Once again we have experienced the tragedy of violence. Nine people murdered as they gathered for a prayer meeting. The murderer had been welcomed into their midst to seemingly pray with them. Instead, this murderer came to prey on them. But unlike many times before when we might have asked, “Why?” we know why. He came to kill them because they were Black. African Americans. In the aftermath of mourning and self reflection there has been a demand to take down a flag. A Confederate flag. The response has been a mixture of uncertainty about the role the flag played in the deaths, to the reality that the flag stood, and still stands for racism, oppression, slavery, civil war.
The differences of opinions, they say, depend on how one interprets that flag. What has become evident to me over this last week is the lack of balance between the interpretations. To say this particular flag does not represent racism while insisting it represents Southern history and heritage makes no sense. In fact, the history and heritage represented by that flag IS about racism.
But objects like flags can be very powerful symbols, and symbolic objects embed themselves deeply into our psyche. They move us in powerful ways. For good and for evil.
We have a flag hanging on our church campus. It’s a rainbow flag. Recently a person came to see me to ask why we would have a flag posted that represented people God clearly rejected. This person was convinced that the Bible was clear in it’s message to the LGBTQ community: God doesn’t like them.
I ventured that the Bible might not be that clear, and that Biblical scholarship over the last fifty years has born that out. I pointed out that the New Testament is, for Christians, a new way of understanding and interpreting the Old Testament, and that the rigid commands of the Old no longer made sense in the light of Jesus’ command to love even our enemies in the New.
The person didn’t agree. So we agreed to disagree.
The person went back to focusing on the Rainbow flag. I asked if they understood what it symbolized and the answer was it said “gays are welcome.” I said it actually means all are welcome.
Even someone who disagreed.
I then read what we call our Reconciling Statement.
“We are the First United Methodist Church, El Centro. With Open Hearts we acknowledge that all persons are of sacred worth and are created in the image of God with diverse gifts. With Open Minds we recognize that there are differences among us, but believe that we can love alike even though we may not think alike. With Open Doors we embrace the diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, faith history, economic status, family status, physical and mental ability, and education.
As a reconciling community, we welcome all who have known the pain of exclusion or discrimination in church or society. We invite everyone to join in our common life of discipleship and mission through participation and leadership, and by fully sharing in the worship, and sacraments of this church.” When the person left I reflected on the flag and its meaning. I reflected on the importance of testing interpretation against reason. I reflected on the awful reality of the kinds of evil we humans can do to one another. Because we look and act differently, speak differently, worship differently. Our self-righteousness and arrogance only leads to exclusion and death. That’s not God’s way no matter what name we use for God. God is love. And life. And compassion. And Reconciliation. And forgiveness. When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?