What We’re Up Against

Today I want to share a banner that hangs on a fence not far from my home. You can see it here:

The intent of the sign is simple. Next to a picture of a cross, it says, “Wise men still seek him.” In all the panoply of “Christian advertising”, this message is among the most benign. It’s not openly condemning people to hell or inviting the reader to call 1-888-Get-the-Truth so they can receive the right information to be “saved”. Most mainstream people of faith would understand, if not empathize with, this sign’s intent. Some might even wish they had thought of a slogan so catchy, suggesting it go on church reader boards or next year’s Christmas cards.

That’s exactly what makes it so insidious. Signs like this are a great example of how far our perceptions of faith have drifted, and how poorly our instincts have been trained to perceive it.

Let’s break this down a little.

Start with the first word of the message, “Wise.” The word is applied in reference to the magi from the Gospel of Matthew. Three visitors came to Jesus’ manger, following signs in the heavens, to see him and bestow gifts upon him.

In scripture, these visitors were astrologers or magicians of some sort. Their “wisdom” would not have been that of faith, at least not by indigenous standards. They were utterly, undeniably, foreign. This applied to their place of origin, their cultural assumptions, and their religious leanings. They were the consummate outsiders. That’s the role they played in the story.

This is not how this sign portrays the visitors, though. If it followed the Biblical description, the picture on the side might be a horoscope, Zodiac, or a picture of a far-away land. Instead, the sign trades the Biblical description for the homemade—and much more culturally-palatable–adjective, “Wise,” which is much harder to define. Having muddied up the definition, the message does with the word what it will, regardless of the source from which it was drawn.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that this sign hangs on a fence. That’s where you put such things: on fences, walls, lines of demarcation that divide inside from out. It’s practically impossible to hang a sign anywhere else.

Whatever “wisdom” the sign advocates, it lies within the fence, not without. After all, if the reader were already “wise” by the sign’s definition, the sign wouldn’t be needed! The reader must gain access to knowledge and indoctrination inside the walls in order to be defined as “wise”.

In this way, the fence and sign combine to create–then enforce–the idea that God is with insiders and not with the people reading the sign.

Note that this is literally the opposite of the actual Magi story, where outsiders came, beheld, participated, and left without ever becoming part of the inside group. The outsiders brought knowledge and revelation in the Biblical account.

This transposition is not unusual. In our rush to spread the word, we often break it, substituting our own meaning for its original message.

The remainder of the text reinforces the message.

The sign’s next word, “Men,” is no accident. Even within the inside group, divisions reign. Men are more desired, and empowered, than women within the supposedly divine hierarchy.

(One may make the argument that scripture doesn’t say, “Wise People,” but it doesn’t really say, “Wise” either and we broke that convention readily enough.)

Then we have the “seeking” part. We’ve already established that God lies within the fence demarcated by the sign. We also established our own “wisdom” as the key to unlocking the gate. We haven’t talked about how this construct denies God to the whole rest of the universe by localizing God in our wisdom and our backyard.

Everyone outside must seek because they haven’t yet found. They are supposedly impoverished, in darkness without us. Except if you read the magi story, it says God sent a light that the outsiders might see, a story confirmed by the witness of the shepherds at the manger, by the prophet Isaiah (“The people in darkness have seen a great light…”) and multiple times besides. Once again the message gets reversed. A sign meant to bring God to the world actually denies God in the process, making it worse than useless.

At every turn, this sign speaks the opposite of scripture and betrays its own purported intent. It’s backwards. From a certain point of view, it could be deemed evil. If you can feel this at all as a person of faith, imagine a vulnerable person, already feeling cut off from God, receiving this message.

Signs like this are often meant to appeal to—read: prey on—the vulnerable. If it cannot find vulnerability naturally, it will create it with its message, then claim to fix it if the reader follows. This is neither faith nor evangelism. It’s abuse.

I don’t believe my near-neighbor had any ill intent in putting up the sign. He probably not an extremist. He’s likely been raised as a nice, mainline “Christian” with maybe a little “evangelist” thrown in…a little to the side of spectrum, but nowhere near far enough to make us look twice. He probably meant well.

And that’s exactly the point.

We’re not fighting a sign here. We’re fighting every desire we have to make faith about us. We’re fighting the inbred human instinct to create inside and outside groups, then build walls and fences to define and protect. We’re fighting the kind of religious pride that claims God looks like us and that anyone faithful will perceive things like we do. We’re fighting all of the things that our churches have taught in order to preserve themselves…things that end up looking very much like this sign. We’re also fighting our own eyes and hearts that have passed a hundred seemingly-benign markers like this and just nodded, if not cheered.

We have to do better. We all need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in ways we can’t even imagine. Taking down the sign won’t make much difference. We need to ask why signs like this exist and why they—and the impulses behind them—don’t send us screaming to the hills in horror.

Until we do that, I fear we’re playing with faith as much as practicing it, a danger to ourselves and, more importantly, to each other.

We’re not wise. We’re not super-special insiders whom God loves more than anybody else because of our personal qualities, inherent or chosen. We’re not all men. God is not absent from any corner of God’s world or any person in it.

Whenever Jesus saw humans creating barriers between each other in God’s name, he tended to overturn them, flatten them out, or simply hop the fence to be together with those who had been excluded. It’s a shame we aren’t doing the same.

In the end, I’m not sure we need a sign. God already was that for the world. If that message isn’t embedded in the fabric of our lives, all the canvas and plastic in the world isn’t going to make a difference. It’ll only send us further backwards than we already are.

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