Heritage: Blessing or Curse?

In 1 Corinthians 8:1-10, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians (new Christians) about meat sacrificed to idols and whether or not it is appropriate for them to partake of that meat. In this passage, Paul acknowledges that we (in the case of this letter, the Corinthians; in the case of the present-day reader, the “we” is “disciples of Christ”) know that idols are nothing and that there is no God but the Lord.  For the Corinthian church, eating meat sacrificed to idols is meaningless. Meat is meat.  HOWEVER, if people who are not Christians see us eating meat sacrificed to idols, they might mistake our eating of sacrificial meat as faith in idols and rather than faith in God.  If this is the case, Paul says, it is better not to eat meat at all than to risk leading a person who does not yet know God down a path toward thinking that eating sacrificial meat is somehow beneficial to them, therefore causing them to sin.

Is it appropriate for us to be using a relic of 19th century American history, the Confederate flag, in the 21st century? How about if a local or state government were to use it? For some, the flag of the confederacy is seen as a symbol of Southern heritage and history–a heritage and history of which they are proud.  For others, it represents a complex history of rebellion against the government of the United States of America, support of racist, bigoted ideologies that devalue the lives of certain human beings by treating them as property instead of people, and more recently as a symbol of hatred, violence, and white supremacy.  Is is appropriate for any government–local, state, or national–to use this symbol when it may cause people both near and far to mistake their use of the flag as an endorsement of the racism, bigotry, devaluing of human lives, hatred, violence, and white supremacy so often associated with its use?  Paul would say “no,” I think, not because there is something wrong with the flag, per se, but because of the potential the flag has to lead people toward certain unintended and undesired (at least I hope they are unintended and undesired) perceptions about those who fly it and what motivates them to do so, thus leading them to sin.

I can claim a Southern heritage, and I do. But, part of my acknowledgment of my Southern heritage means that I also have to acknowledge that there are historical aspects of that heritage that are ugly, cruel, and shameful. I had family members who owned slaves in the deep South in the 19th century and before. This disgusts me. I acknowledge its historicity, but I don’t like it at all. The truth turns my stomach. This is part of my “heritage” as a Southerner and as a citizen of this country. But I’m not proud of it, and I’d give back, if I could.  We don’t get to pick and choose the aspects of the past that we like the most and ignore the rest.

Paul’s point in his letter to the Corinthians is this: the freedom and responsibility we have as children of God and followers of Christ calls us to be concerned about our neighbors before we are concerned about ourselves.  It calls us to place the needs of our neighbors before our own.  It calls us to be truthful and transparent in our daily living so that, as ambassadors of Christ in the world, our neighbor might see the work we do and hear the things we say and experience something of God in them.  We are responsible for ourselves and the choices we make, yes, but we are also responsible for what we communicate about God to the world.  In fact, we are responsible for what we communicate about EVERYTHING to the world.  (Remember the pesky 8th Commandment that prohibits bearing false witness against our neighbor and Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment in the Small Catechism that exhorts us to see the things our neighbors do in the best possible light?) 

So, before we are too quick to claim “heritage” as the justification for why we do what we do, let us take a step back and look with a carefully assessing eye at what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.  Let us consider what our behaviors say to others about us, the world around us, and the God we serve, who gives us life. And then let us refocus our thoughts, words, deeds on those things that proclaim peace, mercy, forgiveness, grace, healing, hope, and love to the world, so that the heritage we pass on to future generations unites rather than divides, heals rather than wounds, values rather than devalues, honors rather than dishonors, and loves rather than hates.  This is a heritage to be proud of.

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