“It’s only a symbol” is a convenient excuse for dismissing invasive reality. Symbols depend on reality for their power, beauty and energy. If used over a long period of time, a symbol accumulates energy and by definition participates in the reality symbolized. Sacraments are specific symbolic actions, entering into the reality they symbolize. Water does cleanse; bread feeds; oil heals. The sacramental use of these material things offers more than material cleansing, feeding and healing – not because the accompanying prayers are magic but because God uses matter to cleanse, feed and heal us. How else can we be reached? We are not, as we have been reminded often, pure spirits. God reaches us where we are, marooned between heaven and Earth.
Non-sacramental symbols in a parallel dynamic accumulate threads of reality the longer they are shared, protected, venerated, displayed and used to persuade. Sacramental symbols are needed because we are not pure spirits. Non-sacramental symbols are needed because we are more than matter. Symbols are essential to communicating with one another. First, we experience reality, then we learn about reality, then we communicate with one another about reality. How? With symbols: words, signs, sounds, pictures, gestures. Symbols represent what we experience as “real.” The longer a symbol is in use, the more expressive it is. It “unlocks” energy. That energy can be empowering, dangerous, inspiring, or threatening – depending upon the viewer – and upon the history of its use. A wedding ring expresses something that the marriage certificate does not. A flag speaks various languages: to a Jewish shopkeeper in 1940, the Nazi flag had a message (and still does) that it did not convey to a German soldier.
A Confederate Battle flag channels energy. It reaches backward and forward in time. It accumulates energy in each generation, not all of it benevolent. The present conflicting emotions, especially in southern states, testify to the power of a symbol that over time has accumulated meaning. It is the meaning now, in the present time and place, that matters. What do we want to say to one another, in the public space? What pain are we willing to inflict on one another – or what healing? The lowering of a flag, the removal of statues that brought conflicting emotions to a conflicted people was necessary. What is painful in the extreme is that a violent, destructive act directed to a non-violent innocent (and forgiving) people finally persuaded responsible citizens to realize the power of a symbol. That the realization of that power came too late to save the innocent is our national, and perhaps personal, tragedy.