A Kind Providence, A Long-awaited Moment, in the Midst of a Pandemic and Nationwide Unrest

by | Jul 6, 2020

The historic removal of Mississippi’s famously controversial state flag is a story of God’s overruling, good, wise and kind providence, and his use of numerous completely unexpected secondary causes. Long ago in Egypt, Joseph proclaimed to his brothers: “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). The cruel and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked an outrage in our country and culture, and one way God has used that is for healing in Mississippi. Even in this tragedy and Nationwide Unrest (and its larger national reactions and ramifications), the winds of change are blowing for good here. Of course, God is never doing just one thing at a time. He’s doing millions of things. But his fingerprints are all over this change we’ve just witnessed in our state.

In my thirty years in Mississippi, I’ve never seen anything pull us together like this effort, and it took everyone: protesters and politicians, lobbyists and legislators, Black and white, Republican and Democrat, conservative and progressive, athletes and artists, businessmen and educators, journalists and volunteers. And one of the beautiful things about the aftermath is how the key players did not try to claim the lion’s share of the credit for themselves but pointed to others. I saw Democratic senators thanking Republicans, and Republicans acknowledging the long perseverance of our Black legislators and citizens in this quest. Even the news reporting has caught this spirit, and acknowledged the remarkable diversity that converged on this effort. But above all, I saw Christians acting like Christians, in public and private.

Until just a few weeks ago, there was still substantial popular support for the so-called “1894 state flag” of Mississippi. A flag with a confederate battle flag in the top-left corner. While many white citizens of the state simply viewed the flag as a symbol of their history and heritage, loyalty to family and respect for their ancestors, and not as a sign of their support for slavery or white supremacy, for most of the Black citizens of Mississippi, the flag represented a public denial of their social and political equality, and of their humanity and dignity, and was a symbol of their inferiority and exclusion, their relegation to second class citizenship.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the national scrutiny of racial tensions in our country, folks in Mississippi took a hard look at the issue of our divisive flag again. And this time, for the first time in 126 years, things changed.

My purpose here isn’t to tell that story or explain how it all happened but rather to draw your attention to some things that may be overlooked in the secular news media. Mississippi regularly polls as the most religious state in the U.S., and has a majority population of professing Christians, Black and white. They are, together, dominantly Bible-believing. Denominations that are home to theological liberalism have little traction or public influence in Mississippi. If you want to influence Mississippi Christians, you’d better have a Bible in your hand and believe it. Furthermore, the Mississippi legislature has been in conservative Republican hands for some time now, and most of those legislators represent and are accountable to people from those Bible-believing churches. That means, among other things, that if the flag was going to change, then it was going to have to be done by political conservatives and approved by their base of political support in those churches.

What impressed me though, and what I want to share just a few examples of, is Christians being Christian in this public debate and process. I could tell you scores of stories from my conversations with political leaders, with numerous volunteers engaged in the effort, and from listening to and watching the debate in the House and Senate last weekend. Many things were deeply affecting, here are a few.

I sat on the same row in the House Gallery with my friend Dr. C.J. Rhodes of the historic Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson. When Pastor Rhodes addressed the public last week in the Capitol rotunda, representing the largest group of Black Christians in the state, he graciously spoke about both First Baptist and First Presbyterian Church in Jackson helping in the establishment of his congregation after the Civil War. He knows the whole history, and he could have chosen to highlight less happy things, but his graciousness was powerful. He was pulling us together. I saw Black Christian leaders do this consistently. There was confidence, and there was a call to do what is right, but there was graciousness, even magnanimity. This moved my soul. I’m sure it also helped to persuade others.

The flag would have never come down without the public support of the Mississippi Baptists, and Mississippi Baptist Convention (MBC) executive director and treasurer, Shawn Parker, with Jim Futral, MBC executive director and treasurer emeritus, and MBC President Ken Hester made a bold and powerful public statement, joined by the unanimous consent of their board and all the living MBC presidents from the last forty years. That is amazing. And brave. If you know the history of civil rights in Mississippi, you will know that conservative white Christians have been variously indifferent to, complicit with, or even actively involved in the denial of social and political equality to the state’s black citizens, most of whom were and are in Bible-believing churches. For the MBC, which represents the state’s largest Protestant denomination, to speak so clearly and emphatically on the flag was decisive. The MBC statement said removing the flag was a moral issue and a matter of discipleship because the flag causes offense to our fellow citizens.

I was proud of and thankful for my Baptist brethren. And, by the way, no one in the state is more responsible, humanly speaking, for the flag vote than Philip Gunn (R-Clinton), the Speaker of the House: member, former elder, deacon and Sunday School teacher at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, MS, and former Chairman of the Board of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Speaker Gunn has been working toward this for years, and only his political will and courage could have moved the House and Senate to act as they did.

Rep. Ed Blackmon (D-Madison), in his speech on the House floor about the flag resolution, said that he felt listened to and heard by his white colleagues on this issue for the first time in his life. He said that while they probably never thought much about the flag when they entered the House, that he thinks about it every time he is in the room, and that it sends the message to him that “I am not good enough,” that “I don’t belong here.” So, for his white colleagues to finally realize this and act, was deeply meaningful to him. He said to the white Republican representatives that crafted the resolution: “This is a good piece of legislation, I wish I had written it.” Representative Blackmon’s generous, complimentary words were typical of those that I heard from Black legislators to their white colleagues during this debate. But I also agree with him that we are “hearing” one another better than before. I have seen white Mississippians “listening” and “getting it” more than ever before in my life, and not just the young folks. A significant factor in this is the faithful preaching and teaching of Bible-believing pastors and church leaders all over the state.

I have known Senator Hillman Frazier (D-Hinds County) for over twenty-five years. He is, I think, now about 70 years old and has served in the Mississippi legislature for four decades. He was elected in a time when there were very few Black legislators. He is also a godly Christian man. He had been praying and fasting all week leading up to the vote. He spoke in the Senate, and offered his thanks to the conservative Republicans who were supporting the resolution. He said that he knew they were under enormous political pressure and that some of them had received threats: “I know this is tough for some of you, but I thank you for what you are doing. I’m grateful. And I want you to know that I am praying for you.” I thought to myself: “They don’t even begin know the kind of ‘tough’ that Hillman Frazier has seen in life, but here he is showing Christian love towards them in their lesser struggles.” The humble dignity of Sen. Frazier is soul-stirring to me. Our black Christian legislators could have been, justly, exasperated in their speeches. They were not. They were eloquent, noble, generous, complimentary, and transcendent. Almost all of them reminded us of and called us to Christian and biblical aspirations in our public life.

You won’t read about these things in the secular press, but Christians, Black and white, were instrumental in bringing about this enormous change in our state. It’s just a flag, but more is afoot here. The process of the retirement of the state flag is a reflection of a change of heart in our state: a change of heart that can beget other good changes. Indeed, there are signs of mutual understanding and cooperation that could lead to greater, more substantial changes, and a better civil future together. Already, for instance, there is good, hard work being done on changing some still surviving artifacts of Jim Crow era election law, as well as criminal justice and prison reform. Black and conservative white Christians have been quietly working on education issues together in the state for some time now. In other words, there is already cooperation in areas of substantive, structural (and not merely symbolic) change, and the events of the last six weeks may well be precursors to more.

And that brings me back to God’s providence. I think folks from all perspectives have experienced an acute feeling of burdened concern about our country and culture in these days. Our current state of national politics, the Covid-19 epidemic, the response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and more, all of these things collectively have us on edge, and perhaps discouraged. But God is always up to something, even and especially in our pain. Perhaps this little story from Mississippi will remind us of that.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Praise God for his sovereign work in sparing Mississippi from some of the turmoil that has been experienced elsewhere around the country, while at the same time bringing about peaceful, positive change. Acknowledge that only he could do this.
  2. Thank God that a flag that has offended (and even threatened) Black citizens and Christians is no longer endorsed by the government of Mississippi, and that the Lord used Bible-believing Christians to bring it down.
  3. Pray that this would pave the way for greater trust and cooperation between Black and white Christians, and will be used for the sake of the Gospel in our churches and in our public witness.
  4. Since the doctrine of the communion of the saints indicates that Christians “by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus,” pray that that reality may be experienced and expressed more obviously among the Bible-believing Christians of the state, especially across racial lines.
  5. Pray for those who are tired and discouraged about the church’s failures in these areas, and are exhausted in trying to pursue biblical change and growth, that they would not lose hope. Pray that the Lord would grant them to mount up with wings of eagles, to run and not be weary, and to know God’s help and peace.

 

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Author

  • Ligon Duncan

    Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is the Chancellor & CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology. He served as Senior Minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church (1837) in Jackson, Miss. for 17 years (1996-2013). He is co-founder of Together for the Gospel, Senior Fellow of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (having served as both Chairman of the Board and President), and was President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals from 2004-2012. Duncan served as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (2004-2005). He studied at Furman University, Greenville, SC (BA); Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis (M.Div., MA, cum laude); and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (Ph.D.). Duncan has edited, written, and contributed to numerous books. Ligon and his wife Anne have two children in college and they reside in Jackson, Miss.

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