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Retire the Flag, Move Beyond Certainty!

06/29/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

During those first few days after the murder in Charleston, I needed something to anchor me. I turned to Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: the Story of Ideas in America. It's nearly 15 years old, but should be a required reading for our times as we sift through the mess of history and decide, yet once again, what kind of country we want to live in.

I have an academic acquaintance whose hobby it is to read ancient texts simply to point out how ridiculous they are. Our need to keep interpreting the past in our favor is understandable. We want to make sure that we're in the right and on the winning side. Presently, we have the furore of the Confederate flag to move the process and the spirit.

Beware of history! There's a lot to be ashamed of, a lot to repudiate racial superiority for example. Much of the "science" of the time believed that races must be segregated because they were separately segregated species. In 1866 most scientists were persuaded by Darwin's theory of common descent. But still the message was Caucasian superiority. Negro inferiority.

A book New York: A Symphonic Study (1918) called for the creation of a new political party -- of Hereditary Americans -- calling for immigration restrictions, mandatory domestic labor for unmarried immigrant women and a complete ban on the admission of Asians. The worry of "pagans settling among us and disseminating the loathsome practices which have reduced themselves to the moral lepers ... that they so often are." Author? Melusina Fay Peirce, the feminist.

And there was anti-German sentiment incited by the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. As Louis Menand reminds us, "Of the many acts of patriotic symbolism inspired by the war, the decision of the city of Pittsburgh to ban the music of Beethoven was possible the most imaginative."

In California, it's fashionable to dump on the Franciscan Junipero Serra and his relations with the indigenous peoples, as if he should have had the consciousness of someone who'd graduated from Berkeley in the 1960s. It's a sobering thought that gives me pause that had I been a teenager in the 1930s in Germany, I might well have been an enthusiastic member of Hitler Youth. How many of us have taken in the fact of the awful legislation continuing racism after the Civil War? The xenophobia. Think of D.W. Griffiths' movie, Birth of A Nation -- released January 1, 1915. It was almost as popular in the North as in the South. The theme? The un-assimilability of black people analogous to the un-assimilability of immigrants. The movie inspired the revival of the KKK.

As for the Civil War, we know that it isn't over and it appears, that some wish to search out and destroy every confederate flag, just like the crazed Puritans in England, smashing the statues and destroying the vestments of the old religion. There was no getting away from slavery. It was "God-ordained" and deeply embedded in Scripture. John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868) Episcopal Bishop of Vermont wrote that he could "imagine no transgression more odious in the sight of God, and more sure to forfeit His blessing, than the willful determination to distort His revealed Word, and make it speak, not as it truly is, but as men, in their insane pride of superior philanthropy, fancy that it ought to be ... If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be 'wise in my own conceit' ... I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the Authority of the Almighty." Yes, there were deep embarrassments and sins of which we should repent.

If we take a look at the abolitionists' attempt to build a case against slavery based on Scripture, we find that their opponents shot them down as speciously distorting it. "A new argument had to be found: from conscience."

Scripture has been used to justify all sorts of things, which we now repudiate. Some fellow Episcopalians are horrified that our church was the only Protestant denomination that did not split during the civil war. I think, given the craziness of the time, it was a remarkable achievement.

Louis Menand tells us that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who was an officer in the Union Army, came to a realization as he was recovering from his wounds. The war "made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas." We forget that "the saving of the Union" and "the abolition of slavery" were incompatible ideals. But many "feared secession more than they disliked slavery." So, reflecting on his wounds suffered in the Civil War: "He had found that he did not require a religious faith. Uncertainty -- 'I am about to make a leap in the dark' -- turned out to be all the certainty he needed." Actually he'd just discovered more truly what faith is -- the ability to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Holmes was an example of the kind of person who saw the common ground on which we stand in our uncertainties and questions. He had learned the one necessary lesson of the war as "a rebuke to people ... who believe that their idea of civilization is a justification for killing those who decline to share it." The principle is this: certitude leads to violence. This was why Holmes didn't like the abolitionists. "When you know that you know persecution comes easy. It is as well that some of us don't know that we know anything."

But while we can't dispense with "certainty" altogether, we could all be improved by a little self-doubt. It wouldn't hurt some of us to be skeptical about our own convictions. We meet on common ground -- a place where the sheer un-answerability of life's questions renders us speechless and we begin to understand that "the test of a belief is not immutability, but adaptability."

What of just last week? There is the historic civil rights ruling on marriage equality and the question raised by the recent Bokbluster cartoon of a doctor holding up a birth certificate with name, sex and race blank. The parents' response: "We're going to wait til it's old enough to make its own decision." We live in a time when it seems that being a human being is the subject of endless invention of almost limitless possibility.

We've come a long way from the crude appeals to Natural Law. Holmes (père) thought education of women was a waste. There were exceptions but "a natural law is not disproved by a pickled monster." Harvard Medical School didn't admit a woman until 1945. Perhaps a hundred years from now, we will be castigated by our descendents for either too much wishful thinking or for denying our fellow humans their right to be anything they choose.

Retire the flag by all means, but let's study our history, repent and be open to change.