It is not my intention in this post to take sides in this particular controversy for three reasons: first, I don't think there are only two sides in this debate; second, this is one of those discussions where there is much more heat than light on both sides and for anyone who attempts to wade into this quagmire with an ounce of reason will quickly find themselves in a yard of quicksand; and third, once again this debate like so many others falls along the typical and sterile conservative/liberal lines, which I find uninteresting and ultimately incoherent (for more explanation on the latter, see here).
In this post, I want to suggest that while we human beings want our symbols to reflect and encompass a larger universal reality, we can only interpret them through the narrow lens of our own experiences, and the problem comes when we want our narrow understanding of our symbols to be embraced universally by all. It is difficult for us to understand that the same symbols do not mean the same thing to everyone, and that irritates us. Before I get to the brouhaha at hand over the American flag, I want to focus on some other symbols first.
For millions of Christians, including myself, the cross is a meaningful symbol of salvation. It is a reminder to those of us who believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ that God so loved the world he gave his only Son for its salvation to free the world from sin. In first century Rome the cross was a symbol of brutality and empire control, but the death of Jesus transformed that symbol into something beautiful for many people. But is that how everyone sees the cross?
In 2104, the Washington Post reported on Christian militias in Nigeria attacking and killing thousands of Muslims fleeing in full retreat. The article notes,
In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.Now, I dare say that when these Muslims see the cross, whether it's on a church or around someone's neck, they do not see a symbol of freedom and salvation. They see destruction and death because their attackers who have embraced the cross have brutalized them. Are those of us who love the cross going to tell these persons that the lens of suffering and death through which they view the cross is mistaken? And will we try to minimize and even dismiss their impressions of Christianity by tritely saying, "Well, those persons are not real Christians?"-- we Christians who are more interested in forcing local authorities to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of the county courthouse than really taking seriously the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount? The power and problem of symbols is the context in which they are experienced and interpreted. Do Muslims running for their lives from Christians wielding machetes have the time or interest to try to discern the true religious nature of their oppressors?
And yes, it is also true that Christians have been persecuted by Muslims. From the spring of 2015 to 2016 the murder of Christians by Muslims in northern Nigeria has increased 62%. The "extent and impact of the persistent violence on the church in northern Nigeria is much more serious than previously expected. Once Boko Haram is defeated, the problem will not be solved. Christians living under Sharia law are facing discrimination and marginalization and have limited to no access to federal rights" (Open Doors). There is more:
[There is] persecution from three main sources: Boko Haram, Muslim Fulani herdsmen and the Muslim religious and political elite that dominates government in northern Nigeria.
In 2015, there were 4,028 killings and 198 church attacks that Open Doors was able to record. The figures recorded for the previous year were 2,484 killings and 108 church attacks.For millions of Muslims the symbol of the star and crescent elicits pride and religious importance, but I dare say for Christians in northern Nigeria what is elicited in them when they gaze upon the symbol of their enemy is much darker. Will the peace loving Muslims who despise the extremists of their faith minimize and even dismiss their impressions of Islam by tritely saying, "Well, those persons are not real Muslims?" Do Christians running for their lives from Muslims wielding machetes have the time or interest to try to discern the true religious nature of their oppressors? The power and problem of symbols is the context in which they are experienced and interpreted.
My point, which I know I have belabored, is to put in focus the truth that symbols have transcendent power, but are viewed through the limited lens of life experience. Perhaps instead of simply bantering back and forth the meaning of our symbols, we should attempt to understand why others don't see symbols the way we do. Perhaps it's in the differences that we can begin to understand each other and the divergent experiences that have shaped the different lenses through which we view reality?
So, that brings me to Colin Kaepernick and Old Glory. For many, the stars and stripes are a glorious sight to behold and for many it stands for what is best about America. There is no doubt that the United States has done many good things in the world and there are people understandably angry over Kaepernick's refusal to show respect to something they think should be honored by all. In particular, there are those in uniform that have sacrificed their bodies and minds for their country, whose values they believe is embodied in the flag of the United States. And there are families who have lost loved ones on the battlefield. They have paid the ultimate price and their loved ones have paid the extremely high price of living the rest of their lives without their presence. It should be understandable to anyone with some common sense how the words and actions of a multi-million dollar quarterback who can do what he does and enjoy his way of life only in the America he disparages grates against those families and veterans. Theirs is a lens through which to view the most important national symbol and it should not be disparaged or dismissed.
But, it must also be said that there are other lenses that exist that do not view Old Glory in the same positive way and the Kaepernick controversy has once again brought our continued racial issues in America to the forefront. We must not forget that with all the good America has done, it also has created much misery as well. For over two centuries, the country was built on the backs of slaves in the South, and the exploitation of immigrants in the North. Native Americans were summarily pushed off their land and relocated constantly signing treaties with the federal government only to have that government renege on those agreements when it no longer suited the powers-that-were. And then, there is the whole sad history of colonialism in which the people of other nations were used and taken advantage of for the benefit of the land of the free and the home of the brave. The history is there and can easily be found except by those who shut their eyes, preferring only to hear the stories of sweetness and light.
In light of this history, should we be surprised that there are also those who when they gaze upon the stars and stripes do not feel the same sense of pride others experience, who are perhaps angry because it is a reminder that the history of their ancestors here has not been one of liberty and equality, and that in spite of the great strides we have made in reference to race relations into 2016 much more remains, and there are ways in which all is still not equal. And perhaps there are folks who are understandably angry because there are those who deny that there are still problems to be solved and issues to be worked through?--who are ignorantly or willfully near-sighted on the continued real racial tensions and injustices? Can we at least understand that not all see the same symbols with the same lenses we are wearing when it comes to interpreting reality? Why should we disparage and dismiss their experience and attempt to coerce them to wear our symbolic glasses?
Educators like to speak of teachable moments; and we are currently in the midst of one. But unfortunately, so many teachable moments are lost because we don't believe we need to be taught; we just want to instruct others. But is it possible for this brouhaha to be one more opportunity to listen to the stories of others, to not only speak of our pride, but to acknowledge our frailties and to appreciate that not all have the same experience in the same context?
It seems to me that Christians are in a unique position to lead the way in such discussions. More than any other religion we have more to say about the deep problem of sin (individual and corporate), the necessity of being saved from that sin, the necessity of confession of sin, and the all-important truth that in salvation God wants to reconcile this world; and Jesus Christ has chosen us to be agents of reconciliation.
My fear is that we Christians will once again miss that moment because we are more interested in seeing all of reality through the narrow lenses that continue to reinforce the polarizing debate that gets us nowhere, of retreating to our comfortable conservative or progressive corners instead of stepping out to do the hard work that Christ called us to do because it will make us the objects of ridicule from both sides--bearing witness in word and deed to the missioning God who in Jesus Christ has sent us out as his ambassadors to be agents of reconciliation.
It's not that we the church have lost the mission entirely; rather it appears it has been sidelined. If as a Christian, the flag of a nation state elicits more emotion in you than the cross, I suggest that your vision needs to be checked. And if as a Christian you are more concerned about the freedom of speech of Colin Kaepernick than in the freedom Christ brings you too need a spiritual eye exam (while also disdaining Tim Tebow's freedom to bow a knee on the sidelines). If as a Christian you feel more anger than compassion for those who disparage your symbol of ink and cloth or those who disdain someone's freedom to sit during the Anthem than you have not fully embraced the charity that the cross should elicit on behalf of the entire world.
Yes, I do believe it's a vision problem. Those of us who follow Jesus really do struggle to view the world through the eyes of Jesus. Perhaps we are more interested in seeing reality from the top of the flagpole than from the full height of Calvary.