Symbols and signs have always been important to humans. It’s the way God made us. In fact, I suppose it could be argued that our ability to recognize and respond to symbols and signs is part of what it means that humans are made in the image of God. For example, I have a positive response when I see the Apple Computer logo; Bebo, my dog, is less than impressed.
At the least, Christians should recognize the importance of signs and symbols because they are found in the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – the rainbow, the ebenezer, the bread and wine, the water, the golden lampstands, the two-edged sword. The list is endless. And all these symbols carry weighty meaning far beyond their physical properties.
By the way, scholars sometimes distinguish between a sign and symbol, but for the purposes of this blog, that’s not necessary. I simply want to underline what we all know: signs and symbols (Think of the U.S. Flag, the logo of your favorite sports team or product brand, the cross, etc.) are powerful shorthand expressions of complex, profound, nuanced, and personal ideas. We make a mistake by minimizing their impact.
And that brings me to that controversial symbol that has surfaced again in the news: the Confederate flag. The recent murder of nine African-Americans by a young white man in a South Carolina church has rekindled the debate on whether that flag is an appropriate symbol in America.
Being a life-long Southerner, I have a personal stake in that debate. It could influence what happens in Mississippi, my home state. But more importantly, I’m concerned with how Christians respond. Specifically, I wonder if followers of Christ who are White are willing to set aside their rights and preferences for the sake of followers of Christ who are Black. That’s why I make this simple two-point argument from Scripture:
1) Romans 14 is an important chapter about our relationship to other believers. In that chapter, Paul tackles the thorny issues that theologians call “Christian liberty,” that is, things that are not forbidden in Scripture, but that a Christian may choose to set aside for the sake of others. Eating certain foods and observing specific days are the issues he mentions, but of course, the implications are many.
Paul teaches that in these kinds of non-essential matters, don’t spend time passing judgment on the opinions of other servants of Jesus, because we are all living and dying for God together.
In verse 13 he also instructs Christians never to use their freedom in Christ in a way that puts a “stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” He expresses the same idea in verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” In both of these verses Paul says that, in love, Christians must lay aside their own freedoms for “what makes for peace and mutual building up” (verse 18).
Applied to the current Confederate flag controversy, the instruction is not difficult to understand. If something could spiritually injure another Christian, give it up. To the issue at hand, the Kingdom of God (vs. 17) is far more important than preserving the symbol of the Confederate flag.
2) The second passage, found in Matthew 7:12, is the Rosetta Stone of all God-honoring human relations – “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
White Christians, if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ see the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery, injustice, hatred, defiance, terror and all the rest, we must respond as if we were in their place.
There may be other arguments to be made, but unless otherwise shown in Scripture, I propose that these passages clearly mark the path for Christians to follow.