The Symbol

I see a lot of Christian churches in Seattle that have a rainbow flag somewhere on their signs. The message is obvious, of course: services start at 11 on Sundays and gays can come as they are. I used to love seeing these up; it was reassuring to know that my friends were welcome in houses of worship in this town. But lately they’ve started to bother me.

Not because I dislike the rainbow: it’s a lovely symbol, one of hope. One of my fondest memories is seeing the rainbow flag waving boldly over the Pride March–it stirred my heart more than the Stars and Stripes have lately. It’s certainly not that I’ve suddenly turned anti-gay in the last few days. Nor am I going to tell these churches to take their rainbows down, because it’s a symbol of openness and welcome that loving congregations need to display in order to make it clear that they do not hate men for loving men, or women for loving women.

What bothers me is that Christian churches already have a symbol that should be saying exactly that: the cross.

In the earliest days of the church, the cross was not commonly used: Christians preferred the fish or the lamb. For starters, being Christian was not so easy in those days, and the fish served as something of a recognition code: the rainbow has a precedent. Moreover the cross was, after all, the method of executing criminals and traitors. It would be as if every church had a hangman’s noose dangling from their steeples. It was a shameful thing, and a symbol of death. Personally I think the early Christians were wrong, though–the cross itself had been redeemed. Once a sign of vice and death, it became a mark of the holy.

This was absolutely in line with the message of the church in those first few years, which was: come and be welcome. We do not care if you are slave or free, rich or poor, man or woman; come in. Welcome home. You are beloved of God and beloved of the rest of us, just for being human.

This was the message that spread across Rome like wildfire. Is it any wonder? By then Rome relied enormously on slaves, an economic system that only worsened as the empire decayed. Moreover some of the most prominent members of the early church were well-off Roman women, who were denied many of the most basic rights and freedoms simply because of their sex. Without that message of blessing to all, of loving welcome to those of the lowest status, Christianity would be just another Jewish cult, if it existed at all. A message of welcome… and a message of exaltation. The sufferers would become the blessed. That’s not just a purely theological statement, either; those well-off Roman matrons were no doubt lending a hand and lending money to help their poorer parishioners.

Welcome. Uplift. Practical help. That’s what Christian meant, once upon a time, and the cross was the emblem.

Nowadays, however…

Nowadays the cross has to have another symbol beside it to let the sufferers know that they will be safe there. Nowadays the cross has to prove itself. Nowadays the cross is a symbol that the persecuted flee. Those with open hearts have to be reminded that the cross was once a sign of openness too. A friend told me just the other day, “It’s always surprising when a Christian acts like a Christian.” Nowadays the cross is almost worse than when it started. It has gone from an emblem of criminality and fear to an emblem of hypocrisy and hate.

I know that many churches, like the ones I go past in Seattle with the rainbow loud and proud on their signs next to the pastor’s names, are struggling against the tide, striving to prove that there is more to Christianity than hate. But I do not like that they have to struggle at all.

Maybe the day will come when those brave congregations that stick to love will have to set aside their crosses and just fly the rainbow from the steeple. Maybe Jesus will have to get another symbol. But personally, I hope for the day when the cross is reclaimed from its present message of hate and judgment, and again symbolizes what Jesus made it:

“I do not care who you are; I do not care if you are man or woman or in-between, gay or straight or all of the above, rich or poor or getting by. I take you all into my embrace, from the highest to the lowest. I love you as you were made; welcome home.”