But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.
So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country—from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias. I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?
Speaking of listening…
Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy,’ you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.
Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal—though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.
What if we listened—really listened—to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.
Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.
But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.
Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?
Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?
Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.
Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.
This article originally appeared here.