by Matt Schur

Symbols are powerful things. The Nebraska Husker block “N” gets me all giddy, makes me think of football and fall and memories and history…all sorts of thoughts and feelings are wrapped up in that simple symbol. Companies know the power of a symbol, which is why they spend millions of dollars developing logos and branding and slogans.

The American flag is probably the most recognizable symbol in our country. The cross is definitely the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith. So, why all this talk about symbols?

The Lutheran Center has a couple of small yard signs out in front of the building which say “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Arabic. This past Sunday morning, one of the students who arrived early to help set up for worship noticed that both signs had been stolen, and in the place where one of them had been, an American flag had been stuck in its place.

Now, the fact that a couple of signs disappeared isn’t a huge surprise. Not only is our building located on a college campus, but it’s also across the street from a dorm and is surrounded by Greek houses. Signs have gone missing in the past after a Saturday night, and no doubt they will do so again. Don’t get me wrong–that doesn’t make it okay.

However, I’m saddened that someone thought they should remove a sign telling people of other languages and cultures that we’re glad they’re our neighbors. Our nation is a tapestry whose very fabric has been woven through the coming together of a variety of colors, races, religions, languages, and cultures. And even if that wasn’t part of our national identity, the reason the signs were in front of the Lutheran Center in the first place is because welcoming the other is an integral part of our identity as Christians.

Much more problematic in my eyes than the actual theft itself, though, is the taking away of a welcome for the other and replacing it with the American flag. Because the message it sent wasn’t just “No, we are not glad those people are our neighbors,” (which is bad enough), but that the American flag stands over against that sort of welcome.  In making that unspoken, symbolic statement, whoever did this acted in opposition to both American and Christian values. They turned a symbol of welcome and freedom into a weapon and scare tactic.

As Christians, our faith compels us to welcome, love, and serve our neighbor. Jesus demonstrated again and again throughout his ministry that whenever we draw lines to separate us from others, insiders from outsiders, God is going to be found on the other side of the line. And as Americans, our heritage,  comprised of varied cultures and backgrounds, compels us to welcome others. What happened that night was wrong on so many levels; not only did the vandals steal something that wasn’t theirs, and not only did they intentionally remove something meant to welcome the neighbor, they also compounded it all by twisting and, therefore, cheapening the symbol of the American flag.

For many, the American flag is a symbol of welcome, opportunity, and freedom. For others, it is instead a symbol of exclusion, broken promises, and oppression. The same can be said for the cross. For many Christians, it represents God’s enduring love for all, triumph of life over death. But for some, it’s a symbol of rejection, a symbol of hate and judgment used in very public forums to instill harsh judgment.

As Christians, how might we reclaim the cross as a symbol of love, grace, and life? How might we show a sign of welcome? A good way to start is to pray for our neighbors. Not just those neighbors the sign speaks to, but also for the neighbors who did the stealing of the sign and the placement of the flag. Where there is fear, may God bring peace and hope. Where there is hate, may God bring reconciliation and understanding. And may we as Christians be empowered to be instruments of that peace, hope, reconciliation and understanding for all our neighbors.

Connecting people to Christ, so they may discover their own calling as disciples.