We’re getting ready to take part in a short-term missions trip to South America, and our group has been spending some time looking at the kind of unintended offenses that can occur when you’re crossing cultures.
Someone mentioned the team going to work in an impoverished area overseas that had sported matching tee-shirts with the phrase “To the least of these…” splashed across the back—a reference to Jesus’ admonition to care for the needy, in Matthew 25.
Clearly, those people had good motives, but imagine if you were part of the church hosting them, where you got to sit behind them. How would that make you feel?
Even with good intentions, we can end up offending people. If not by what we actually say, maybe by the messages or symbols we present—whether that’s on a tee-shirt… or even a flag. Because the message we think we are sending may not be the one that is received.
Mere offense can’t be the sole criteria by which to judge whether a message is inappropriate or not. After all, there are occasions when someone needs to be offended; just look at the way Jesus popped the self-important, self-righteous, self-centered bubbles of some of those He encountered.
And, as I have observed before, we’re living in a time when people seem to be looking for something to be offended about. I call it America: the indig-nation. Some folks appear need to find something to be upset about.
Fortunately, there’s a more thoughtful way to evaluate a symbol than solely the reaction it provokes. I call it the cymbal test:
* Is it unkind?
* It it boastful?
* Is it proud?
* Does it dishonor others?
* Is it self-seeking?
* Does it keep a record of wrongs?
* Does it delight in evil?
* Does it leave unprotected?
Some may recognize these filters as coming from the famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13. If these characteristics are to be found, then the symbol in question may not be very loving, no matter how earnestly and sincerely it is held by some. Rather than ringing true, it’s a clanging cymbal.
Such was the case in The Reconciliation Walk, back in the nineties, when Christians retraced the routes of The Crusades across Europe to Jerusalem. Participants carried an apology to Muslim communities for the way those ancient wars for the Holy Land had misrepresented the truth and love of the gospel.
Originally, organizers had imagined walking the routes with a cross, but they changed their plans on learning that what they saw as a symbol of peace was to others one of violence.
Choosing not to brandish a symbol that was so meaningful to them because of the way it failed to translate to others in no way diminished the truth it represented for them—and, indeed, subsequently several of the many mayors, imams and other community leaders who met with walkers along the way told them that by their actions they were actually redeeming the meaning of the cross.
The truth beneath the symbol rang true.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).