Recently, I heard a message concerning how various groups use the rainbow flag. There was one common denominator in terms of the rainbow's meaning: inclusion. The message concluded that from a Christian perspective, these groups are absolutely correct. Inclusion is, in fact, what the rainbow signifies. These groups include but are not limited to the LGBT community (since 1978), those who love the peace flag (popular in Italy since 1961), and those included with the Protestant Reformer Thomas Munster (1489-1525), who used the rainbow flag as a symbol for social change. People want justice, fairness, and inclusion. Rightly so. Today in America, people want to be affirmed in who they are, as they are, and how they are; there is the desire for an affirmation of not only their thoughts, but also their actions. And the rainbow does provide a signification of inclusion, since it is a covenant with creation. The promise is the allowance of the flourishing of human life on earth “as long as the earth remains” (Genesis 8:22).
So, the rainbow includes all human beings under God’s covenant with creation, and God desires that all humans flourish on the earth. And, for humans to flourish, there needs to be justice, fairness, and inclusion. This seems to me to be right and an obvious point of natural law.
One thing I think is important to remember, however, is that signs and symbols e.g. flags, rainbows, letters of the alphabet, crosses, etc., offer their meaning in more than one way. A burning cross, for example, we may understand, in the right context, as a sign of hate from the KKK. I don’t think we would want to say the KKK is “right” in their use of the cross as their symbol, would they? I can’t think of a good reason why that would be so. (I am open to suggestions on this). We therefore need to ask ourselves some important questions about signs and symbols.
What does a symbol or sign do, and how does it do it? How is the meaning of the sign created, given, and understood? In semiotics (the study of signs), there is the sign, the signifier, and the signified. First, the sign is "the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified". The sign is composed of the two parts, the signifier and the signified. Second, the signifier is the "form which the sign takes" and third, the signified is the "concept it represents". Broken down, the rainbow flag as used by the LGBT community has as its sign the basic message of the flag, which is that the homosexual lifestyle is good and deserving of inclusion in all of society. The signifier is the rainbow itself--the form of the sign, and the signified is the concept which comes with it: this sign represents the LGBT community, and the affirmation of it. The concept that homosexuality is a good thing worthy of affirmation is the signified (or, signified concept). But a concept is just an abstract idea, and needs something concrete in order to communicate its idea to human knowers. In the case of the rainbow flag, it is the flag that is the signifier, or the "form" which the concept takes.
So, symbols are personal representations of a particular person or group of people which are aimed at the goal of offering a certain idea so that others will at minimum, understand that idea. Typically, symbols are aimed at the goal of having as its objective, an idea which calls others to act. Setting aside its historical origins for the time being, the rainbow flag is now used to promote or affirm the homosexual lifestyle. It is a sign that calls others to heed its message that the homosexual lifestyle is good, praiseworthy, and worthy of affirmation.
Of course, in terms of biblical theology, the rainbow is a symbol of God’s covenant with creation, of God’s desire for the flourishing of the human race, of God’s desire for human beings to have basic inalienable rights endowed to them by their Creator: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (this is not the mere invention of American Deism, but Aristotelian and Thomist Natural Law theory, rooted in the eternal law of God).
As human knowers, however, we can see that the rainbow flag is also used in a different way: a way of promoting what most Christians understand as sexual immorality. It is a way of signifying as its object a set of actions incongruent with what the Bible says is sexually moral and upright. This is why the rainbow flag, as used by the LGBT community is a “both/and” with respect to the observation that they are “right” in using the rainbow as a sign of inclusion. I think this idea is not entirely clear, however. For us to be left with the notion that the rainbow flag signifies ‘inclusion’ (it does) and only inclusion, is a misnomer.
As Christians we want to say that the rainbow flag can be understood according to God’s covenant with creation, and we want to follow that train of thought with the notions of inclusiveness, justice, and fairness. This is a good way of redeeming signs and symbols Christians might otherwise think are bad, or evil, or wicked (still can't think of a redeeming quality of a burning cross lit by the KKK though. The only thing I can think of is how the cross itself is truly the cross of Jesus, and that the KKK blasphemously misuses it). It is a way of finding common ground and common grace within our cultural situation. However, I think we deserve to also understand that a symbol derives its meaning from its authorial intent, and from the way it is used in its cultural context. There is, of course, a theological-contextual meaning of the rainbow, as Genesis states. However, it is not the case that when Christians look at the rainbow flag, they should think only of God’s covenant with creation, inclusion, justice, fairness, and human flourishing. This is because the LGBT community desires for all people everywhere to understand the flag as a sign and symbol of their lifestyle, and that such a lifestyle should be affirmed. It seems to me, therefore, that the flag should be understood in "both/and" terms.
The rainbow flag has as its object the idea or notion that the LGBT lifestyle should be affirmed. The sign itself is the rainbow, and the rainbow has a theological story to it that we understand from a biblical-theological perspective. It seems to me that a clearer way of approaching this very sensitive topic would be to say something like the following:
The rainbow flag, used by the LGBT community is used to promote the homosexual lifestyle, and as Christians we would say this is a mistake, because the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant with creation. But, we can see something in the way the LGBT community uses the rainbow flag which should remind us of God’s love. For the rainbow itself is a sign of God’s right over creation to both give life and take it away, his care for creation, his love for human beings, and his willingness to take upon himself the pain which sin brings upon human beings. The rainbow is a way of God's saying that all human beings are included in his desire for their good, and for justice, mercy, peace, and yes—inclusion in God’s family. (This is the message of Paul’s sermon in Acts 14:15-17, and that inclusion is found in Christ Jesus), when he says,
“Men, why are you doing these things [worshipping Paul and Barnabas for being used by God to heal a man]? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness."
God desires inclusion, justice, mercy, and fairness; he accepts us as who we are, according to the gospel, upon the condition that human beings turn from their "vain things" to the "living God, who made heaven and earth." This living God is revealed in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that human beings are included in God's family, and whatever a person's identity may be, it is found whole in Christ Jesus.
Notes 1-3: Semiotics for Beginners. Accessed on August 28, 2017 at http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/.
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