How did a symbol of torture end up on our flag?

The debate about changing the New Zealand flag has incited some bold claims. These include an unfounded meme claiming that removing the Union Jack would have implications for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), and political party New Zealand First waving around a picture of a swastika made up of ‘Red Peak’ flags pieced together.

Whenever the flag debate is aired, wild claims abound. The meaning of flags or symbols has been a common theme in online comment threads, prompting me to think about the meaning behind some of our most popular cultural motifs and designs.

Meanings from history

Consider our current flag. Like the smell of pipe tobacco reminds me of my Grandad, for some, seeing our flag fills them with nostalgia and pride—pride in the efforts of the New Zealand Defence Force and the many sacrifices people made serving our country.

This meaning has built up over time. The current flag was first used on New Zealand ships prior to becoming the official flag in 1902. (This link contains more information on the complexities of the origin and adoption of the current flag).

What about the silver fern? The fern symbol is very recognisable and was probably the first symbol I thought of when considering what might go on a new flag. But why the fern? Why not Kowhai or Pohutukawa flowers?

The silver fern was first worn by New Zealand shooters in a rifle shooting contest. A British Royal Navy boat docked at New Plymouth and some sailors challenged a group of New Zealand Soldiers to a contest. The New Zealanders pinned silver ferns to their shirts for good luck.

After beating the sailors the New Zealanders adopted the silver fern more permanently as a symbol of national identity and pride. Now the silver fern is a key motif worn by many New Zealand sportspeople, including the All Blacks and (not surprisingly) the Silver Ferns.

Just a bunch of triangles?

What about the social media darling ‘Red Peak’? Some say ‘Red Peak means nothing to me’. Without a long history of use or easily recognisable icons the Red Peak or ‘First to the light’ flag lacks an immediate nostalgic impact.

However, many people (including myself) testify how Red Peak has grown on them. The Facebook group and visual blog encourage participants to display their interpretations of the flag and what it means to them.

I particularly like the designer’s intended meaning. By giving it the title ‘First to the light’ he says it represents New Zealand as one of the first countries to see light each day.

Should Red Peak be adopted as our new flag, it will come to represent whatever modern New Zealand becomes, growing into its new meaning.

Shifting symbols

Consider the symbol that dominates our current flag: the cross. The current New Zealand flag has the Southern Cross constellation, plus the three crosses on the Union Jack.

Today the cross symbol is seen all over the place: on a necklace and tattoos for fashion, on an ambulance for medical help, even on gravestones to represent remembrance.

For Christians the cross is a symbol of life and hope. But the cross didn’t always carry such positive connotations.

For a long time the cross meant torture and death and was used as a favoured tool of execution for the lowest of the low. The cross was notorious. The word ‘excruciating’ is derived from the word crucifix.

Not only was it an incredibly painful way to die but it was shameful, as the executed was hung by nails while stretched out, exposed for everyone to witness their last breath.

It is remarkable that a symbol of death could change to be so positive and revered. Even over a long period of time; but that is exactly what happened.

Following his death by crucifixion the followers of Jesus started telling people they had seen him come back to life again. His followers told people how his death on the cross was actually powerful.

The resurrection of Jesus is not some late addition; it was a crucial part of the message of Jesus and his followers right from the start. The Apostle Paul wrote:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.

He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

Those early Christians worshipped someone that had been killed in the most shameful way.

It is difficult to explain away the dramatic rise of Christianity as it went against the grain of culture. A dramatic change in meaning triggered by the most dramatic event and what it meant to those who witnessed it.

The change in the meaning of the cross is an example of how symbols change; but more significantly it is a powerful example of how the message of Christianity arose against the odds.

The cross, once a symbol of shame, is now glorious and full of hope. The cross moved from a symbol of death to a symbol of life.

Keeping perspective

I hope we can remember that meaning grows and changes as we debate changing our flag. The meaning we give our flag is what will ultimately matter.

We will give meaning to our flag through what we understand it to represent, but also through our actions as a country. We have much to be proud of as a nation and I pray that whenever people see our flag that they would be filled with admiration and pride for who we are.

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