The Rainbow, Meaning, and Amazing Grace: How Christians Can Mourn Orlando
After the tragic mass shooting in Orlando last Sunday, we were all left with many difficult questions. Why did this happen? Could anything have stopped it? It seems wrong to make one of these questions the “most important,” and everyone naturally prioritizes those questions which are closest to themselves. Still, if I’m being honest, there was one question in particular that weighed on my mind for days, and it made me feel a certain amount of dread. The question was this: Do conservative Christians have any business mourning Orlando?
This question, which strikes many Christians as both hurtful and embarrassing, was raised from both directions. Several more “fundamentalist” Christians claimed that the people at the Pulse Night Club got what they deserved, and that their sinful lifestyle meant that Christians ought not mourn or be sad about the event. On the flip side, many progressive activists and LGBT advocates also said that conservative Christians should keep silent, stating that the power of hate and intolerance were the real cause of this tragedy. Even though the killer was not a Christian, conservative Christians were partially culpable because they shared his basic homophobia. Indeed, there has been a growing battle over who gets the right to identify with Orlando.
While both reactions are false ones, this is indeed a hard question, and it brings together many other hard questions. What should Christians think about the LGBT community and identity? To what extent should Christians speak of God being involved in a tragedy like this? Should Christians attempt to offer grace in the aftermath?
What are Christians to think about Orlando?
Mourn With Those Who Mourn
The Bible presents two important truths that are often difficult to reconcile. 1) All people are either children of darkness or children of light, and 2) We should love our enemies.
The earthly tendency is to affirm only one of these two truths. Either all people are really one, and they are only enemies because they are confused or irrational, or there are indeed “good guys” and “bad guys,” and the bad guys are so evil that they do not deserve our sympathy or love. This either/or is easy to understand. It comes naturally. But it’s too easy. It isn’t the way that the Bible presents things at all.
No, Jesus Himself told us to “Love our enemies,” which presumes that we have enemies. It was Jesus, and not Pat Robertson, who said that some people are “children of the devil” (John 8:44). And yet, even while we have enemies and warn those enemies against the danger that their soul is in, we are also called to love them (Matt. 5:43-48), sacrifice for them (Matt. 5:38-42), and even weep alongside of them (Rom. 12:15).
So even if we have grave questions about the Pulse Night Club and the community it represents, this is not an obstacle for our mourning their loss. Indeed, we are commanded to mourn with them, and we cannot be “conservative” Christians if we do not obey the Bible’s teaching on this point.
We can also believe that the LGBT community is in the grips of a significant sin without having to connect the shooting to a particular act of divine intervention. Luke 13:4 stands against all easy assumptions of causality, and it isn’t our place to pry into the secret things of God. We should only speak to what has been revealed.
Look to the Rainbow
One of those things that have been revealed actually sends a profound message of unity, a message that teaches the solidarity of the entire human race. I’m talking about the rainbow.
The rainbow was actually given after the flood as a covenantal sign of God’s love for all of creation. Genesis 9 presents it this way:
And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-16)
The rainbow was a sign of remembrance for both Noah and for God! Whenever God decided to “bring a cloud over the earth,” a foreshadowing of judgment, He would see His rainbow, and He would “remember” the covenant. “The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” This was a promise that God made to all people and all creatures, and it did not depend upon their worthiness or conduct.
In fact, a little earlier in Genesis 9, God repeated the creation ordinances of work, animal mastery, and reproduction (Gen. 9:1-4), and He even drew attention to the doctrine of the imago dei, or that mankind was created in the image of God:
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man. (Gen. 9:5)
The reason that the death penalty was instituted for murder was not simply out a feeling of revenge. No, it was instituted as a way to proclaim the value of the life that was taken. Since man is made in the image of God, his life is valuable and cannot be taken without grave consequences.
This also means that Christians should mourn the loss of life. They should mourn when people are killed. They should do this because the image of God has been assaulted. The lives of all people are valuable because all people reflect the divine nature in an important way. The Apostle Paul even says, “since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:29). We could reverse the grammar and say the same thing: We ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising because we are the offspring of God. Humans are created in God’s image, and thus the only images of God that any of us can ever now are other people.
When we are tempted to forget this fact, when the storm clouds gather and darkness seems imminent, the sign that God gives as a reminder is the rainbow. And what do we see when we look at Orlando but the rainbow?
But It Doesn’t Mean That
This brings us to another divisive point. Some in the LGBT community are outraged that we would apply any meaning to the Orlando massacre other than that LGBT persons have been martyred in the cause of LGBT rights. They weren’t targeted for being “people” but for being LGBT, they tell us. This may be true to a point, but it may also be the case that “LGBT” is itself but a symbol for something more basic, something like “Western decadence” or “anti-Islam.” But the Christian response to this sort of point is that as important as our cultural identities may be, they are always penultimate identities. Our ultimate identities are not actually found in being sons and daughters of our human mothers and fathers but rather in being sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. Before we are anything else, we are children of God. And Christians need to proclaim that message in confidence. There are things which unite us all: our creation in God’s image, our common mortality, and our need for salvation.
The rainbow flag itself was a re-invention or a re-definition, being an adaptation of the older “Flag of the Races.” In Christian thought, the diversity of human races goes back to the children of Noah, and the rainbow is a natural reference point for that. And so we are not giving the rainbow a new definition at all but instead giving it its old definition, its divine definition. And we should do the same thing with the men and women in the LGBT community. We should define them as bearers of the image of God.
Indeed, the challenge of our day is precisely to refuse to identify people with their worldly desires and dispositions. Christians ought not to see people as “gay people” first any more than they should see people as “American people” or “covetous people.” There are certainly times and places to “see” those identities, but not when we it comes to human value, love, and compassion. This is a counter-cultural message, but it is the message of the Bible. Your life is not your own. Reality extends far beyond your will. We must all find a new identity– we must be identified with the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
This is not a message of hate. This is a message of true love. We can actually see beyond your orientation and your community. We can see you. And we can see all others that way as well. We love you for you and them for them. We love the truest “self,” the self which can never die, and God requires us to remind all men of that everlasting identity. God’s image resides in man, in each of us, and it is only oriented properly when it is oriented towards Him. Times of death are so awful because they remind us of that awful truth. We will all die one day. This world is so much bigger than we are. Life is outside of our control. Who can deliver us from this body of death?
The truest “meaning” just is reality, and we are all of us up against it every day. It’s overwhelming. It’s undeniable. It will continue to interrupt our lives to remind us of its existence, of our existence. The Christian’s grief is directly connected with this. We know the truth, and the truth is heavy. It only sets us free when we are freed from our chains, when we are free in Christ.
There have been more than a few contradictions in the aftermath of Orlando. At countless vigils the crowds have gathered to remember the dead and speak out on behalf of LGBT rights, but a great many of them have also felt the need to sing “Amazing Grace.” This was the case in Central Florida, but it was also reported from other vigils across the country. Amazing Grace, isn’t that interesting?
While it’s certainly the case that this hymn was chosen as a cultural echo, one of the few “common” sacred songs we still have, the fact of its existence testifies to the divine. The lyrics speak out, even over and against the intentions and designs of those singing. They say this:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
The lyrics go on to talk about God’s grace teaching our hearts to “fear” and delivering us from the pangs of death and eternal judgment. If someone is looking for “cultural appropriation,” surely this is it! All those people confessing themselves to be wretches in need of God’s saving grace. And good for them because it’s true. It’s a truth that just goes deep down to our bones, even if we don’t think about it.
Can Christians mourn Orlando? Yes. In fact, they must! Does this highlight a number of contradictions? You bet it does. But those contradictions are life. Confused? Look to the rainbow.
We are all God’s creation, and the storm clouds gather over us again and again. They will continue to do so as long as the earth turns. But when we see that rainbow we also know that God has given us grace. He preserves this world for now. And God will give us more grace, His Amazing Grace. Every time the rainbow shows up, we are reminded of God’s promise of grace. This is true even when that rainbow is redefined and flown on a flag. And this is true when those rainbow flags are waving during a singing of “Amazing Grace.” The truth rings out even still.
This is the Christian response. Let us mourn, but let us mourn in truth. Let us indeed not be silent. We must speak. Remember the rainbow. Remember the image of God. And then remember the Cross. Let us not be silent about it either. We are all of us dying in this world, and we all need that same Amazing Grace, the grace found in the martyrdom of Jesus Christ.
May we find our meaning, our identity, our life, and our deliverance in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.