Children’s drawings with messages of hope wouldn’t normally draw responses of concern, let alone ire. Conscious of the enormous sacrifices being made by many in the National Health Service (NHS), people were looking for ways to display appreciation and hope. The image that emerged as the symbol of choice was the rainbow; more specifically, the rainbow recognized the world over as the pride flag. Online retailers were now selling them as “NHS Appreciation” flags.

This prompted a negative response from some in the LGBTQ+ community. Activist and journalist Jamie Wareham reported one particular response that seemed to resonate with many:

What I find frustrating are the people who know it’s an LGBT flag but are taking the stance “well its a symbol for the NHS now. . . .” Those people are actively trying to steal our flag, in my opinion. And those people are definitely frustrating.

It was an unwelcome instance of appropriation. This was their flag, and now it was being repurposed for another group and another cause. Not that those unhappy with this wouldn’t have wanted to support the NHS workers; the issue wasn’t the cause but the image. This flag mattered. 

It’s not hard to see why. 

Pride Flag’s History

The pride flag was first designed by gay activist Gilbert Baker in 1978 and encouraged by Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office. The flag made its debut at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in June of that year. Baker said of his creation:

I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power. As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights. . . . This was our new revolution: a tribal, individualistic, and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol.

The significance of the rainbow design to those who rally around this flag is easy to understand. It displays both diversity and inclusion. Just as each color belongs in the rainbow, the pride flag provides LGBT+ people with a message of place and acceptance. More, Baker remarked that he’d intentionally picked it from nature, that it was “from the sky.” For Baker, through the rainbow the natural world attests to the idea of blended difference, of beauty comprising a variety of diverse elements being brought together.

In other words, for many LGBT+ people, the flag is a symbol of safety.

Coercive Cultural Dynamics

We now see the pride flag everywhere. Perhaps most significantly, after the legalization of same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, the Obama administration celebrated by lighting the front façade of the White House in rainbow colors.

For many LGBT+ people, the flag is a symbol of safety.

But the growing ubiquity of the pride flag is also a reflection of another dynamic at work––not just a growing embrace of LGBT+ inclusion but also a growing social and cultural pressure to honor the flag, regardless of your personal beliefs. 

Joe Carter and Betsy Childs Howard have likened the pride flag to the Passover in the Old Testament. The blood of a lamb was smeared over the doorposts, so that God’s judgment would “pass over” the household. In much the same way, the pride flag is hung or posted on the entrances of businesses and coffee shops, so the judgment of a secular culture will pass over the company. Workers are pressured into wearing rainbow pins in the workplace, with the implicit threat of reprisal if refused. What’s presented as a symbol of inclusion and diversity has instead become a symbol of coercion and ideological uniformity. Perhaps it’s not such a safe symbol after all. 

Gay writer and commentator Andrew Sullivan laments this shift:

The gay-rights movement achieved its biggest gains when we worked against polarization, reached out across the spectrum, emphasized the human rather than the political, and did the key, hard educational work in our families, schools, churches, and neighborhoods. Too many seem eager to forget those lessons.

The adoption of the rainbow as a symbol of hoped-for safety is intuitive. A rainbow appears when a storm is in retreat and sunlight is beginning to penetrate the rainclouds. It naturally conveys hope: the storm is passing, and brightness is coming. Darkness is giving way to light, danger to safety. Or, we might say, judgment is giving way to salvation.

What’s presented as a symbol of inclusion and diversity has instead become a symbol of coercion and ideological uniformity.

It is to another, far more ancient association with the rainbow we might better direct our longings for safety.

(Eternal) Safety Through Judgement

In the biblical account of the flood, God makes a covenant with humanity to never again destroy the world as he’d just done, and he designates the rainbow as the sign of this covenant:

This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Gen. 9:12–16)

Just as the rains expressed literal judgment, so the abated waters indicated the judgment had passed. Interestingly, God doesn’t call it a “rainbow” as such. It’s simply his “bow”––referring to a bow used in hunting and warfare. So there’s a theological point being made behind this meteorological phenomenon: God is putting away his weapon. It’s safe to step out again.

Light from Light

The thoughtful reader might be left with a question: if sin had warranted God’s judgment beforehand, what hope is there now? The post-flood world is clearly not less sinful than the pre-flood world. It’s not long after Noah and his family exit the ark that we again see the darker aspects of human nature. On what basis, then, could God put away his war bow when its target remained right in front of him?

There’s a theological point being made behind this meteorological phenomenon: God is putting away his weapon. It’s safe to step out again.

The answer comes many centuries after Genesis 9, though in some ways is anticipated by it. The colors of the rainbow come through light broken into its constituent parts. And on a future day, the True Light would be broken for us. For as Spurgeon noted, “The rainbow is turned upward, not to shoot arrows down on us.” Instead, “it was pointing up, into the heart of heaven.”

When God would finally act to deal with sin, he would take the hit, and not us.