Symbolism isn’t enough

I have always been fascinated by symbols. These gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words, help people navigate and understand the world they live in. They provide clues to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies and groups of people. Symbols are everywhere and they can even articulate social priorities or the function or purpose or a place or thing. We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous street signs and their pictographic icons, and personally love the symbols one encounters in a cemetery. Architecturally, we see this all over a city like ours. On each of the corners of the roof of the main Chicago Library building downtown, there are giant owls representing knowledge. At the top of the deco-style Board of Trade there is the figure of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Churches have steeples crowned with crosses, and their interior spaces are often covered in symbols everywhere you look!

Beyond the literal symbols which hopefully help us maneuver the world in which we live, there is the use of symbols to convey ideas and qualities– symbol-ism. We also encounter symbolism all around us. The statues we choose to erect in our town squares, the people we choose to honor by with the naming public buildings and spaces, even the parables Jesus shared to convey his wisdom teachings are dripping in symbolism. The challenges with symbols and symbolism are first, do we understand the meaning behind the symbol, and second, do we use the symbol to “move” into something new– a thought, an action, an idea?

This week, Juneteenth was declared a National Holiday, which is good and right, and overdue. We must tell the truth, and all of the truth in our teaching of history if we are to create a space of dignity and repentance, and for far too long truths of black and brown people, of indigenous and immigrant cultures, have been conveniently “left out” of much of the narrative– swept under the rug of our published histories. Indeed, we must begin by educating our populations of what the real history is — but knowing what a symbol is isn’t enough. Juneteenth, now known as Juneteenth National Independence Day and historically known as Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day, commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when General Order No. 3 was announced by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for slaves in Texas, the last state to free enslaved peoples. This is absolutely a worthy commemoration and worth celebrating, but we must also be sober in our acknowledgement that so much work is yet to be accomplished in the full emancipation of formerly enslaved peoples. 156 years have passed since that first Jubilee Day in 1865. 156 years of battles and blood, laws and lies. 156 years of a country reckoning with its identity and the reality that this American Dream has for so many been a lived nightmare for far too long.

Symbolism such as a national holiday is important and valuable, but only if contemplating it brings about some real transformation. When Jesus shared parables with the people it was merely a starting place. Each of them had an opportunity to interact with that truth in themselves and then as a group until that wisdom translated into conversion — into a new way of living and loving. Today we are still presented with that same opportunity. Will we dance through the doorways of truth into a new way of living and loving, moving closer and closer to unity and peace, or will we simply stand starring at the threshold as the invitation becomes faded and forgotten? As this country yet again attempts to move beyond mere words and symbols, I pray we will begin to see real fruits of change and healing– and all in the name of, and for the sake of, a God who deeply loves us.