This essay is written to address how we have devolved into a form of idolatry through the proliferation and use of symbols. Symbols are used to evoke a set of behavioral expectations to which we are beholden to subscribe if we are to be deemed acceptable by others. Symbols are all too often the proxies used to substitute for meaningful interaction and relationship. They are designed to reduce fear and risk, but they often mitigate against the courage necessary to relate meaningfully to each other.
For thousands of years, we have lived our lives largely in response to symbols- religious, political, social, natural- to the point today that we substitute symbols for relationship substance. We think because someone wears a cross he must be a Christian or a hijab she must be a Muslim, or emblazon their clothing with the American flag they must be a patriot. Symbols govern our expectations of what to anticipate in the behavior of others but this can be confusing, and often misleading.
So, I’m driving along E. Brainerd Road in Chattanooga, TN, headed to Papa Murphy’s to pick up a take-and-bake pizza (Murphy: ain’t that Irish? How is it that the Irish are making pizzas? Ain’t pizzas Italian? Symbols). The traffic is pretty heavy (for Chattanooga). I pause to let a pickup truck enter the flow from a gas station adjacent to my position in the traffic. As he swings in front of me, I notice that the pickup’s back window has a large sticker display with the American and Confederate battle flags merged together and overlaid with the phrase, “united we stand”. Wait. Hold up. Wasn’t the Confederate battle flag emblematic of violent, diametric opposition to the Union represented by the Stars and Stripes? Was not a war fought over the concept of “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”? I wondered how the gentleman driving the pickup received the act of courtesy extended by me, an American of African descent, over whose ancestors’ status this “Civil War” was fought? I wondered if I’d known of this symbol on his truck prior to letting him into the traffic in front of me if I’d have been so courteous…
I have seen countless persons wearing clothing with the American flag AND the confederate battle flag emblazoned on their clothing or cars. I have seen crazy-quilt fabrications interweaving the American flag with the Nazi flag, the symbols of white supremacy. Often, these regalia are worn by those who associate their symbolism with their constitutional Second Amendment rights to bear arms, as if to send the message that all these TOGETHER reflect the values of America and the “true” Americans. This ‘syncretic’ and contradictory hodge-podge visualization of ideas and ideologies is designed to provoke…what? Was not the Civil War fought to preserve a Union that repudiated the values of the Confederacy- values of inequality and slavery? Why, then, is it “patriotic” for some to display these symbols together as if they accounted for the same values and principles? Was not WWII fought to defeat the National Socialist ideology and practices of the Nazis, an ideology that gave us Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Kristallnacht, which conflict also cost the lives of over 400,000 US military personnel (in excess of over 600,000 other soldiers were wounded). What do swastikas and old Glory have in common?
Implied biases are another way of expressing the dynamic of how symbols govern our behavior and our relational expectations. Symbols can be made into proxies for implied biases. “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other, and therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, ’why am I feeling this way?’”- Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2016. This is also not a political piece. Mrs. Clinton’s remarks at the first presidential debate frame the role of symbols and symbolism as determinants of our relational behaviors. Why is this important? How does this dynamic operate in our culture and what are/can be its relational manifestations?
Child psychologist Walter S. Gilliam of Yale University and a team of researchers, in a 2016 study (October, 2016) found that “implicit bias among early (childhood) education professionals (show) how powerfully (those) unconscious perceptions and value judgments (can) influence people’s perceptions and actions (behavioral expectations.) — “Is Prejudice Just a Police Problem?”- Editorial page, Chattanooga Times, October 7, 2016. The scope of the study measured how teachers’ “symbology” of expectations founded on racially-based preconceptions governed their expectations of and responses to certain behaviors among their students who were Black. “Gilliam and his team surmised from those results that the teachers scrutinized the black boys and girls more closely because they expected them to be more troublesome- and implicit bias (that) shows how deeply rooted racial stereotypes are.” (CT Editorial, 10/7/16). A stereotype is another type of symbol we use as proxy for “real” interaction.
Another aspect of the research, wherein teachers were asked to react to descriptions of misbehavior among students with stereotypically “ethnic”-sounding names vs those with stereotypically white-sounding names, resulted in “the students identified as black were consistently disciplined more harshly”, even by the black teachers. Gilliam, in an interview, stated: “Implicit bias is like the wind: You can’t see it, but you sure can see its effects.” Gilliam “says the brain creates mental shortcuts (symbols, my addition) that allow us to reach decisions more quickly by organizing the world in(to) broad generalizations”. I posit that this process includes the imposition of preconceptions-prejudices, implicit biases- about our expectations of a person’s reactions to the symbols we erect. Gilliam concludes: “But when we take what we think we know and apply it to everyone we see as individuals and start reacting to them as stereotypes (substituting symbols and symbolism for the ‘real’ person we fear to engage- my observation), we can do real harm”, most of which, Giliam concludes, is done unconsciously.
In today’s spheres of influence- religious, political, social, educational, judicial, economic, recreational- we abdicate courageous engagement with each other in favor of erecting “symbolic” barriers- individual masks or behavioral expectations based on generalizations of how we (or others we may encounter) should behave- in order for us to be safe in each other’s presence, to trust each other. This, in my opinion is shallow and borders on idolatry.
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.”- Exodus 20:4-5NLT
From the New Living Translation (NLT) Study Bible notes for Exodus 20: 4: “Not making an image of God is the first step toward recognizing that He is transcendent—that He is the Creator of the universe and distinct from it. To represent God as something in creation was inevitably to end up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, and this had deadly moral consequences (Rom 1:18-25).”
The Great Commandment says that we shall “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And we shall love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Mark 12:30). When we “symbol-ize” our relationship with God, we worship the proxies we have made and have exchanged these for a real, substantive relationship with Him. When we “symbol-ize” our relationships with one another, we substitute prejudices, preconceptions and misunderstandings for character and relational integrity. We use symbols in place of what we can (and should) expect from each other as persons and what we should expect from ourselves. We exchange character and relational integrity and courage for the easy, ‘microwaved’, dried up notions of our ‘symbolistic’ ways of thinking.
The challenge before each individual is to forego the easy means inherent in dealing with each other as a set of “symbols” rather than as living, breathing humans beings. We must be courageous enough to recognize in each other that which we hold in common and to rely on those characteristics rather than on the lifeless symbols we invest with meaning when they can have no real meaning because they have no real life. Recognition of our differences leads us to a greater grasp of what makes us one, but we must be courageous enough to NOT worship ourselves, the rankest form of idolatry. We must strive towards what is much more substantial, the Spirit of God Who binds us together in unity and love, Who indwells each of us, and Who cannot be subsumed into any symbol or symbology of our own creation.