I haven’t put my hand over my heart for the pledge of allegiance or spoken its words since grade school. I’m not from an Anabaptist tradition, and I call East Texas home, so displays of nationalistic pride are simply part of my inborn religious habitat. Yet, to my high-school mind, I quite plainly did not pledge my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Allegiance was a zero-sum game, and God was the winner.
No surprise, experience has given rise to a more nuanced view of the world. Yet, nuance—complexity—requires some way of navigating the dilemmas of non-zero-sum games, when winning and losing are hard to sort. In the biblical tradition, we call this capacity for complexity wisdom.
The wisdom literature of the Bible is both a celebration and a lament of fundamental contradictions: the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of everything, the wisdom and folly of identical choices, answers that are refusals to answer. Reveling in the irony of wisdom, some ancient editor-sage gifted us Proverbs 26:4–5:
Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes. (NRSV)
For Christians, of course, the pursuit of Wisdom was crucified and resurrected as the following of Jesus, Wisdom incarnate. He has proven as perplexing as wisdom ever was. Gain through loss, strength through weakness, honor through disgrace, life through death—this is the idiom of Christian wisdom. Contradiction is our native language game.
Nuanced view of the world notwithstanding, I still don’t say the pledge of allegiance or sing the national anthem. As a missionary, however, I proudly watched my bicultural children belt out the Peruvian national anthem. The anthem on my children’s lips was an embodied, enculturated expression of solidarity with my neighbors.
Yet, the theological stakes of nationalism are the same in both countries. Why do I feel so differently about expressions of patriotism in the United States? I’ll try to account for the contradiction by juxtaposing two images: Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad and the meme of Pat Tillman that quickly emerged as a response.
Left: Colin Kaepernick appears in a Nike ad that was posted to his Twitter account on Sept. 3, 2018. Right: Photoshopped image of Pat Tillman that appeared on various social media outlets (source unknown).
Symbols have, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur put it, a surplus of meaning. For example, symbolic actions (standing, kneeling, hand over the heart, saluting), material symbols (brand logos, military uniforms, memes), and stories (resistance to racism, military heroism) all have tremendous potential meaning, limited only by arguments about interpretive plausibility.
Convention does a lot to mediate our interpretive disputes, but convention is also what makes disputes possible. Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem only functions as a symbol of protest by subverting the conventional meaning of standing: to stand is “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The issue is not really what kneeling means; it is a dispute about what blithely standing means. Kaepernick’s symbolic action presents an interpretive argument that national pride cannot be separated from the nation’s systemic racism.
In turn, the story of Kaepernick’s symbolic argument and its consequences for his career becomes a symbol that Nike monetizes. The photo, the symbol of the story, interprets the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” By association, the Nike swoosh symbol now signifies agreement with Kaepernick’s interpretation of standing for the anthem. Therefore, those who maintain the conventional interpretation of standing for the anthem light their sneakers on fire. This is the conflict of interpretations.
The photo of Pat Tillman symbolizes another story, which reinterprets the meaning of “belief” and “sacrifice” according to the conventions of nationalistic loyalty and the militarism that accompanies it. According to this story, Tillman’s belief led him to make the ultimate sacrifice. To question this narrative is something akin to heresy. As James K. A. Smith put it:
You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels.
How dare anyone question the meaning of the belief and sacrifice of those who have “died so we can be free”—just like Jesus did?
The Tillman meme inadvertently proves Kaepernick’s point. Militaristic nationalism is part and parcel of the conventional interpretation of standing for the anthem. Belief is in the system, which demands certain sacrifices, namely, lives—the lives of soldiers and the lives of black men. From this perspective, standing for the anthem symbolizes affirmation of the violence (call it “sacrifice,” since this is a sacral belief system) inherent in the order of things. The militarized police force is merely an extension of this order, and the death of black Americans is another sacrifice that maintains the American way of life. Honoring the sacrifice of soldiers cannot be separated from condoning police brutality.
I return to my original question: if I celebrated my kids’ Peruvian patriotism, why not recite the pledge of allegiance at their U.S. school events? The answer is that the interpretation of symbolic action is a social phenomenon, which means that it matters a great deal who does the symbolizing. It would matter if Tillman were the one kneeling (and there is reason to think he would) instead of Kaepernick. For a white, blue-eyed, American, Christian man, the symbolic actions of patriotism mean very different things in U.S. and Peruvian contexts. In the U.S., the pledge of allegiance too easily signifies conformity to the blind nationalism that infects American Christianity. In Peru, the celebration of my children’s dual citizenship lends itself to the subversion of the American imperialism that sees other cultures as inferior or as objects of economic exploitation. In the U.S., the pledge of allegiance too easily signifies conformity to the blind nationalism that infects American Christianity. Click To Tweet
Symbolic action is a kind of discourse, which means that it refers back to the particularity of the symbolic actor. Ricoeur famously said in The Symbolism of Evil, “the symbol gives rise to thought,” meaning it gives rise to interpretation:
There exists nowhere a symbolic language without hermeneutics; wherever a man dreams or raves, another man arises to give an interpretation; what was already discourse, even if incoherent, is brought into coherent discourse by hermeneutics.
The result of symbolic action is the conflict of interpretations—but it is a conflict bound by the particularity of the symbolic discourse. Kaepernick’s particularity serves to limit the symbol’s horizon of meaning. There is no substituting some other symbolic actor. The attempt only proves the point.
Reading the Context
Despite focusing on a couple of specific symbolic actions, this essay is not about advocating any of them. I am interested, instead, in a couple of things:
- To offer an interpretation of the symbols mentioned, in order to indicate one sort of analysis I believe the missional church needs to engage in.
- To advocate symbolic action steeped in the missional church’s idiom of contradictory wisdom.
In Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America, Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile have recently made a claim that I wish to emphasize:
It is crucial for the church to develop the ability to understand its context. The church, which is missionary by nature, has within it the impulse to seek to be contextual in engaging its location. The importance of this aptitude for reading a context has become increasingly recognized in recent decades.
Their book goes on to offer a variety of valuable contextual analyses. Yet, as I worked on this essay, Botham Shem Jean was gunned down in his own apartment by an off-duty police officer. So, as I review Participating in God’s Mission, I cannot fail to note that their discussion of the contemporary American context ignores institutionalized racism, the cult of redemptive violence, and the ideology of nationalism. I do not mean this as a cheap shot, because Van Gelder and Zscheile have made a tremendous contribution. But we must bring their call for aptly “reading a context” to bear on these dimensions of our culture.
More to the point, from a missiological standpoint, analysis of context serves contextualization. But contextualization of what? “The gospel” is the virtually automatic response. To clarify that vague answer, I refer us back to Lesslie Newbigin’s vision of “the congregation as hermeneutic of the gospel” in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Our voices, our presence, our postures and actions—our very bodies—are the symbols that contextualization seeks to make sense of amidst the conflict of interpretations. Only as the church can we give rise to a particular conflict of interpretation. This is contextualization: not the manipulation of contextual variables to communicate clearly but wise discernment of which contradiction to embody in this context.
Answering fools according to their folly will not necessarily make you a fool yourself or necessarily make them wise in their own eyes. Context determines meaning, but what the missional church stands for—or kneels for—will give rise to the conflict of interpretation that puts our symbolic embodiment of the gospel at stake. To balk at symbolic action because it might be misunderstood or misconstrued misses the critical point: being a hermeneutic of the gospel entails a conflict of interpretations. The transformation of our culture’s racist, violent, nationalistic way of life demands nothing less.
I conclude with a few contextual observations, indebted to Van Gelder and Zscheile.
1. Tribalism overpowers the identity we bring to symbolic action.
The downside of the social media is that they foster cultural segregation and the disintegration of common spaces and stories. Views are reinforced rather than challenged; it is easy to demonize those who are different; and we increasingly talk past each other rather than with each other. The result is a new microtribalism” (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 241).
Further, the use of social media in cases like the NFL kneeling controversy plays easily into the hands of an extreme identity politics.
People are becoming disconnected from shared stories and structures that once gave life coherence, at least for many Americans. What has emerged instead is an “anxious tribalism” of exclusionary identities chosen and cultivated over against other groups (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 246).
The result is that sharing a meme becomes nothing more than picking a side in someone else’s political game. Tribalism subsumes the shared stories and structures of Christian identity, which are the particularity of our symbolic action. When we identify chiefly as the member of a tribe, we become pawns in someone else’s conflict of interpretation. Sharing a meme becomes nothing more than picking a side in someone else’s political game. Click To Tweet
2. Consumerism leeches the life from our symbolic action.
Like a parasite, it latches onto the identity crisis mentioned above. Nike knows which game it is playing as it mixes identity politics with brand recognition. With uncanny prescience, Van Gelder and Zscheile write:
Brands have become markers of personal and tribal identity. Consider, for instance, Nike advertisements, which hardly need linger on the shoes or sports equipment they are ostensibly selling; the real promise is self-transcendence, tribal identity, performance, or heroic glory. Amidst the erosion of larger narratives that once shaped human purpose and community, people look to product choices to express identity (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 249).
Wise symbolization of the gospel must not wander heedlessly into the commodification of symbols. David Fitch’s recent comment on Facebook regarding Kaepernick’s symbolic action is right:
There are no easy moves in this game. If burning your Nikes is an obtuse act of tribalism, blithely “sharing” Nike’s patronage plays into the long game that the powers and principalities of capitalism are running. The lyrics of Childish Gambino’s “This is America” keep running through my head:
Get your money, black man (get your money).
3. Individualism shatters the sense-making apparatus necessary for meaningful discourse.
Like a nuclear bomb, individualism laid waste to robust forms of community in American life, and tribalism has developed as a mutation, a deformed remnant of genuine community. Because tribalism depends on the manic urgency of individualistic identity construction, it is a poor substitute for vibrant community. Among other things, we find in community those “shared stories and structures that once gave life coherence.” Without them:
… the ultimate criterion for ethics, lifestyles, behaviors, commitments (such as they are) is how it feels to the individual. Late modernity has turned the reference points for meaning, authority, purpose, and community from external sources (God, a shared idea of the good, traditional communal norms and structures) to the individual self. Authority and ultimate meaning lie within each of us individually—there to be extracted” (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 248).
Real community also entails the social bonds necessary to live well through the conflict of interpretations—a support system without which discourse devolves into mere conflict, senseless bullying, and profound isolation. By capitulating to individualism and its tribalist fallout, the church forfeits the “reference points” necessary to perform symbolic action in life-giving ways.
4. Secularism guts the very wisdom on which the church’s symbolic action depends.
At the heart of biblical wisdom is “fear of the Lord” (Prov 1:7; Job 28:28; Eccl 12:13). The connotations of religious fear are unpopular these days, but even in the wisdom literature, the phrase points beyond itself to the story of creation and redemption inscribed in the giving of the law (Deut 10:12, 20). The fear of God represents a theological way of making sense, of symbolizing and interpreting. An extraordinary particularity whose name is Yahweh animates missional wisdom. This means we approach symbolic action worshipfully and prayerfully (in relationship with the Father), formed spiritually into virtuous (Christlike) interpreters, in step with God’s Spirit. In the discernment of which contradictions to symbolize here and now, and in the ensuing conflict about what they mean, holiness is a function of why and how we proceed.
By contrast, secularism reduces wisdom to political cunning and social engineering, and the conflict of interpretations loses its sense of ultimate meaningfulness. It becomes a vicious utilitarian battle to win power or rights or some other perceived good. If we find ourselves picking sides, appropriating the symbols at play in the secular arena, and playing by the rules of pure immanence—without spiritual discernment, coherence with the symbolic world of Scripture, or Trinitarian logic—then our symbolic action simply cannot mean what it should.
Participating wisely in God’s mission is not a zero-sum game in which our symbolic embodiment of the gospel is either wise or foolish, contextually appropriate or inappropriate, all right or all wrong. It is a game of contradictions, interpretations, and risky wagers. Still, for Christians, it is a game with rules. I find Paul’s words in Colossians 3:17 instructive:
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
So whatever you do, do not just do it.
Instead, embody the gospel with the understanding that our words and deeds give rise to interpretation, and the meaning that emerges from that conflict depends on whether we engage as tribalist consumers or members of beloved community. Symbolize your contradictions wisely.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.
Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.