Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The incredible power of symbols and rituals

They unite people. They divide people.

A national flag. A national anthem. A Confederate flag. A crucifix. A statue of Cecil Rhodes. A communion wafer.
Standing, kneeling, or sitting.

These symbols sometimes mean very different things to different people. That is when they divide communities.

I was in the USA for the last month and the recent controversy about what NFL plays do or do not do during the playing of the national anthem really brought these ideas home to me.
Some players have been sitting or kneeling or staying in the locker room during the national anthem. They are doing this to highlight issues about racism and particularly police violence against African Americans. On the orders of President Trump, Vice President Pence recently left an NFL game after the anthem in protest after two dozens players from one team did not stand. He said

I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.

It is interesting (and perhaps disturbing to some) how to Pence (and many Americans) respect for the military is conflated with standing for the national anthem. For context, it should also be pointed out that before 9/11, players always stayed in the locker room during playing of the national anthem. Back then, they were never accused of being unpatriotic. My dear wife, points out how she finds it confusing that to kneel is an act of disrespect, whereas Tim Tebow [a famous NFL player] became famous for his kneel. There is a fascinating article in the Washington Post [written by an Australian theologian!] Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees.

Here I should clarify my mixed "allegiances" and limited qualifications to comment on the USA. I am not a US citizen. But, my wife and two children both hold US and Australian citizenship. I lived there from 1983 to 1994. Since then I have probably spent an average of about one month a year there, both for work and visiting family.
Australians have very different attitudes to nationhood, patriotism, national anthems, politicians, and authority... but that is another story. To illustrate, when the national anthem was changed a few decades ago, a folk song, Waltzing Matilda, was a serious contender. It is about an itinerant farm worker who steals a sheep and commits suicide to avoid capture by the police...
On the other hand, Anzac day, has become highly symbolic, including in ways that I find worrisome.

I also want to confess my own mis-adventures. I am embarrassed to tell this story. When I was first in the USA I was invited to a Fourth of July concert and fireworks by some American friends. I was young and naive (clueless?). When the National Anthem was played and sung with great gusto by everyone standing around me I remained seated. I thought, "I am not an American and I don't like President Reagan or US foreign policy, so why should I stand?" Afterwards, I felt awkward. Now I think it was rude, particularly to my friends and hosts.
Having said that, if I played in the NFL [laugh out loud!] and one of my African-American team-mates asked me to kneel with him in solidarity I would.

These issues are not unique to the USA. In India, last year following a government directive,
The Supreme Court has ruled that the national anthem should be played before the screening of films in cinema halls, and that all should “stand up in respect.” “...people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag,” Justice Dipak Misra said in the ruling.
People who oppose such directives or are critical of other government policies, such as military action in Kashmir, are increasingly painted as "anti-national".

Why does all this matter?
It does raise important questions about the meaning of freedom in democratic societies and how to live in a pluralistic community with a diversity of values and perspectives.
It is particularly important that on both sides of these debates to try to understand the points of view of those with different views to yours.
The symbols really can mean quite different things to different people.
If we want to build community and respect the dignity of others we will consider how our actions may be interpreted.
There are also questions about how the powerful use these symbols to manipulate people to stay in power and/or to distract debate about arguably more substantial and concrete issues.

What about religious symbols?
To hard-core Protestants they are just idolatry.
Yet, communion [bread and wine] has important symbolic value in focussing thoughts on the death, resurrection, of Jesus and on the community of the church.
A cross is an incredibly powerful symbol of The Cross of Jesus [his suffering, death, and its atoning power for sin].

One of the most important biblical concepts and symbols is imageo dei. Humans are made in the image of God. There are many subtleties and debates about exactly what this means. But I think the following is one of the most important messages of Genesis One, which has nothing to do with biological science and history. If we disrespect the image we disrespect God. Thus, any action of disrespect to any human [whether abuse, exploitation, racism, ridicule, violence, ...] is actually dishonouring God.

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