The Shield and the Cross

One of the most emotional scenes of Avengers: Endgame is the “passing of the shield” from an older Steve Rogers to Sam Wilson:

This event left fans with a tinge of sadness, knowing that Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) would no longer be Captain America. But it also gave us the excitement for a fresh set of adventures with a new Cap wielding the shield. We see Sam struggle to accept his new role in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as well as the importance of symbols and legacy.

Symbols
We encounter various symbols every day, from corporate logos to traffic signs. Symbols can elicit a wide range of emotions, whether it’s a peace symbol as a sign of harmony or a swastika as a mark of hatred. Symbols can also mean different things to different people. To many Americans, the flag is a symbol of freedom and unity. To others, it represents injustice and oppression. Some wave the flag proudly, while others step and kneel upon it in protest. How can a symbol present such disparate reactions? This is one of the main themes of Falcon and Winter Soldier.

In the first episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier, Sam retires Captain America’s shield during Steve Rogers’s memorial. He says, “Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. And this thing, I don’t know if there’s been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man that propped it up.” This is true of every symbol we encounter in life. A symbol is nothing without the people who wear it or the cause that the symbol represents.

For the first ten years of the MCU, Captain America’s shield was a symbol of freedom and hope as it was wielded honorably by Steve Rogers. But in Falcon and Winter Soldier, we discover the darker history of the Super Soldier program. Bucky introduces Sam to Isaiah Bradley, the sole survivor of a group of African Americans who were used as test subjects for a new Super Soldier serum. Isaiah is angry and bitter, and rightfully so. While Steve Rogers was hailed as a hero, Isaiah was imprisoned and used as a test subject for thirty years. As a result, Isaiah deeply hates the American government and resents the idea of a black man wielding the star-emblazoned shield of Captain America.

Legacy
Sam is thus torn between two legacies: the colors of the American flag and the color of his skin. The red, white, and blue is supposed to represent liberty and justice for all, yet African Americans have not always experienced this liberty and justice in American history, due to slavery and racism. If Sam accepts the Captain America mantle, will he embrace the grand idealism of Steve Rogers or the bitterness and cynicism of Isaiah Bradley? In the end, he chooses to carve his own path, one of hope and unity. He knows it will not be easy, but he accepts the responsibility. Like Sam said in his eulogy to Steve Rogers, a symbol is nothing without the people who prop it up, and now he will add his own legacy to the shield.

Christianity also bears an important legacy, symbolized by the cross of Jesus. For Christians, the cross represents hope and salvation. However, in ancient times the cross represented the exact opposite: punishment and death. Crucifixion was a form of Roman execution for the worst of criminals, the most humiliating and torturous of deaths. Jesus was forced to carry a cross, the symbol of death, to his own execution. But when he rose from the dead, that symbol was transformed from representing death to depicting life, from being hopeless to being hopeful. Jesus also told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)

Unfortunately, the cross does not represent hope and salvation to everyone. To many people, it is a sign of hypocrisy and judgment, bigotry, and intolerance. Paul said that to unbelievers, the crucifixion is a stumbling block, meaning it is something difficult to understand or even that it is something offensive(1 Cor. 1:23). But it is one thing for unbelievers to be offended by classical Christian teachings, such as salvation through Christ alone or the biblical model of family and sexual ethics. It is another thing to be offended by unbiblical behavior of self-professing Christians. Jesus said that people will recognize his true disciples by their love for one another(John 13:35). If we do not love each other, then we do not truly maintain the legacy of Christ.

A Legacy of Love
Like Captain America’s shield, Christianity has had a dual legacy. One legacy—the true legacy—is a legacy of love, modeled on the life and teachings of Jesus. The earliest Christians cared for the sick, provided for the poor, rescued and raised babies deemed unfit by their societies, and dedicated their lives to Jesus. Along with sharing the Gospel, missionaries have shared medicine and literacy around the world. Christians have established schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Even today, Christians seek to end slavery and sex trafficking. This is the true legacy of the cross, established by Jesus himself.

The other legacy—antithetical to the Gospel—is one of bigotry, hypocrisy, and using religion as a disguise for personal gain at the expense of others. For example, the cross, which should be a symbol of love and hope, was used as an object of fear and hatred when set ablaze by members of the KKK. In many ways, large and small, people have acted in the name of Jesus to perpetrate violent, unjust, and hateful deeds.

These are the legacies that Christians have established in the centuries since Jesus’s death and resurrection. We must now ask ourselves, what will our Christian legacy be? Will we love at all costs at the risk of losing our own importance, wealth, or even our lives? Or will we live down to the negative characterizations that society has of us? The choice is ours. Let us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Let us choose a legacy of love.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at freethinkingministries.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox.