Symbols: The Skull and Crossbones

This symbol is almost universally associated with piracy. It has had other meanings over the centuries, but there is always one meaning that comes to mind when one sees this emblematic symbol. Therefore, in this post I am only going to focus on the meaning of this symbol in the context of piracy.

The skull and crossbones is also known as “the Jolly Roger.” No one seems to really know for sure where this nickname originated, so I will not join in the speculation. The purpose of flying a flag with the skull and crossbones was to strike fear into the hearts of those aboard the ship, which the pirates were attacking. There is some historical information that also seems to indicate that this flag (or some variation) was flown in order to make it expressly clear that they were pirates and not simply some hired mariners running a privateer. This was important because those sailing under the authority of a government (i.e. privateers, buccaneers, etc.) were not allowed to execute those whom they were attacking if captured. Pirates, on the other hand, had no such restriction and often times would not offer quarter (capture without execution) once met with resistance.

The flag was a visual way to communicate their threat to the other ship—surrender or die. Pirates plundered ships, and even towns, in order to steal whatever they wanted. It wasn’t always gold or some form of treasure like that. There is historical evidence that records Edward Teach (Blackbeard) once capturing a ship sailing out of Charleston, South Carolina with several wealthy passengers on board. After taking the passengers prisoner, he demanded as ransom a chest containing medical supplies. Also, it is highly unlikely they would be able to gain supplies such as ammunition through any reputable source; therefore, they would have had to capture merchant vessels containing these supplies in order to restock.

With all this in mind, there is an important question to ask—does this have a place in the life of a Christian? The way-of-life this symbol conveys has absolutely no place in the life of a Christian. The very essence of a pirate’s livelihood was stealing, a concept that is directly opposed by God in the 10 Commandments.

You shall not steal…You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:15, 17; NIV)
However, this not simply an Old Testament commandment, Jesus himself reinforced this understanding. After being asked by a Pharisee which was the greatest commandment, Jesus gave this answer:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV)
Pirates certainly were/are not practicing those commandments, particularly loving your neighbor as yourself. Something very interesting is that while pirates were stealing from other people, if you were caught stealing from another pirate aboard the same ship you risked being marooned. So it was okay to steal from those not aboard the same pirate ship, but it was considered a crime to do so among the crew. The main point here is that the very essence of what pirates are and do has no place in the life of any Christian. Therefore, it is my opinion that Christians should not be wearing, displaying, or attaching themselves to this symbol. Please note: I am not proclaiming that the Bible says we should avoid wearing this, but I am basing my opinion upon biblical principles that make it clear that we are not to be involved in the actions this symbol represents.

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