I met a friend for coffee this morning. During the conversation, he told me about an experience this week when a family member brought home a key ring from an event about awareness of autism. As soon as my friend saw the keyring he felt uneasy and uncertain what to do with it. Why? Because the keyring was rainbow coloured.
Rainbows are beautiful.
Rainbows are an unusual pattern of bright colours not seen together elsewhere in nature.
Rainbows are a display of colour after greyness, a symbol of hope for brighter skies.
Given their beauty, their distinctiveness and their significance, it is no surprise that the rainbow has long been used by people to symbolise various causes.
The best known in our current culture is, of course, the cause of LGBT(QIA) rights. In the last week, news outlets were asking whether the captains of certain world cup teams would dare to face sanction from FIFA by wearing rainbow arm bands. It was also reported that people were asked to remove rainbow symbols on entering world cup stadiums. Western nations have become fixated on this cause and the rainbow flag, first used to represent it in 1978, has become its most recognised symbol.
But the rainbow has represented other causes in history.
Most recently in the UK, of course, rainbows were widely used – especially in children’s drawings stuck to the inside of windows – to indicate support for the NHS. It was adopted as a symbol of hope for emergence from the COVID pandemic and gratefulness to the healthcare workers who were seen as the source of that hope.
NHS support used rainbow symbols but not rainbow flags. But three causes in the twentieth century used the rainbow flag before it was adopted for the LGBT cause in the late 1970s. It was a symbol of the cooperative movement from 1921, of the peace movement from 1961, and of rights for indigenous peoples of the Andes from 1973. Indeed, the association with indigenous peoples in South America dates back to at least the 18th century.
None of these causes were, however, the first to be marked by the rainbow flag. That distinction belongs to a branch of the Protestant Reformation associated with Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525). He believed that the rediscovery of biblical truths should lead to a social revolution bringing equality and justice for all and he criticised both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther’s followers for not pursuing this goal. He is often depicted with a rainbow flag. His movement gave rise to the Peasant’s War in Germany, which ended in the defeat of the rebels and the capture, torture and execution of Müntzer.
Equality, justice, peace, cooperation, freedom, hope, gratitude.
A list of seven noble qualities to hang on a seven-coloured symbol.
Given these noble meanings and its diverse usage, it seems sad that the rainbow should be used to symbolise just one cause. Or that those who use it should be militant to the extent of passing judgement on those who disagree with them. On the other hand, the meanings the flag has been given could be said to be too broad ranging to be a useful symbol of any cause. It seems especially unhelpful that its predominant modern usage should be about approval of a particular view of sexual ethics rather than the distinct issue of protecting people from discrimination and abuse. The latter is a noble cause that all should accept. The former is debatable.
The rainbow speaks of wonderful qualities. When we see one in the sky, even as our years advance, it can evoke wonder and a childlike delight. Few things in nature more eloquently declare the splendour of this world or more powerfully express the longing of the human heart for all that is not beautiful in it to be put right.
This is no accident, because the rainbow has a deeper purpose than any of those human movements have put it to. It has a special role in creation because the Creator made it for a purpose. He designed the laws of Physics and the properties of light and water in such a way that a rainbow could be seen. He did is as a sign of the covenant he made after the Flood with Noah and every living creature (Genesis 9:12-17). The rainbow is a reminder of God’s favour. In a world with many signs of sin’s presence and of death, its consequence, we see this glorious sign of hope. The Flood was God’s just judgement on sinful humankind. But God did not wipe us out and the rainbow is a reminder that he will not do so again through a flood so long as the earth persists.
The Hebrew word used in Genesis 9 is simply ‘bow’. It is the same word used for a bow used by a hunter or warrior to shoot arrows. God said to Noah that he had hung his bow in the heavens. At the very least this indicates that God is withholding his judgement. Some have gone further and pointed out that this bow is pointing not down to earth, but up towards God’s own heart. I don’t think we can find that in the text of Genesis 9, but the rest of the Bible’s story certainly shows that God took the punishment for our sin into himself when Jesus hung on the cross. The covenant the rainbow symbolises does not speak of redemption, but it does declare the value of life and God’s commitment to his creation. It was that commitment and his own love that led him to covenant with Abraham – the beginning of his great story of salvation.
What does this mean for Christians? Well, we would do well to notice that God covenanted not only with human beings but with every creature. We must value God’s world as he does and care well for it. But the rainbow does have a special significance for human beings. We are the only creature that can understand its meaning and give thanks to God for it. The rainbow should speak to us of all those qualities the movement’s that adopted it longed for: equality, justice, peace, cooperation, freedom, hope, gratitude. But the rainbow should also remind us that we can only know these qualities and hold them together by learning from the God who made us and whose favour is over us.
Christians will probably choose not to wear the rainbow, carry keyrings that bear it or fly flags emblazoned with it. To do so is just too likely to mislead people about our values. But we will find a special joy when we see a rainbow in the sky and I think it’s no bad thing if we remember its true meaning whenever we see it on any flag. We shouldn't be uneasy with the rainbow or unsettled by it. It should give us joy and cause us to testify to the greatness and goodness of God.
Whatever the intention of those who fly the rainbow flag, we know the true meaning of this symbol. We know that God’s purpose is the original and the best.
This article is reproduced with permission from the author's personal blog.