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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Powerful Symbolism
distributed 10/8/10 - ©2010

Symbolic actions are powerful. Just look at any church.

  • When we're doing our annual fundraising (or "stewardship"), we ask our members to fill out their pledge cards, then walk to the front of the church and put the card in a basket on the altar/communion table. We could get the same information if the members sent an email with their pledge. The active symbolism of movement and dedication give a deeper meaning to the financial promise.

  • Legally, a marriage only requires a few people to sign a state-issued marriage license. But church weddings and commitment services are full of ritual and symbolism, turning a contractual agreement into an event with greater meaning and significance for the couple and the community. Perhaps the power of symbolism is seen most clearly for those couples where the state will not issue a license, but whose union is blessed by a church community. Such a ceremony communicates a wealth of messages beyond the most immediate joining of two people.

  • A common church conflict highlights the tremendous power of symbolic actions. Will the congregation use disposable coffee cups, or permanent mugs? The difference in environmental impacts between the two choices is not huge (see the sidebar on our congregational assessment), but the passion about using mugs reveals that a symbol is present. The way we serve coffee at our weekly fellowship time expresses something profound about the state of our overall commitment to creation care.

Symbolic actions are powerful. That's why it is astonishing to me when I hear the dismissive comment that something is "just a symbol." If symbols are at work, then we'd better be especially attentive and careful.

This week, I'm aware of two closely related happenings where it is important to see and celebrate the power of symbolic actions. By themselves, they may not do much. As symbols, they are very important, indeed.

  1. This week, the Obama administration announced that solar panels will be installed on the White House. This comes just a few weeks after a group of college students brought a Carter-era solar panel back to the President's house, with the offer to put it back on the roof. (The offer was refused.)

    The promised new solar array will generate some electricity and heat some water for the First Family. Practically, I don't expect a dramatic reduction in the utility bills at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It is "just a symbol" of awareness and attentiveness to energy use and climate health.

    Bill McKibben wrote on Tuesday, "Solar panels on one house, even this house, won't save the climate, of course. But they're a powerful symbol to the whole nation about where the future lies. And President Obama will wake up every morning and make his toast by the power of the sun (do presidents make toast?), which will be a constant reminder to be pushing the U.S. Congress for the kind of comprehensive reform we need."

  2. This Sunday, on 10/10/10, thousands of "work parties" will be held around the world as the grassroots movement for action on climate change mobilizes. As of noon today, 7,014 events are registered in 188 countries -- dramatically more events than last year's record-breaking set of "350" actions.

    In a year when it has been painfully clear that politicians and diplomats can't gather the passion and focus to write laws and craft agreements, the people are going to work. This weekend, the work parties will be installing solar panels, planting trees, refurbishing bicycles, installing CFL bulbs, staging protests, doing teach-ins, and countless other creative events.

    Those are all good and worthwhile activities. They are vivid examples of the sort of things that need to happen if we're going to slow the distortion of Earth's climate systems.

It would be easy to belittle the impact of the solar panels and work parties -- and I'm sure that we'll hear those dismissive jabs. But that misses the point. (Those who discount these efforts are probably very intentional about trying to distract us from the real point of the actions.)

The work parties this weekend are symbolic acts. Each one will be effective in its own small steps to do good things for the Earth. More importantly, individually and collectively, our work parties point beyond themselves. Their power comes not only from watts of electricity that are saved, or the number of trees that are planted. The power comes from the gathered voice of a global movement.

A couple of months ago, McKibben wrote, "All around the country and the world people will be putting up solar panels and digging community gardens and laying out bike paths. Not because we can stop climate change one bike path at a time, but because we need to make a sharp political point to our leaders: we're getting to work, what about you?"

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If we allow ourselves to forget that symbols are powerful, then the news this week may be discouraging. "Only" a few hundred thousand people are taking part in 10/10/10, and the practical effect of our work is a drop in the bucket.

But something different happens if we claim the news items as symbolic actions. Solar panels going back on the White House is a moral statement as well as a practical measure. For 10/10/10, more carefully coordinated events will be held on a single day than the world has ever seen, and people in virtually every country are committing themselves to work in this cause. When we see symbolism, then the news is inspiring.

In our stewardship campaigns, we know the emotional and spiritual power of that symbolic walk to the altar with a pledge card. A perfectly ordinary behavior is made holy by its ritual setting. May we celebrate the same sort of power with this weekend's day of work and action.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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