SYMBOLS OR REALITIES?
T. PIERCE BROWN
In 1 John3:18we find, “Let us love, not in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” That suggests a truth that is very significant, but seldom emphasized.
That is, that symbols are very important, for they point to realities that may be important. But it is dangerous and destructive to substitute the symbols for the realities. We may do this more often than we realize. The results are sometimes merely humorous, but sometimes catastrophic.
For example, a boy had a confederate flag in the back of his truck. To him, it may have been no more than a symbol of a historic event — a war between the states. To some other boys, it was a statement of hatred, intolerance and slavery. So they shot him. The boy whom they killed might have been kind, gentle, loving, and a firm believer in the equality of mankind. That did not prevent his death, for we often react to symbols as if they were realities.
This is the purpose of propaganda and much of the political rhetoric that sways multitudes and wins elections. If a candidate says, “I believe in family values, lower taxes and better living conditions for all,” he may hope that no one enquires about whether he cheats on his wife, appoints homosexuals to the highest offices and raises taxes. As long as he can sway people by symbols, reality is not important to him.
We usually understand that words are symbols. They are important, for God designed them to reveal and transmit thoughts. They only stand for or point toward realities. We understand this when we come to a road sign with the name of a town on it. It may saySpartaorDallas, but we know that it is merely a pointer or indicator, not the town. It is a symbol or a sign of something else. Most of us assume that when we put a sign saying “ChurchofChrist” in front of a building, everyone should know that neither the sign nor the building is the church. Some brethren seem to think they have to put “meets here” to make sure that those who read the sign know it is but a symbol. It was interesting for me to note that in one situation where there were some long discussions about the idea that the sign should say, “The Church of Christ Meets Here,” those who urged it because they thought the usual sign was wrong and liable to be misunderstood did not change the words on their mail box to say, “John Jones mail is left here” instead of simply “John Jones.” There was no assumption that someone would assume that the mailbox was John Jones.
Pavlov’s dogs salivated when a bell rang, for they had been conditioned to react to sounds rather than realities. We have been conditioned to do react in the same way. John knew, and the Holy Spirit directed him to inform us, that there is a difference in loving in word and loving in deed. This does not imply that there is not value in saying, “I love you.” It does suggest that there is much harm done when we say, “I love you” without showing it in some way at some time.
We need to be aware of the kinds of situations where persons react to symbols rather than to realities. I knew a woman who said she could not eat goat meat. During the deer season, someone brought her what he called venison. He prepared it for her, and after each piece asked if it was good. She replied that it was. After the third piece, he asked, “Did you really like that goat meat?” She got sick and lost her meal. I never knew whether it was goat or deer, but it did not matter, for she was reacting to a label or symbol instead of the reality.
When a person is called a “liberal” or a “conservative” there is little doubt that many persons react to those terms rather than to the person and his real teaching or actions. This does not mean that labels are not valuable. It does mean that we should realize that the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing, and the symbol is not the reality.
The story in Luke 7:36-48 illustrates the danger of reacting to symbols. A woman who could be classified as a sinner washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon used two words that indicated that he had certain stereotypes and substituted symbols or words for realities. He said, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is who touched him, for she is a sinner.”
The words “prophet” and “sinner” were symbols. He reacted to his concept of those symbols instead of to the realities they represented. Even if he had used different language in stating the facts, as Jesus did, his response might have been different. Jesus said, “Her sins, which are many–.” Most of us probably do not realize it, but there is a different reaction when we habitually say such things as, “You ARE a failure” or “You ARE a sinner” and when we say, “You failed in that particular effort” or “You sinned in doing that.”
When I was in graduate school, there was a student who usually made excellent grades. On one exam, he was distracted and failed that test. It was said that he left a note saying, “I am a failure” and committed suicide. If he had reacted to reality instead of to a symbol, he might have said, “I have succeeded in 1000 things, and failed in one.” As is often the case, when we react to a symbol, even the symbol is inaccurate. Even when it is accurate, we need to be aware that it only represents an aspect of reality, and is not the reality itself.
Parents do untold damage to their children when they say such things as, “You are a bad boy.” They should rather say something like, “The thing you did was bad or improper, and not worthy of you.” If it is impressed upon him many times that he IS a bad boy, he will not realize that the term “bad boy” is but a symbol, and not necessarily an accurate one. Then he will naturally act as he thinks a bad boy would act.
Even children can be taught this principle early in life. When my youngest son was only 3 years old, and I asked him if the food on his plate was good, he replied, “It tastes good to me.” If he had labeled it “good” and I had labeled it “not good” we could have had problems, for he would be contradicting his father. Neither of us would have realized that whatever label we used, the food remained just as it was. When he said, “It tastes good to me” I had no reason to feel that he was denying my word in case I said, “It does not taste good to me.” We are dealing with realities and not merely with symbols when we speak as my son did. Let us learn to differentiate between symbols and realities. Let us try to teach this principle to our children early in life.