“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16 ESV)”
W. Taylor Reveley III, president of the College of William and Mary, announced recently, that a plaque remembering Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and Confederate emblems on the school’s mace, will be removed, placed in the school’s library, and replaced by a new plaque and emblems, respectively. For a full FAQ on what the school has done, read the official press release and FAQ.
If you visit various news websites, you will find a number of heated discussions in the comments sections, ranging from why the Civil War was fought (was it about slavery or states rights?) to our American racist past (are we burying our history, or are we moving on from a terrible blot on our past?). I know that many people find history “boring,” which is something I do not understand. The importance of history is bound up in how we are to remember the past, informing how we understand the power of symbols, in how we live day to day today, as well as the type of values we carry with us into the future.
I do not want to focus on these historical debates here, but I do want to back up a bit and address a general theme as a Christian: symbols matter to people, their meanings change, and these symbols do not always mean the same thing to everyone.
Christians and Symbols: Fascinating, Troubling and Challenging
The official statement of the College (linked above) gives part of the reason for the plaque and mace change: “It has become clear that the Confederate battle flag has been turned irreparably into a symbol of racial hatred.”
When I was growing up in Virginia in 1970s, my Boy Scout troop wore a badge that displayed the “Battle Flag of the Virginia Army.” One of my patrol leaders, who was an African American friend of mine, wore it, too. Back then, neither of us thought much about the Confederate flag. Sure, we knew it had something to do with Southern heritage and history, but historical analysis was not my strength back in my middle school years. Yet it is fascinating to watch how the symbol of the Confederate flag has been transformed in forty years to have such a negative, despised connotation.
Fascinating… and troubling… and challenging.
It is fascinating because it makes me realize that symbols do matter to people, and the meanings of symbols can easily change over time, and this can create quite some confusion when talking with people. What does the symbol mean to people? How are they going to react?
It is troubling because symbols play a large part, not simply in basic human communication, but also in the proclamation of the Bible’s message to our neighbors. Furthermore, symbols can be easily hijacked, ripping them out of their original contexts, to convey completely new and different meanings. For example, just a few years ago, standing on the Word of God to proclaim the sanctity of marriage between and a man and a woman was deemed to be an honorable thing, a decent moral value shared by almost everyone in the wider culture. Today, the symbol of Christian marriage with a distinction in gender is now viewed by the wider culture as a symbol of hatred. Disapproval of gay marriage is often viewed as being just as dehumanizing as the sin of racism, reinforced by the display of Confederate flags and Confederate memorials on public property.
It is challenging because as believers, we must become more aware of how symbols work in our culture. How are various symbols perceived? How are they understood? Even within the church, the power symbols evoke are difficult to ignore. Here is another, different example: When a Christian sees the flag of the modern state of national Israel, what comes to mind? For some, it symbolizes God’s covenant faithfulness, His expressed desire to keep His promises. God is giving the Jewish people back their historic homeland, as promised to Abraham way back in the book of Genesis, to be fulfilled despite years of persecution and terrible treatment. For others, the flag is the symbol of a secular nation-state, having no more special significance than any other nation-state. God still wants to save the Jewish people of modern Israel, but God does not give them any special treatment…. These are two vastly different views of the same symbol.
Symbols matter to people, their meanings change, and these symbols do not always mean the same thing to everyone.
Of course, we can not control what other people think. But we can work better at communicating the Christian message towards others. We must continually go back to the Bible, the Word of God, to better understand the message of our faith, so that we can faithfully represent the truth to our neighbor. We must be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves,” when presenting the Gospel to a people, who are responding very differently to a variety of symbols. Cultivating such a mindset requires a disciplined study of the Scriptures, times together in fellowship as we wrestle with God’s Word with other believers, a prayerful heart that yearns for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with neighbors and friends, who do not yet know the Lord.
I do not know how far the current Confederate memorial controversy at William and Mary will go. But it has only been ten years since another controversy hit the national news, concerning the future of an Anglican cross, that was commonly placed on the altar at the Wren Chapel. The decision to change the display of the Wren Cross eventually led to the dismissal of a popular president of the College.
Something like a cross in a chapel has greater significance than a Confederate flag for a Christian, but the principle is the same: Symbols matter to people, their meanings change, and these symbols do not always mean the same thing to everyone. Pray that we might, as believers, have wisdom when communicating the Christian message to a world mesmerized by the power of symbols.