In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see
For ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.
“The Old Rugged Cross,” George Bennard
For people in the United States, the details of the massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, are processed with emotions that run the range from sorrow, to fear, to anger.
Nine people were gunned down at a prayer meeting on June 17, 2015, allegedly by a 21 year old man who identified with what is regarded by many as the legacy of racial hatred symbolized in the confederate flag. Now there is a ground-swell movement calling for the removal of the confederate flag from the public sphere by people such as Governor Nikki Haley and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, all of South Carolina where this atrocity occurred.
In this two-part treatment, I would like to suggest that removal of the confederate flag from the public sphere robs the church of Jesus Christ from an opportunity to reclaim this symbol/sign as a reminder of both the horrifying depth of human depravity in its worst manifestations, but also of the transformative power of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ which is able to do all that is needed to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). Using an Augustinian understanding of “signs,” applied first to the cross of Jesus Christ, I challenge the church to engage in a demonstration of divine-like power, in the reclamation of a hate-filled symbol, transforming Removal of the confederate flag from the public sphere robs the church of Jesus Christ from an opportunity . . .. it into a reminder of the depravity of humanity, but also of the triumphant power of the grace of God.
In De doctrina christiana (2.1.1), Augustine wrote that a “sign” is a thing, “which besides the impression it conveys to the senses, also has the effect of making something else come to mind” (New City Press, p. 129). His discussion is much more complex, but I will attempt to summarize some important aspects. A symbol/sign is a thing in and of itself, but it also arouses the mind and heart to contemplate a reality beyond itself that could indeed have transformative impact. What is important to keep in mind, is that a symbol/sign is also infused concurrently with meaning and significance by a person, or a community, based upon some transcendent realm of existence and experience. In other words, the person, or community contributes some definition to the symbol/sign that in turn affects its power to bring appropriate, transformative reminders.
Ultimately, the reclamation of the cross of Christ was empowered by the Holy Spirit and I believe that it is important to set this a fundamental pillar of truth. The church then possessed the spiritual and theological rigor to take an instrument of torture and humiliation, combined with the sham of unjust “trials” (Luke 22:66- 23:25) and infuse it with the type of meaning as voiced in the hymn above. The cross would become the means of reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:20), a call to discipleship (Luke 9:23), and a symbol of what constitutes true life (Gal. 2:20). So much more could be said, but suffice it to say that cross reclaimed and infused with Spirit-empowered communal significance, became a reminder of humanity’s sin problem, but also a reminder of God’s grace to overcome the sin problem.
The church can gain much authenticity before a growing hostile sociocultural setting, if we trust the Lord with supernatural demonstrations of love and unity. More on this in the next reflection.