The trouble with symbols.
When we were kids we were taught that a symbol stood for, or stood in for, something much bigger and more complicated than the symbol itself. Like a cross in church. Like a national flag.
I grew up in a white, Anglo, working class, Protestant, home. What I was told was a normal Canadian household and family. It was easy to believe a symbol represented whatever I was told it represented. That was the one, right understanding.
Like a lot of white, Anglo Canadians I lived all my early life in a world where everyone—at least everyone I knew or knew of—looked, learned, and believed like me.
It was a real shock when I learned, as an adult, that any symbol can carry more than one meaning. First, I had to enter a new world, where not everyone was more or less like me. I stepped into that world in University, though leaving campus in Halifax was like going back to my old world. When I went on to study in Toronto, Knox College at that time was a safe place for refugees from the world I grew up in. Leaving campus was a new-world experience.
I began to listen and found, even among people who were more or less like me, that different people assigned different meanings to symbols. Even when we agreed on an interpretation of a given symbol, we didn’t all get there on the same path.
So, here’s what’s on my mind today. I’ve just learned that some Presbyterians have considered not marching in the Pride Parade on Sunday because the organizers decided not to allow police officers to march in uniform. Black Lives Matter demanded that ruling.
I was angry when I first heard about that. As a white, well-off, Anglo Canadian I see uniformed police as my helpers and protectors. They represent good order, and safety for everyone. Though I must admit, as I read and hear each day’s news, I’m less inclined to assume those things here in the GTA. I did, blissfully, think that way in Halifax. (Halifax Police have dropped out of the parade this year, but will take part in other Pride activities. Vancouver Police will march in civvies, with t-shirts that say who they are.)
My objections to the actions of Black Lives Matter aside, I now realize that there are many, many people—people who aren’t like me—who can’t blissfully identify a uniformed woman or man as a helper or a protector. Often it’s because they, and others like them, have had a very different experience of uniformed police than I have. As a white, well-off, Anglo Canadian my experience of uniformed police is limited. A couple speeding tickets. Seeing my brother-in-law go to work. A chat with an officer guarding a construction site near my home.
Many new Canadians have fled countries where uniformed police and fighters represented death. Most of them were law-abiding citizens in their home countries, but the presence of police near their homes always meant trouble for someone. Often someone close to them.
I understand the original intent of police officers who have chosen to join in parades everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the joyful presence of hundreds of police and fire personnel when I watched the Pride Parade in New York City. But I remember now that most people around me on the steps of the NY Public Library looked and sounded more or less like me. We got what those men and women in uniform so wanted to communicate. They were showing solidarity through the symbol they wore, and were.
Many in the LGBTQ+ communities, people of all colours, do not attach positive meaning to any uniform. They can’t assume anyone will accept them for who they are. The Pride Parade itself has evolved from a march that commemorated a brutal police raid and mass arrest of gay men and their straight friends. It began as a protest. Perhaps it will evolve further, and no one will have reason to be frightened of anyone who wants to march. But our society has to evolve, first.
I’m working on a sermon for Sunday, based on Psalm 23. I’m fascinated by these words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” I guess I never noticed them before. Just took them for granted, because the psalm itself is such a powerful symbol. There’s the problem. I was taught what the psalm meant. Now I know it’s strong enough to support many meanings.
I was caught by these words of Walter Brueggemann—a hero of mine, but you know that if you’ve heard me preach more than once—from a sermon he preached on the 23rd Psalm.
We are being chased by God's powerful love. We run from it. We fear that goodness, because we are then no longer in control. We do not trust such a generosity, and we think our own best efforts are better than God's mercy.
Lent [Now!] is a time to quit running, to let ourselves be caught and embraced in love, like that of a sheep with safe pasture, like a traveler with rich and unexpected food. Our life is not willed by God to be an endless anxiety. It is, rather, meant to be an embrace, but that entails being caught by God.
Could it be that God is chasing all of us toward what and whom we fear? Is God chasing people who are afraid to join in the parade? People who are angry about one thing and find in that anger a reason not to face a greater reality?
I hope God is chasing the clergy of our PCC who are so opposed to justice and hospitality for all that they’ve stopped listening to people like those of us who will march as proud Presbyterians on Sunday. After all, we’re all more or less like them. We’re all looking at the same symbols: Bible, worship, mission, church. But we don’t all look at them in the same way. As long as any of us is afraid, we won’t recognize what we share.
Maybe we all need to stop and let God catch us.