Ryan Booth, a conservative white Evangelical, writes:
[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). – 2 Kings 18:4
At Mathnasium a couple of years ago, we had a sweet little girl enroll who had just immigrated from India. We let all of our new students design their own binder spines to help them find their binders, and she proceeded to draw a swastika on hers. Shocked and confused, I quickly went online and found out that the swastika in Eastern cultures has meant “good fortune” for many centuries, and indeed, it basically had the same meaning in Europe, which is why the Nazis chose it as their symbol. Unfortunately for that little girl, the symbol that she drew as good luck symbol will not be interpreted that way by Americans who naturally see it as a symbol of hatred and evil.
Symbols don’t have an intrinsic meaning. The meaning comes from a cultural understanding, and those understandings change over time, as the culture changes.
When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, some of them spoke against God, so he sent venomous snakes among them, and they bit people who died, but God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and anyone who looked at it was healed.
In John 3:14, Jesus said that the serpent was a symbol of him. It was a symbol of his death on the Cross. We will all die, but those of us who can gaze upon his sacrifice on the Cross will live. What a wonderful symbol the bronze serpent was — a promise of eternal life!
Unfortunately, by the time of king Hezekiah a thousand years later, the serpent had become a false idol. Instead of a symbol of God’s salvation, the serpent itself was being worshipped as a god, which they called Nehushtan. As such, it was better for it to be destroyed, rather than be an occasion for the people of God to fall into idolatry.
The Confederate battle flag, and monuments to Confederate generals, were not constructed as symbols of racial hatred. For many Southerners, the Civil War was not about slavery, and many Confederate generals were honorable men fighting for what they believed to be a good cause.
But, unfortunately, the little Indian girl doesn’t get to choose what a swastika means in America, and those of you who think that a Confederate flag honors Southern heritage, or who think that Confederate monuments honor valiant men and are an important part of our history — you don’t get to decide what those symbols mean to our culture.
And what’s happened is that the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments have become a Nehushtan. They have become gods to a group of people bent on hate and violence. As such, we’re better off without them.
On principle, I am against taking down monuments. I think it was wrong to take them down in New Orleans recently. Yet I agree with Ryan Booth. After Charlottesville, the “heritage, not hate” argument is never going to be taken seriously. The Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and other alt-right protesters in C’ville have made it much harder to defend those monuments and Confederate insignia.
The problem here is one of the interpretation of symbols. One of my Southern students insists that the flag does not represent racism or slavery to him; when pushed, he suggests that if it represents such things to other people that’s their problem. In this view, the interpretation of a symbol is purely a matter of personal preference and no one has the right to criticize anyone else’s interpretation. I am afraid that I cannot accept such perspectivism. Symbols have histories; and the world we live in is historical. Whatever I or anyone else might think about the flag, it is a matter of record that it was created to serve as the symbol of an institution whose members disagreed about many things but agreed about the moral and legal acceptability of slave-holding. It is also a matter of record that today’s racists and segregationists still make regular appeals to that flag as the symbol of their cause, though less often and less publicly now than when I was a boy (which may help to explain the difference between my attitude and that of some of my students). That still-living history cannot be erased by waving the magic wand of personal interpretive preference—which, by the way, is a strange magic wand for someone to wave who seeks to represent and defend a traditional way of life.
I have already said that the ineradicable history of that flag does not convict my students of racism. Furthermore, it is perfectly appropriate for them to believe and to contend that this flag need not be associated with racism and slavery, that the flag and the Confederacy have received a bum rap from both historians and the popular press. But until they successfully make that case, they should not wear their shirts. The symbol on the shirt speaks before its wearer does and leaves him unable to make his case for the dignity and value of Southern culture—while simultaneously failing to exhibit the required charity to those of his Christian brothers and sisters who are profoundly offended by that symbol.
UPDATE.2: Ryan Booth responds to critics in the thread:
So, so many of you are ignoring the primary point of the article. Yes, Robert E. Lee was a great man in many ways, and I personally think statues honoring him would be appropriate, except for what they are becoming. The bronze serpent was as honorable as a symbol could get, but it was appropriate for it to be destroyed, because its meaning had been distorted into evil.
Those of you who want his statues to remain don’t need to defend them from the Left — you need to defend them from the alt-Right! They are the ones who are ruining any chance you have for keeping them.
If there are so many of who are not racist who honestly honor Southern culture and heritage so much, why wasn’t there a giant protest group in Charlottesville, pushing away the Nazis while chanting “heritage, not hate”? Why did you leave the opposition to the Left?
I’ll tell you why. It’s the same reason that the Confederate flag became associated with racism in the first place. It’s because a great many of you, all protestations to the contrary, secretly support the racists. I know too many who say “heritage, not hate” and belong to the League of the South, or who subscribe to American Renaissance, including people in my own family.
Most of you who support Southern heritage are just a little bit less racist than the Nazis in Charlottesville. You would probably say that you aren’t racist, yet you probably would prefer that a black family not live next door to you. You would be less likely to hire a black person for a job, and you definitely wouldn’t want your child to marry a black person, but you don’t think of yourself as racist.
And that’s why the Confederate flag has become verboten by our culture, and why the monuments are coming down. Because of you and people like you.