There is a lot of talk these days about the symbols of the Confederacy. As a southern born and raised follower of Jesus, I thought I would add my voice to the conversation. As dangerous as that might be…
When talking about symbols of any kind, we must understand two very important things about them. The first is that understanding that symbols are more than the material used to create them. They bring to the surface a full range of emotions because of what they represent. As I write in my recent book, The Here and Not Yet:
Symbols are powerful. They can bring a tear to an eye, give hope to the hopeless and inspire people to go beyond themselves. They can also summon up anger, grief and rage in a blink of an eye. Symbols in and of themselves are nothing; hardly worth the cloth or paper they are made on. Yet to us humans, the right symbol could cause us to do things that we would never do on our own. Just think about the soldiers who risked their lives to raise the United States flag on Iwo Jima during War World II. On the surface their actions were crazy and not worth the blood and sweat that it took. Yet, because they raised a symbol and not just a piece of cloth, their blood and sweat was worth it.
Or to use another example, think about the symbol of two pieces of wood laid on top of each other in the shape of the letter “t”. The cross. In some parts of the world, the simple act of drawing a cross would mean certain death. Why? Is there something magical about two lines crossing each other in a certain pattern? No! The lines themselves are not the problem; the problem is in what those two lines represent. In drawing a cross, the artist is declaring that their loyalty, heart, soul, mind, and body belong to King Jesus and no one else. That cross, however simple it is drawn, tells the story about a Creator who entered into his creation so that those made in his image could be free from all evil. That is why the cross is feared in certain parts of the world. (pages 167-168)
The second thing to remember about symbols is that they mean different things to different people. And the meaning constantly changes over time. The cross, for example, started out as a symbol of the military might of the Roman Empire before becoming a symbol of Christianity. Its meaning changed yet again when Constantine painted the symbol on the shields of his army before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. And so forth and so forth.
The point of all this is that when we talk about symbols we need to keep in mind that the meaning of a symbol change depending on the culture of the viewer, the time during which the symbol is used, and the location of the symbol. An American flag, for example, flying over a public school building in Idaho will have a different meaning than the same flag flying cover a military unit in Iraq. The emotions that come to the surface while viewing that flag will also change depending on one’s culture, background, and geographical location. A school kid in Idaho looking at that flag will have a different range of emotions than a USA soldier or an Iraqi citizen.
While it is tempting to try to assign a value to the emotions experienced by each of these people (i.e. to say that the soldier’s emotions is good while the Iraqi’s emotions are bad), the followers of Jesus must resist that urge. To follow King Jesus is to give up one’s national, personal, and religious symbols in exchange for his symbols and his meanings.
This is why Paul the Apostle fought so hard against the symbols of Judaism (e.g. circumcision, the temple, kosher meals, and a physical presence in the land of Israel) some wish to imposed on the Gentile church members. To a 1st century follower of Judaism, these were the symbols that marked who was and was not a member of the people of God. They had fought and died over for years for the right to keep those symbols.
Paul, in following the way of Jesus, recognized that these symbols had to undergo a metamorphosis if the church was to truly be the people of God. The changes championed by Paul caused a lot of problems in the early church as people did not want give up their symbols, as noted in the Acts and some of Paul’s letters. Yet ultimately the Jewish followers of Jesus realized that they had to let go of their hard-fought symbols so that God could use them to change the world.
We are in a similar position.
We can hang on tight to the symbols of our youth and culture (e.g. Confederate flag, Civil War monuments, etc.) while denying the pain of our fellow sisters and brothers who experience a different set of emotions when viewing those same symbols. Or we can follow the path of humanity as modeled by Jesus, Paul, and the early church in letting go of the symbols of our youth so that we can fully embrace our sisters and brothers as a new community born out of a love for Jesus.
Pride or humility.
It really is that simple.