You know what many associate with the Ku Klux Klan? Sheets. White sheets, specifically. You should get rid of these.
In fact, you should castigate yourselves for even buying these ephemera of bigotry. And don’t even pretend you didn’t know what you were doing. What do you think of when I say KKK garb? That’s right. You and I know what you were thinking — and don’t try to pretend you didn’t.
Also, if you were ignorant enough to buy the sheets in the first place, there’s no way you can be trusted to dispose of this culturally filthy linen yourself. If you’re dedicated to anti-racism, the only right and proper thing for you is to send those sheets to The Western Journal, c/o C. Douglas Golden, for immediate disposal. We’d especially like your new yet-to-be-used white sheets, preferably in their original packaging. Your prompt attention to this matter is greatly appreciated.
What? No, this has nothing to do with the fact my wife is expecting our first baby in a few weeks and stockpiling white linen in anticipation of numerous sets of sheets being soiled over the next few years with some random childhood bodily excretion. Also, it has nothing to do with me being a bit of a wiseacre and making a glancing Soupy Sales reference.
Instead, it’s the reductio ad absurdum of what the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church’s recent vote in favor of calling to eliminate the denomination’s familiar cross-and-flame insignia represents.
The logo has nothing to do with the flaming cross, another hallmark of the KKK. In fact, there’s no way you could potentially confuse the two:
Urged by the Rev. Edlen Crowley, a DFW United Methodist pastor, who says the denomination’s insignia conjures for him and other African Americans the terror of KKK cross burnings, the North Texas Conference backs replacing it, @UMNS‘s Sam Hodges reports.https://t.co/rJ9b8v4WKN
— Bob Garrett (@RobertTGarrett) September 22, 2020
I understand that in certain cases, there might be conflation — an incidental conflation, but a conflation nonetheless. The Rev. Edlen Cowley, a Methodist minister, can attest to this, and powerfully.
“I saw my first burning cross in 1979 when I was 10 years old. It was night. My family and I were on our way to Shreveport, Louisiana, from the parsonage of Miles Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Marshall, Texas, where my dad was pastor,” he wrote in a July piece for UM News, a United Methodist Church news website, in which he urged the logo be replaced.
“We were comfortably talking and riding along when to our right, my mother pointed out a large burning cross just off the freeway. My mother told my brother, sister and me that the burning cross was a powerful image devised to evoke fear in black people.”
That’s sobering stuff, and it makes me feel callow for my Soupy Sales white-sheets spiel a few paragraphs up. Cowley has seen far more of the ugly side of humanity than this millennial — or most people in their 90s, for that matter. His testimony is one of the reasons the North Texas Conference voted 558-176 at its annual meeting Saturday to call for the logo’s extirpation.
It’s worth explaining, therefore, what we talk about when we talk about the United Methodist logo.
First, the meaning: “The Cross and Flame was birthed following the formation of the United Methodist Church by the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. After considering more than two dozen other designs, the cross and flame was chosen as the official emblem. The symbol, one with lettering and one without, was formally adopted by the General Conference in 1968,” the Great Plans Conference of the United Methodist Church explains on its website.
“The insignia of The United Methodist Church is a cross linked with a dual flame, a powerful reminder of who we are in Christ. It relates the United Methodist church to God through Christ — the cross — and the Holy Spirit — the flame, a reminder of Pentecost when witnesses were unified by the power of the Holy Spirit and saw ‘tongues, as of fire’ in Acts 2:3,” it says.
“The elements of the emblem also remind us of a transforming moment in the life of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, when he sensed God’s presence and felt his heart ‘strangely warmed.’ The two tongues of a single flame may also be understood to represent the union of two denominations.”
In his July piece, however, Cowley said that “when I saw the United Methodist Cross and Flame, I didn’t think of John Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed, I didn’t think of the flaming tongues of fire resting on the Apostles in Acts 2.
“I didn’t think of how each tongue of the flame represents the former denominations that came together to form The United Methodist Church — The Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church.
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“My mind went back to that burning cross I saw on the side of the freeway — a symbol my mother told me was devised to cause fear in black people.”
I understand Cowley feels this way. The question is how many other United Methodists do as well, and whether they feel pressure to concur because of the exigencies of the cultural moment in the United States.
The reverend, in a speech to the annual meeting, made clear this was part of his plea.
“This would be a monumental change in a monumental moment,” said Cowley, who leads Fellowship United Methodist Church in a Dallas suburb.
Beyond this, is it really a stumbling block to people coming to the faith? The North Texas Conference was able to find another individual who said it was: delegation chairman Clayton Oliphint.
The white pastor, who talked of having a cross burned on his lawn because his father tried to help register a black man to vote in the 1960s, “said he never connected the Cross and Flame to cross burnings until he handed his business card to an African American man, trying to get him to come to church, and heard back, ‘It’s interesting that your church has a burning cross as a symbol.’”
If there are other stories in this vein, and I’m sure there are at least some, it’s worth asking whether this necessarily represents the totality of everyone’s experience.
More importantly, it’s worth asking why anyone would think a mainstream church in 2020 would have a flaming cross as part of its iconography. The logo certainly doesn’t look like one.
The church hasn’t re-examined the matter in the 52 years since it was first adopted. During the entirety of that period, the burning cross was one of the most rebarbative symbols in American life, and yet the United Methodist Church was hardly a hotbed of controversy.
There’s a clear biblical backing to the logo and a history of its use that stretches over a half-century. The reason it’s controversial now is that there is a demand, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and all that’s transpired, for ossified institutions to Do Something. They must woke themselves or be awoken.
The new logo the North Texas Conference is supposed to adopt will be delivered no later than 2023. The moment will have passed by then, but the new logo will be with us.
It’s not fatuous or immature to ask what we will discard next. The slippery slope is both icy and long, and the more we indulge, the more of ourselves we’ll lose before we come to our senses.
I have the deepest sympathies for Cowley and don’t understand the depth of pain he must have experienced. However, the United Methodist Church symbol bears only the most fleeting resemblance to the burning cross, and the iconography couldn’t signal more different things.
What’s next? Christianity itself was used by the KKK to justify its internal rot. Do we discard the parts of the faith that were most abused by the Klan? The Klan met in churches. Ditch the still-existing houses of worship they used? They used the cross, too — not just when it was on fire.
Churches are allowed to make their own decisions. To the extent they become part of the wider cultural debate over race and racial guilt in this country, they can and should be critiqued. One can have the utmost compassion for Cowley while still noting where the reductio ad absurdum of this decision leads.
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