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The rainbow sign

23 July 2015

Recently the profile pictures of a lot of people on Facebook appeared overlaid with rainbow-type stripes.

This was made possible by the people at Facebook, who offered it on a page called Let’s celebrate pride. “From all of us at Facebook, Happy Pride!”.

There didn’t seem to be a corresponding one for celebrating humility.

SteveRainbowAnyway, it made me think of how Bishop Desmond Tutu’s description of South Africa as “the Rainbow Nation” went viral in the days when we were celebrating “many cultures, one nation”. So I added it to my profile picture on Facebook too.

It soon became apparent that South Africa, as always, was out of step with the rest of the world. When the rest of the world was denouncing apartheid as an unmitigated evil, the South African government stuck rigidly to it.

But when we finally abandoned apartheid and too up the “many cultures, one nation” idea, people in the rest of the world started denouncing multiculturalism as the worst thing since sliced bread (oh, wait, wrong metaphor, but still you see what I mean).

South Africa was uniting all the bogus “homelands” into one nation, while other countries, like Yugoslavia, were determinedly trying to drive people into their own “homelands”, and in the process gave us the term that so perfectly described effects of the former South African policy of apartheid, namely, “ethnic cleansing”.

But I digress.

proudly-south-africanThe other thought sparked off by the Facebook “Let’s celebrate pride” thing was the Proudly South African campaign. So if Facebook isn’t going to offer humility, let’s make the most of pride.

That probably isn’t the kind of “pride” that Facebook had in mind, but since they didn’t specify it, I suppose everyone is free to interpret it in their own way, though it does raise the question of who owns signs and symbols, and who gets to interpret what they mean.

So what does the rainbow symbolise?

The rainbow nation? Pride?

Back in 1971  a friend and I ran a kind of alternative news agency in Namibia, which we called Rainbow Press Services. We sent stories to South African newspapers, which didn’t have offices in Namibia, but as South Africa ruled Namibia at the time, they occasionally wanted to report things. We worked intitially for the Argus Africa News Service, and later for the South African Morning Group of Newspapaers. When I was sacked by the Windhoek Advertiser it became my sole source of income. When, a few months later, we were deported from Namibia, Rainbow Press Services came to an end.

But the name Rainbow Press Services arose by accident.

In 1969, at the instigation of Beyers Naude, I started some youth groups for the Christian Institute in Durban. I sent out a newsletter informing the members of the various groups of activities. The newsletters were produced by a stencil duplicator (remember those?), and I printed them on yellow paper because I had read somewhere that black printing on yellow paper was easiest to read. A journalist friend, Dick Usher, nicknamed it the Yellow Press, and took over producing it when I went to Namibia. There we produced a similar newsletter, the Pink Press, printed on pink paper to distingish it from the Yellow Press in Durban.

Of course we were aware of the symbolism of rainbows. In the words of one song,

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time.

FireNestAnd The fire next time was also the title of a book on race relations in the USA, presumably derived from the same song.

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail.

The very moment I thought I was lost
The duncgeon shook and the chains fell off.

The only thing that we did wrong
was staying in the wilderness too long

The only thing that we did right
Was the day we began to fight.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but the fire next time.

But there were other books that promulgated the idea that the rainbow sign was extremely dangerous. One such was The hidden dangers of the rainbow, by Constance Cumbey. Real conspiracy theory stuff, that.

CumbeyAccording to Cumbey, the rainbow was a secret symbol of the New Age Movement, which encapsulated everything evil in the world today.

So as a symbol, the rainbow seems to mean anything that anyone wants it to mean, good or bad.

My own take on it is somewhat different.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, but didn’t say anything about “the fire next time”.

For a brief period of 20 years, from 1969 to 1989, the Anglican Church in Southern Africa had an experimental lectionary in which each Sunday had a particular theme, and the Bible readings were chosen to reflect that theme. The cycle began on the 9th Sunday before Christmas, and from then until Christmas the Old Testament reading was the “contolling lesson”, on which the theme was based.

The first three themes were Creation, Fall and, on the 7th Sunday before Christmas, The Covenant of Preservation: Noah.

This scheme brought out the Christian significance of the rainbow sign.

Perhaps I was influenced in thinking this because, as a child of the 1960s, I was familiar with the Beatles’ song We all live in a yellow submarine.

It was also fashionable in the 1960s to speak of “Spaceship Earth” — here we are hurtling through a hostile environment, space, on a planet with limited resources, and we’d better look after it, or we’re doomed.

The Bible, at least in the story of Noah, prefers the image of the submarine.

There are waters above the firmament, and waters below the firmament (the firmament, of course, being the hull of the submarine). It is still a hostile environment, though it is pictured as water rather than empty space.

And the people in the submarine are fighting, so that the whole earth was filled with violence (Genesis 6:13). And when you fight in a submarine, you are likely to make holes in the hull, and let the water in, which is what happened. And God told Noah (the only one who would listen) how to build an escape capsule, which, according to the story, he did.

Those three Sundays emphasised s sequence: creation, fall, preservation. God made the world and saw that it was good. Evil enters the world through human beings, and it is human addiction to violence that threatens to destroy it and all life in it. But the Covenant of Preservation is just that: evil may seem overwhelming, but it will never completely overwhelm the goodness of God’s creation. Evil may be powerful, but there are limits to its power, and God’s promise, God’s covenant of preservation, is that evil will never completely overcome the good. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it.

And that’s why, also back in the 1960s, we used to sing We shall overcome.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. mome permalink
    23 July 2015 8:18 pm

    Facebook uses the rainbow filter in the sense of gay pride, and more specifically as a sign of support for same-sex marriage. The rainbow Facebook profile picture filter became a popular thing about the same time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. Rainbow flags have been a symbol of the gay rights movement in America for quite a while. I suppose people are free to interpret “pride” in their own way, but at least in America, the intended meaning is obvious.

    • 2 August 2015 5:39 am

      I suppose, since Facebook is based in America, it has the right to be American-centric, which I suppose is why they didn’t offer a blue and white overlay to allow people to use that about a more widely significant series of events. But, perhaps because they were aware that they probably have as many users outside the USA than inside, they didn’t specify what kind of pride they were talking about, leaving peiople free to interpret it anyway they chose. I have explained how I interpet it; others are free to differ.

  2. 28 July 2015 2:29 pm

    Intrinsic to the meaning of “bow” is the bending shape from the sky to the ground that is the quintessential characteristic of the spectrum of colors that appear in a “rainbow.” The Gay Flag semiotically is a dull abstraction of what is found in nature and more aptly embodies the concept of “spectrum.” Nobody mistakes the Gay Flag for God’s creation, the rainbow, but those who engage in the present doublespeak of the English language that is foisted upon us would confuse the two.

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