You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. [Exodus 20.4-6 NRSV]
Billions of dollars each year are invested in branding logos, signs and icons. The goal of these investments is for us to think and behave in certain ways when we come in contact with these images. Gold arches, a swoosh, or a circle divided into three equal slices represent billions and billions fast food burgers, athletic apparel and excellence in automotive innovation. Other icons and images have become synonymous with evil, such as the inverted pentagram, the swastika, and a series of the number six, six, six. The core is that symbols and images communicate a power.
To blame an image for our behavior may seem trivial. Nations, movements and causes use flags and banners throughout the generations to unify and move people into action upon seeing the sign. What of the image of two lines: one vertical and one horizontal, the cross. When we see it on top of a building on a steeple pointing toward heaven are we not instructed to think of our creator and called to prayer and worship? When we see the sign of the cross in ashes upon our foreheads in the spring are we not telling the faithful and the world that Easter is coming soon? When we gather and sing hymns like William Kitchen and Michael Newbolt penned a hundred years ago: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name.”
So what of flags that have stars and bars or for that matter rainbows and purple triangles? What about crosses, six pointed stars, or a star and crescent combination. Do not all these carry a faith message of unity, power and a call to action? Are not all of these fashioned images that promote, inspire and give demarcation to our people, building and some nations.
In the text from the ten commandments above, the instruction is to not have images, icons and symbols. As well as they work the seem to get in our way or are misused. More importantly, these fashioned images are the product of our effort and direct us away from God’s work in us. [It is odd that not too long after sharing ten commandments, a few chapters over, in chapter #37, we have instructions for building the tent of meetings and the golden ark.] These simply points to the power icons, images and symbols carry. Some times it not a thing, but a sound.
When visiting Jerusalem, I found myself annoyed by the over-amplified blast of the call to prayer. It was not a trumpet in the distance. It was a 360 degree distress siren that interrupted conversations and would drown out all other communications for its duration. I asked myself, how could I be offended and annoyed by a call to prayer? It was calling me to pray to a god I did not know. That is why it annoyed and offended me. By the end of my visit I had learned to tune it out or pray for those who are misguided in faith by false prophets and teachers.
The Slippery Slope
We know thousands of honored men, women and children died in the civil war and the families torn apart on both sides. The stars and bars flag was not the flag of the Confederacy. Yet, we might say it hold more power today than it did then. The meaning and message of an image have can change. It does call many people to division and hatred. It does call some to heritage and memorial. It has an eternal place in history. The question is what is it’s place and power in the present and future. Can you find other ways to honor heritage that does not divide us? Can we not transform the meaning of flag? This is the core problem with rally images: the meaning has to be explained because the symbols are not the real thing or relationship.
And what of the Cross of Jesus Christ? What does it mean to the world and society to see the image of the cross upon which Jesus died for our sins and their sins? No matter how we fashion, decorate or alter the image, the gift of grace, the bridge of salvation, the offering for our unfaithfulness is paid-up by Christ on our behalf. You don’t even have to believe it, but it has already happened and not based on your nor my affirmation. It is a sign of God’s action not our creation. And the symbol has not died for our sins. The image has not loved us. This is the warning of the commandment.
Much like the bow in the clouds with Noah and his family, the rainbow became a reminded to God to not destroy. Who decides what a sign means? A cross, a bow of colors in the sky, a collection of stars and lines? If someone is offended by the cross on my shirt or the cross in my hand, am I going to put it away because they are offended?
A People defined by perception are doomed.
The church is in a precarious place with our signs, banners and flags. The Eagle scout in me and as one who honors the service of those who defend our nation I am proud to raise the American flag. As a follower and disciples of Jesus Christ I place my greatest trust and faith. So which flag flies on top of the others. Which holds the higher honor and greater allegiance? Would I be less a patriot if I had no flags at all? All these lead me to “the offense.” The commandment calls for no graven or fashioned images. No flags, no banners just the relationship.
If we removed every sign, symbol, flag, icon, image would we stop offending one another just by doing so?
I believe we can offend, hurt and rally with brokenness or we can love, forgive and define our broken past with grace in new ways of relationship. If ‘offended-ness’ is our matrix for defining society we are lost for certain. We don’t need flags and banners to hurt one another. When they do, we need to work to heal the relationship and devalue and reframe the signs that have divided us. As in Jesus’s parable, “If something is in your neighbor’s eye, removed the log in your eye first.” The guide is to not seek to offend, if we do, confess our sins and brokenness, and be bold in sharing the love of God, even if it is offensive to some.
My reflection leads me to move past the flags to relationships. Where we tear apart relationship with any of God’s children we move them or ourselves away from the table and point more to our brokenness rather than God’s ability to heal, renew and restore.
Live the Relationship not the Sign
Follow the design and love for which we are given breath to fulfill then together we find the loving creator who made us, saves us and journeys with us still. Meet you there.