Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Surrounded by Symbols
distributed 1/4/02 - ©2002

During the Viet Nam war, the US flag was divisive. Those who opposed the war often felt that the flag symbolized, not the deepest and most honorable values of the nation, but the partisan policies and attitudes that they opposed.

Since the attacks of September 11, there is a renewed enthusiasm for displaying the US flag. It hangs from homes and businesses, is pinned to blouses and lapels, and is posted on innumerable car windows and bumpers. Many people who felt ambivalent or uncomfortable with the flag a year ago now wave it proudly. In a newly reclaimed way, it serves as a powerful symbol of national unity and pride.

Clearly, the US flag is not just an object, a simple thing.

Theologian Paul Tillich helped to clarify the difference between signs and symbols. A sign (like the one on a bathroom door, or a traffic light) conveys specific information. A symbol (like a flag or the cross) points to something beyond itself. It has a meaning larger and deeper than its face value. That richness of symbolic meaning cannot be consciously created; it grows out of the experiences and reflections of a community.

We're all aware of the grand symbols like the flag. Some recent events have reminded me of the need to recognize the presence of many other less intentional symbols around us, and to pay attention to their power.

  • The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which keeps appearing at the center of energy policy debates in the US, has become a symbol of a far larger conflict. The question of whether or not to drill for oil in this restricted area has come to have far more import than the narrow policy question. ANWR stands for the resolve to (a) go to any length to guarantee oil for our nation's vitality, or (b) stand firm in protecting some areas from the encroachment of technology. The fight over the Alaskan coastal plain symbolizes the choice between our energy needs controlling us, or us controlling our energy options.

  • In the days after September 11, some people took to their vehicles as a way of expressing their patriotism. By driving an SUV or a pickup truck, instead of the family's compact car, these folk felt that they were making a statement about preserving "the American way of life." Our cars have always had a symbolic meaning, expressing status and power and self-image. This fall, that symbolism became more conscious and explicit.
When we are dealing with those things that are clearly symbols (wedding rings, flags or the cross), we know that we must address their emotional and psychological content, as well as the surface meaning of the thing. We run into problems in many practical debates (about oil, cars, and many others) when we don't see or address symbolic meanings.

When dealing with symbols, it is imperative (not just helpful) to discuss the many layers of meaning that are involved. We must go beyond rational and technical considerations and delve into emotions, loyalties and philosophies. We must be intentional and encompassing in the way we talk about an issue with symbolic content.

I'm not sure where to draw the dividing line between symbols and sentiment. There are many things that are not symbols, even though we attach strong emotion and feeling to them. But I am becoming aware that we are surrounded by more symbols than we have generally realized, and that the power of those symbols must be taken into account.

Those of us who are committed to working for eco-justice will do well to recognize the lesser symbols in our midst. When we recognize that many things around us are filled with meaning and significance -- when we see them as symbols which point beyond their own utility and function -- we will have opened the door to insightful and effective ways of exploring our society. We will have a richer understanding of both the difficulties and the possibilities for change.

On the other hand, if we disregard the symbolic power in everyday objects and behaviors, if we focus too rationally on things and policies, I am convinced that our efforts at social change are destined for frustration and failure.

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Part of Eco-Justice Ministries' commitment to working with churches grows from the knowledge that religious communities have a unique ability to deal lovingly and effectively with great depth of meaning. In our churches, there are special opportunities to talk with candor and care about meanings and feelings. Here, we can gather for conversation, rather than debate, about symbolic realities.

Our churches can provide a great gift to our communities by opening conversations about the symbolic content of our public debates. By naming and exploring what is really at stake, we can clarify, deepen , and perhaps even defuse the explosive character of some of our society's most pressing conflicts about policy and lifestyle.

When we bring together compassionate conversation and passionate advocacy, religious communities can assume a transformative role in our society. We can help to foster genuine community and understanding while also working assertively for eco-justice.

Let's do it!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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