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The Cross and the Flame: A Battle for Symbols

In the 1920’s, America went through something called “The Red Scare.”  Fear of communism engulfed the nation and people began to go out of their way to find communist symbols, propaganda, and persons wherever they could, even if they had to imagine them.  This process was repeated in the 1950’s under McCarthyism.  Now, in 2020, we are going through something similar.  Only this time it isn’t Communism that’s serving as our national Boogey Man, it’s racism. 

In most cities of America, as you drive along, you will pass innumerable churches, most of which have a cross of some sort prominently displayed on their building or sign.  Going inside, you will probably find another cross behind or somewhere near the pulpit.  If you look on the hymn books or look in the Church’s literature rack of pamphlets, you will once again find the cross emblazoned on the cover.

Some of these churches, however, don’t just have a cross.  They have a special cross, a thin black cross with a double flame sprouting beside it.  I didn’t realize, until recently, that this particular symbol, the cross and the flame, was a trademarked logo of the United Methodist Church.

Many have come to see this symbol that most of us drive past every day as a reminder of an ugly part of America’s past.  That part is the KKK’s practice of burning crosses as a method of intimidation of black people. 

One person who is reminded of this is the Rev. Edlen Cowley, a minister in the United Methodist Church who also happens to be black.  Writing for umnews.org in a piece dated from July 8, he said, “No longer should we be represented by an image that was devised to evoke fear in the minds of so many.”

In this piece, Cowley relates a story of his first time seeing a burning cross.  It was as a child while he and his siblings were on a car trip with their parents and they saw it on the side of a highway.  Upon seeing this, their mother proceeded to tell them the meaning of it and what it was used for.  The symbol stuck with the impressionable youngster into his adult years when he became a Methodist minister and raised an eyebrow at this longtime symbol of his denomination. 

More recently, Cowley decided to take action against this symbol and spearheaded legislation to finally change the logo.  This process went through the North Texas Annual Conference of the Church by a wide margin. It is now being forwarded to the denomination’s world wide body for consideration.  In Cowley’s corner is the Rev. Clayton Oliphint who said, “If the logo itself has become a stumbling block to part of the population we’re trying to reach, then it’s time for a change.”

The image itself is simple enough and has a history that’s easy to trace.  The cross is obvious to even non-Christians as the instrument of Jesus’ execution in the four Gospel narratives.  The flame isn’t as obvious to those outside of Christianity.  It is representative of the Holy Spirit descending upon and empowering the Apostles of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost.  In that event (recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 2), the Spirit appeared in the form of “tongues of fire” over the Apostles heads.  The reason there are two flames in the logo is that they represent the merging of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church into the United Methodist Church in 1968.

These two symbols in and of themselves are no big deal, according to Cowley.  But, he says, “It’s when you take all of these elements and put them together that you run into practical trouble.”

As I read this story, there are a few problems that come to my mind.

First (as has already been pointed out), the Cross and the flaming tongues have been universally recognized in the Christian church as symbols relating to Christ and the Holy Spirit.  This symbolism predated the KKK’s use of the cross by more than 1800 years.  With few exceptions, Crosses can be found on Churches, in Christian cemeteries and graveyards, and in Christian artwork dating back to before the fall of the Roman Empire.  Even eastern churches and Coptic churches make use of variants of the cross in their symbolism.  The impact of the KKK’s misuse of this symbol, in a geographically limited area, is miniscule in comparison to this long, global history.

Second, while it may be a reminder of racism for some, it was meant to be a reminder of Salvation for all of mankind.  Let’s not forget that the cross actually predated Christianity and originally represented something else entirely.  The cross, as it was originally used, was an instrument of torture and death in the ancient world.  Not only that, it was considered the most painful and punishing kind of death.  It was reserved for the worst criminals, usually enemies of the state, as a means of warning to others.  Outside of Christ, probably the most famous use of the cross was the execution of 6,000 slaves who followed Spartacus in rebellion against Rome during the Third Servile War in 72 B.C.

Needless to say, the symbol of the cross became one of fear and oppression across the ancient world.  But then, something happened.  Jesus happened.  He died upon a cross and, according to Biblical accounts, rose again three days later as a way of providing salvation for the whole of the human race.  After his ascension to heaven, his followers went forth into the Roman world to spread this good news and in short order the cross was transformed from a symbol of death into a symbol of hope and faith.  Christ not only redeemed humanity to himself, but he took this grisly symbol and transformed it into the opposite.

In like manner, the flames are representative of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of those Apostles and even the empowerment of Christians today. 

Thirdly, with these previous points in mind, this minister, or any minister, who is offended by this image is deliberately choosing to be offended.  Cowley, in his writing, shows tremendous grasp of these facts that have been mentioned.  He knows the long history of these symbols.  He knows of their origin and that their history is not one of racial intimidation except for one small sliver of time in the past century.  So, despite having this knowledge, he chooses to see ugly portion whenever he looks at the Methodist logo. 

Make no mistake, it is a choice.  Usually, knowledge of a situation is enough to caste out ignorance, fear, and hate.  So, when anyone with that knowledge still sees the misuse of those symbols in these circumstances, it is, indeed, a choice.  And anyone who makes that choice is unlikely to be satisfied once the situation is rectified to their liking.  More likely, they will instead move on to finding racism somewhere else.  Because making this choice despite having the facts is indicative of someone who probably has ulterior motives. It will likely go on in this way until people have finally had enough and disregard these malcontents. 

Finally, the KKK’s use of a burning cross was an attempt to pervert, misuse, and abuse these traditional symbols of Christianity.  If we start abandoning them now, because of the actions of those people, then in a way we will be granting them victory.  Let’s not do this.  The KKK has largely been left on the ash heap of history where they belong (yes, I know there are still a few of them running about making fools of themselves and giving others a bad name).  Let’s not leave behind all that was and is good because they chose to live lives of ignorance and hate and they chose to use these symbols to achieve their idiotic aims.  Let’s move beyond that and continue to spread the knowledge of Christ’s sacrificial death and the presence of God in our lives today through the Holy Spirit.  And, by all means, let’s use these traditional Christian symbols to achieve those ends.  And let’s use them to educate future generations about the Christian faith and what their historical meaning was and what their meaning can and should be today. 

If we retreat on the cross, if we allow the cross to be tainted by these people, then there is literally nothing that cannot be so polluted. 

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