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The Offending Symbols

September 10, 2010

Yesterday evening, in the wake of all the news coming out of Gainsville regarding that tiny congregation’s plan to burn copies of the Koran (which has thankfully been called off), I got into an interesting conversation over email with some friends about symbols and their power, or lack thereof.

One friend (who happens to be an atheist) said he didn’t understand what the big deal was. So someone burns the Koran or the American flag or the Bible or the Constitution or whatever, why would anyone take offense? All that symbolic stuff is intrinsically meaningless. Someone burnimg the Koran doesn’t mean that someone is burning the Muslim faith; burning the American flag isn’t the same as burning the country of the United States; and so forth. That led me to write this:

For human beings, symbols are not just symbols. Symbols matter deeply to us in the way that we perceive meaning in the world and in our lives. Sure, I’m willing to admit that some symbols are given too much weight, more weight than they rightfully deserve. But that doesn’t make them value-less. Remember the closing scene of “The Crucible” when the main character can’t bring himself to sign his name to the lie that he’s a witch, even though it will cost him his life? I’m not sure if I’d make the same decision were I in his position. But these sorts of symbols–like our names–are not things that we can simply throw away or burn without serious, long-lasting repercussions in our souls. Maybe those repercussions are worth it to make a point–life-choices are always trade-offs after all–but there are still repercussions.

My friend wrote back:

I was trying to think of something that would offend me to burn. Not offend me on behalf of someone else, but really hurt me by publicly ruining something I thought was sacred. I couldn’t really come up with any. I thought of great artworks. We could in fact scan the Mona Lisa, replace it on the wall of the Louvre and really nobody would be worse off. We might even be able to improve it a bit. But those are worth tons of money. They have huge monetary value.

I’m not sure your example, Jamie, of the confession signature, is right, either. Signing such a thing would greatly affect one’s reputation, one’s sense of integrity, etc. It could significantly change one’s life.

I wouldn’t burn someone’s personal bible, inscribed by grandpa, either. That does have value to me, even if the value isn’t universal.

Anonymous Korans, Bibles, flags, etc are easily reproducible commodities. You could burn one and make another at almost no cost to anyone. It’s just material material. I actually think that burning them could be a powerful statement about what is important: spirit, community, values are worth something. Paper isn’t.

When I was in high school, I participated in a flag burning. Long story, but I thought alot about it. I decided that my resistance to it was a fear of offending someone else, of rocking the boat. I decided that the risk of offending others was outweighed by the value of powerfully demonstrating our right to protest and offend. I held a match, even thought “I actually love this country.”

I can definitely be offended. If someone is personally attacking me, I would feel wronged. However, I sincerely believe that it is more honorable, and a sign of strength and righteousness, to see attempts to offend me as a sign of weakness in the offender. I think a belief system that is predicated on feeling deeply offended by symbolic offenses is truly craven.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Adams permalink
    September 10, 2010 10:13 am

    “I think a belief system that is predicated on feeling deeply offended by symbolic offenses is truly craven.”

    And there you have it. The definition of extremism whether it is social, political, or religious.

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