Symbols and Puny Gods

About a month ago, I was struck by an article about changes Facebook was making to its "glyph kit", a collection of symbols designed to convey words or meanings, much like ancient hieroglyphics, thus the abbreviated term "glyph". Apparently, one of their designers, a woman, was examining the images in the glyph kit and came upon a disturbing discovery:

Much to my dismay, not long into my tenure as a Facebook designer I found something in the company glyph kit worth getting upset about. There in the middle of the photoshop file were two vectors that represented people. The iconic man was symmetrical except for his spiked hairdo but the lady had a chip in her shoulder. After a little sleuthing I determined that the chip was positioned exactly where the man icon would be placed in front of her, as in the 'friends' icon, above. I assumed no ill intentions, just a lack of consideration but as a lady with two robust shoulders, the chip offended me.

Encouraged by her employer to deal with the issue, she modified the icon to her liking, and then went on a search for other offensive symbology, correcting them as she went. Another Facebook designer, presumably "offended" by the globe icon showing only the Western Hemisphere, added icons for other regions of the world so they would feel included, too. The designer concludes:

As a result of this project, I'm on high alert for symbolism. I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar. For example, is the briefcase the best symbol for 'work'? Which population carried briefcases and in which era? What are other ways that 'work' could be symbolized and what would those icons evoke for the majority of people on Earth?

Now, I'm sure some of you will detect in my tone a measure of disdain, and I'm not trying to hide it.

I'm not, however, entirely dismissive of the fact that people feel validated when they see themselves represented in the world in some form or fashion.

My daughters are always scrutinizing popular culture for how it portrays women, and they are much quicker than I am to spot apparent gender stereotypes, in part because I am usually watching a TV show or movie for escapism, not to determine its cultural relevance. I'm sure that makes me a philistine in their eyes, and I hope they will love and forgive me anyway. I really do understand, however, why negative female stereotypes exorcise them.

I recall how excited my grandfather would be to see a black person represented on television as a person of authority or a professional, like a doctor or lawyer. Conversely, I used to cringe whenever a crime was being reported on the local evening news, because the mug shots they put up on the screen almost always had black faces in them.

Just as my grandfather found pride in positive depictions of black people, I would find shame in the misbehavior of people who looked like me, because I knew the culture in which I lived judged black people collectively by the bad actions of a few. Zora Neale Hurston, one of the great black writers of the 20th century, eloquently captured my thoughts:

Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable?

Civil rights activists would argue that the problem rests with the dominant white culture, which treats blacks as a monolith, but I would hasten to add that black people practically encourage this collective judgment in their insistence that certain beliefs, behaviors, styles and mannerisms are determinants of one's "blackness". That's a topic I've addressed previously in my book and other writings, however, and it's not the focal point of this article.

One of the great modern debates over symbology is raging in our nation's capital and beyond over the use of the name "Redskins" to describe the National Football League franchise that calls the Washington DC metropolitan area home. Some Native Americans consider the name a racial slur, while its defenders declare it a name of honor and heritage which brings positive attention to the Native American community. Some would suggest that the debate is a frivolous distraction from more serious and less easily solved problems among Native Americans, like poverty, rampant substance abuse, poor health and low high school completion rates.

Of course, we can't leave out the rainbow flag, the banner of the gay rights movement, which seems to be everywhere, flying over federal government buildings, plastered on the profile pictures of tens of millions of Facebook users, and even lighting up the White House the night after the Supreme Court's Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling, marking perhaps the first time in American history that "The People's House", supposedly representative of all Americans, was illuminated to elevate a single minority interest group.

No one seems to recall the White House being bathed in red and blue lights to blend with the white in commemoration of national holidays, or red, black and green lights, the colors of the black nationalist movement, after civil rights victories, or lights of any other color for any other reason, for that matter. Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building in New York City and Cinderella's Castle at Disney World were also lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag that day, but they are not publicly owned buildings or landmarks, and certainly not one of the most recognizable publicly owned buildings in the world. There is an irony, of course, in the fact that the rainbow is recorded in Genesis 9:11-16 as a symbol of a covenant between the people of the earth and God, whose plan for human flourishing advances a different sexual ethic than what the rainbow flag represents.

White heterosexuals – in my youth, I would never have imagined having to type that phrase, but such is the age in which we live - aren't immune to seeking validation in symbols or portrayals, either. How else to explain the emotional response to the Confederate flag debate? This symbol has sparked reactions I'd never thought I'd see and conversations I never thought I'd hear, and people I thought I knew have astounded me. To be clear, I'm not surprised or disappointed by the behavior of non-Christians, or even nominal Christians. Frankly, my expectations of them are not that great, because they are like "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming" (Ephesians 4:14).

It's the response of committed Christians, however, that has amazed and troubled me. The passion with which many of them have defended this icon of the Confederacy, and their efforts to sever the practice of slavery from the historical motivations which led to secession and war, not only grieves the hearts of their black Christian brothers and sisters, but borders on worship. Some would say it's crossed the line into full-blown idolatry. Like the Facebook designer who was "offended" by a silhouette, some white Christians are offended by criticism of this colored piece of cloth, so much so that they will risk disunity in the body of Christ in order to defend it.

Paul addressed a very similar conflict thousands of years ago:

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. ~ Romans 14:13-21

Paul was addressing a division in the church between former Gentiles and former Jews over ceremonial dietary laws, and he is saying, in effect, that those in Christ who believe their salvation has freed them from these laws should not be so callous in the exercise of their Christian liberty that it becomes an obstacle to "peace and mutual edification" with believers for whom the dietary rituals still had significance. Note that he wasn't making an argument about who was right or wrong, although he did have an opinion on the topic. He elevated unity in the body of Christ, however, above the petty divisions over diet. He challenged the Roman church to decide what was more important – "peace and mutual edification", or "eating and drinking".

I could wade into the conversation over the Confederate flag, as many have done over the past few months or so, but I'm not going to do that, in part because it's not the point of this article, and in part because I am not looking for a quarrel with my Christian brothers and sisters, with whom I seek unity as Christ commands. I will say that I think the movement to expunge our culture of all vestiges of the Confederacy or slavery is a bridge too far, because there is a fine but clear line between history and honor, and we must preserve one even as we reevaluate the other.

I read recently that even Thomas Jefferson's name is being removed from some events because he was a slaveowner. The fact he wrote the Declaration of Independence, one of the most inspired documents of principle in human history, or that he helped to found a great nation that has changed the world, is apparently superseded by arguably his biggest moral failing. Thank the Lord that He doesn't judge us in that manner, or we'd all be wiped from existence. I'm so pleased our God's thoughts and ways are higher than ours. But that's not the point of this article, either.

The point of the article is this: Why do we worship such puny gods? This question is particularly relevant to Jews and Christians, who should know better.

Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the chapters in the Bible which contain the Ten Commandments, speak first to the existence of the Lord, who freed the Jews from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and showed them many great miracles along the way – "I am the Lord, your God." The next few words establish our obligation to this powerful yet gracious deity:

You shall have no other gods before me. ~ Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7

The words that follow this command speak to the worship of images representing created things, and many people mistakenly assume that "other gods" is a reference to what the King James Version describes as a "graven image," "a carved idol or representation of a god used as an object of worship."

As I've partially illustrated above, however, an idol can be your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your religious rules, your heritage, your standing in the community, your looks, your wealth, your power, and the list goes on. In short, whatever you place more prominently in your life than the Lord is an idol. Sometimes, we even attach our own "graven images" to these idols, whether they are icons, names, flags or other physical manifestations of that which means the most to us.

Idols are puny gods that rise and fall as times and cultures change, and are often challenged by other puny gods of equal variability. We attach our self-worth to these idols, and whenever our idols are desecrated, we react as if we are being personally dishonored. Like the Facebook designer, we are "on high alert for symbolism", questioning everything that doesn't show our idol, or us by extension, the proper reverence. What a dismal way to live.

Some people, either out of ignorance or deliberation, were quite critical of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas for essentially stating that our human dignity and worth are independent of our circumstances, a statement which simply reaffirmed our American creed, that "all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights."

Human dignity isn't defined by people or events external to us, but is intrinsic to who we are. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church puts it simply: "The dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God."

I have learned in my more than half a century of living that when I worship anything or anyone else other than the Lord, and I attach my self-esteem to that object of worship, when it falls, as it ultimately will, my self-esteem falls with it. The God, however, who placed the earth so precisely in its orbit that it is the only planet in our solar system able to sustain human life, and who is so omnipresent that he calls Himself simply "I AM", made you and me in His image.

The more I believe that and embrace it, and the more I learn about His power and glory, the more peace I find. My race, my social status, my intellect, my body, my income, my political allegiances, or anything or anyone else that has captivated me in the past, are all subordinate to who I am as an image bearer of the Creator, and that fact brings order and serenity to my life. It's like anchoring yourself to a mountain; it will not be moved, and neither will you.

I find my worth in "the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17), the one who declares without equivocation, "For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6).

Why would we want to make anything or anyone else the object of our worship?