When a Statue Becomes a Symbol: Thoughts from Bishop Johnson

A chalice, a cross, an empty tomb, a loaf of bread and wine are all familiar symbols of our faith as followers of Christ.  In fact, the history of these symbols is not restricted to their Christian application. They can be found in cultural and religious settings that bring the similar or same meanings we discover in them as Christians.  So, what does it mean to be a symbol?  A strong hint is found in the linguistic roots of the word.  From the Greek syn (“together”) plus bollein (“to throw”), a symbol is that which “throws or brings together” meaning.  It is this function of symbols that make them so powerful as sources of associations that lead us to respond with goodness or with evil.  This evil option occurs when the symbolic is transformed by the diabolic (from the Greek “dia + bollein” meaning “to tear apart”.)  So, symbols can either throw together and build up or diabolically tear apart and divide. I believe that this dynamic is at work now in the understandable reaction to the “symbol” of statues which were constructed to honor and glorify the Confederate States and its respective leaders.  This symbol has become demonic and diabolical whether it was intended to do this ‘in the beginning.’

Signs are not symbols.  “35 Miles per Hour” is a clear marker related to the here and now.  “One Way” with an arrow attached is a clear marker of the here and now.  In this context, we know that a sign functions as a “historic marker” to which we are to attend in this moment.  But a symbol goes beyond clarifying limits, giving direction or speaking to the “here and now.” Symbols speak of values, hopes, dreams, means, and goals.  Symbols are, to use Church language, eternal.

The use of signs as “historical markers” of things that happened in the past (“then and there”) is not the same as eternally glorifying what happened in the past as a value for the future.  A statue that seeks to ensconce the subjugation of people as slaves, of the denigration of the Jews, the elevation of white person who thinks that that race’s color somehow makes that person innately supreme is to misuse symbols and thereby turn them into diabolical means to unscrupulous ends.

Our Church has long celebrated the diversity that makes more complete and “throws together” the picture of the world we share with one another what it means to be brothers, sisters, and neighbors.  Our Presiding Bishop has eloquently spoken to this challenge and vision.  May the works being done through our Church be an expression of the symbolic way of living that shares with this “broken and sinful world” the healing word of Christ.  +Don


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