The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Surrounded by Symbols
During the Viet Nam war, the US flag was divisive. Those who opposed the war often felt that the flag symbolized, not the deepest and most honorable values of the nation, but the partisan policies and attitudes that they opposed.
Since the attacks of September 11, there is a renewed enthusiasm for displaying the US flag. It hangs from homes and businesses, is pinned to blouses and lapels, and is posted on innumerable car windows and bumpers. Many people who felt ambivalent or uncomfortable with the flag a year ago now wave it proudly. In a newly reclaimed way, it serves as a powerful symbol of national unity and pride.
Clearly, the US flag is not just an object, a simple thing.
Theologian Paul Tillich helped to clarify the difference between signs and symbols. A sign (like the one on a bathroom door, or a traffic light) conveys specific information. A symbol (like a flag or the cross) points to something beyond itself. It has a meaning larger and deeper than its face value. That richness of symbolic meaning cannot be consciously created; it grows out of the experiences and reflections of a community.
We're all aware of the grand symbols like the flag. Some recent events have reminded me of the need to recognize the presence of many other less intentional symbols around us, and to pay attention to their power.
When dealing with symbols, it is imperative (not just helpful) to discuss the many layers of meaning that are involved. We must go beyond rational and technical considerations and delve into emotions, loyalties and philosophies. We must be intentional and encompassing in the way we talk about an issue with symbolic content.
I'm not sure where to draw the dividing line between symbols and sentiment. There are many things that are not symbols, even though we attach strong emotion and feeling to them. But I am becoming aware that we are surrounded by more symbols than we have generally realized, and that the power of those symbols must be taken into account.
Those of us who are committed to working for eco-justice will do well to recognize the lesser symbols in our midst. When we recognize that many things around us are filled with meaning and significance -- when we see them as symbols which point beyond their own utility and function -- we will have opened the door to insightful and effective ways of exploring our society. We will have a richer understanding of both the difficulties and the possibilities for change.
On the other hand, if we disregard the symbolic power in everyday objects and behaviors, if we focus too rationally on things and policies, I am convinced that our efforts at social change are destined for frustration and failure.
+ + + + +
Part of Eco-Justice Ministries' commitment to working with churches grows from the knowledge that religious communities have a unique ability to deal lovingly and effectively with great depth of meaning. In our churches, there are special opportunities to talk with candor and care about meanings and feelings. Here, we can gather for conversation, rather than debate, about symbolic realities.
Our churches can provide a great gift to our communities by opening conversations about the symbolic content of our public debates. By naming and exploring what is really at stake, we can clarify, deepen , and perhaps even defuse the explosive character of some of our society's most pressing conflicts about policy and lifestyle.
When we bring together compassionate conversation and passionate advocacy, religious communities can assume a transformative role in our society. We can help to foster genuine community and understanding while also working assertively for eco-justice.
Let's do it!
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: email@example.com