Misunderstood? When symbols are taken the wrong way

Last Sunday we watched with bated breath as the England players stood up to take their penalties.  I must admit that as soon as I saw Marcus Rashford do that fancy wiggle and pause that I thought we were in trouble.  My reaction was “what were you thinking?” And I’m sure I’m not alone. His own reaction suggests he was thinking the same. At no point did I assume I could have taken a better penalty or that I would have done a better job as coach than Gareth Southgate despite being frustrated at his tactics this time. It was the natural response of many fans.

Sadly, some fans felt that they somehow were entitled to and needed to racially abuse the three young men who failed to score via their social media.  The Prime Minister and Home Secretary were quick to condemn the racist abuse which in turn led to them being accused of hypocrisy.  Now before I go on, I want to suggest that just as it is possible to think someone did a bad job of taking a penalty without being racist, so too it is possible to disagree with the Home Secretary’s previous actions without stooping low too. So, I find it disgusting when people claim to be flexing their anti racist muscles by not just challenging her but resorting to abusive language as well. For example one meme doing the rounds applies the title of the first Narnia story with the England players being lions and so you can guess who fill the other roles. Such misogynist language is also shameful.

But let me return to where this article was originally headed. The issue that has caused criticism of ministers is the comments they made about England players “taking the knee” prior to games and it has re-opened a dispute from last year and the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.  Once again we are seeing people, including Christians criticising the players for joining in with a symbolic gesture which allegedly supports Marxist revolutionary views.

Now, whether or not the symbol is helpful at this stage is again something people may take different views on. However, note two things. If we see it as a a virtue signal, a bit of gesture politics then remember that all the time we signal, we use gestures, we display signs and symbols. Indeed putting flags in your windows is a way of virtue signalling as is wearing a football shirt and if you do that as a politician then yes, you are getting involved in gesture politics. Secondly, we should listen to what the players were saying for themselves. They were clear that this wasn’t about Marxism, it was about racism, aboutt he racist abuse that many players experience from opposing supporters.

So we have seen that the risk with a gesture or symbol is that it is open to misinterpretation. I was reminded this week of that incident in Joshua 22 where the tribes of Reuban and Gad plus half of Manasseh had fought alongside the rest of God’s people to possess the land. However, their allotted inheritance was the other side of the river and so after the campaign, Joshua permitted them to return there, blessing them and enjoining them to  keep God’s commands.  When they reached the Jordan river they built a replica of the altar from the Tabernacle. The rest of Israel saw this and were horrified. They saw it as an act of defiance and they sent the army, ready for civil war. 

First of all, Phinehas challenged and warned the two and a half tribes about the danger of setting up their own worship and falling into idolatry. Then they responded. They had no intention of worshipping at that altar. They were afraid that the river Jordan would become a barrier and the rest of Israel would disown them. The altar was intended as a monument to remind both sides of the river that they were not divided but united in their worship of Yahweh.  And so war was averted.

Now, there are a few lessons to learn here. I remember my dad once preaching this passage with the title “What you thought you heard me say, isn’t what I meant to tell you.”  There is always that risk that symbols and gestures can be misunderstood.  However responsibility lies on both sides. Notice what the rest of Israel did? They talked to the 2.5 tribes and they asked them what they were doing. When Reuben and Gad responded, the other tribes listened. They didn’t lecture them. They didn’t say “this is a slippery slope”, they didn’t accuse them of either being naïve or deceptive. They listened and they believed them. They took the charitable assumption that their brothers were acting in good faith and with good reason. The men who had put up the altar were the same men who had fought in battle alongside them.

I’m horrified at the way that we evangelicals can be quick to disown and disbelieve our brothers in Christ who have fought and continue to fight courageously in the spiritual battle for the Gospel. I’ve seen men turn quickly on other men and accuse them of heresy over the Trinity when they know the men they are accusing to be godly, soundly Biblical and committed to truth. I’ve seem the label “woke” used as synonymous with “liberal” to attack people like Tim Keller and others.  We would do well to take a leaf out of Phinehas the priest’s book, ask and listen.

Finally, the big point in the passage is this. There was fear on both sides and the potential for barriers to come between God’s people. Yet, they are reminded that there was true unity and did you notice where that true unity was? That’s right, it was at the altar found in the Tabernacle (later in the Temple).  Our unity is in Christ who has taken the place of temple, altar, priest and sacrifice. There is no unity outside of the truth of the Gospel but also no excuse for disunity inside the Gospel.

This article is based on a Daily Dose audio talk from Friday that you can listen to here:

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