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (King James Version, Psalm 119:11). The same assurance was penned two thousand years ago by the apostle Paul and is also still in the sacred pages. “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1). It is on the basis of these Biblical teachings that Ellen White traced the following lines:

The Saviour is wounded afresh and put to open shame when His people pay no heed to His word. He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness. He desires them by practicing the principles of truth to show to the world that God’s grace has power to sanctify the heart. (Review and Herald, April 1, 1902)