During the lead up to Indiana’s Gov. Pence signing SEA 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — RFRA), some of the national leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sent a letter to the governor that implored him to veto the bill. (See full text of that letter here – scroll to bottom of page for the original letter) In that letter, Sharon Watkins, Julia Brown Karimu and Ronald Degges expressed their belief that though “religious freedom” is used in the title and language of the bill, the heart of the bill is really about the freedom to discriminate against people who believe, live and love differently than any given business owner in the state of Indiana. They then went on to explain that the potential effects of the bill go against both the values of our democracy and the values of Jesus, who “sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all.” The letter ended with a statement indicating that if RFRA was signed into law, the CC(DOC) might choose to move their 2017 General Assembly (slated for Indianapolis) to a different location.
As we know, the following day Gov. Pence signed SEA 101 into law. A media storm ensued, punctuated by a number of businesses and organizations that began pulling their conferences out of the state or publicly denouncing the RFRA. In the midst of that storm, Disciples leaders began working on how to follow through with the statement they had made. Should they move the General Assembly? If so, then to what new location? Research began in earnest to see which other states have laws similar to Indiana’s RFRA, so as not to jump from the frying pan into the fire (or another frying pan, at the very least). Ultimately, the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came together for a special meeting — during Holy Week! — and made the official decision to seek a new location for GA 2017. (You can read the official announcement here)
Already the talk has begun among Disciples on social media. Some see this move as a victory — a moment when our Church has taken a public stand both for people who are routinely forced to the margins of society and for the values we have affirmed and claimed at past General Assemblies. Some don’t think the move goes far enough — how can pulling a small to medium sized conference that won’t happen until 2017 actually affect anything? Others agree with the idea, but believe the method is wrong — wouldn’t it be better to flood the state with events and organizations that welcome all people? Still others see the move as divisive — a moment when “all means all” does not apply to our more theologically conservative brothers and sisters.
For the sake of full disclosure, I land squarely among those who are proud of this decision and I am thankful that our leaders have been bold enough to publicly articulate a lesser-known kind of Christian witness in a time when Christian belief is perceived as tantamount to bigotry. That being said, I’m not surprised that some Disciples are troubled by this action. As a denomination, we’ve frequently struggled with the tension that exists between a desire to be prophetic and a desire to honor and cultivate Christian unity, and this is a moment where we stand in the middle of the weave, wondering whether warp and woof of the fabric will hold.
Here’s what does surprise me. In various comment threads, I’ve heard a sentiment that goes something like this: the decision to pull GA 2017 from Indiana doesn’t mean or accomplish anything — it is only a symbolic gesture.
Only symbolic. Only a symbol. Huh.
On the one hand, yes. Moving GA 2017 to a state that does not have such a law in place is a symbolic gesture. It makes a statement, but doesn’t force change in Indiana.
But on the other hand, is it only a symbol? No. Hell no. As Christians, we are a symbol-driven people. Every Sunday when we gather around a table set with bread and cup, every time we gaze at a cross or stained glass window with reverence, every time we look at our gathered congregations and see the body of Christ, we live in the power of symbols.
Symbols are vehicles for truth. They communicate things of value in ways that go deeper than words.
This action made by our General Board communicates a truth — several truths, really:
- There are Christians who, because of their faith and their study of the bible, believe passionately that because God loves all people we are called to live lives and build societies that reflect that radical love.
- The people who are most negatively affected by the RFRA are, in fact, people. They are beloved by God and we are called by Christ to treat them as such. That call is non-negotiable.
- Discrimination couched as religious freedom is still discrimination, and discrimination should never be legal.
- Using the language of religious freedom to legalize discrimination is an insult to religious groups of all kinds.
- While we aren’t perfect, and while there is no perfect place to hold GA 2017 (because discrimination, bigotry and hatred take place in every corner of the world), we can still use the power that we have to make a better choice than staying in a place that legally permits discrimination.
Some of these messages are communicated less clearly than others, to be sure. But to say it is only a symbol is to dismiss not just the hard work and prayer of every General Board member, but also to dismiss the power of symbol in our faith and in our life.
The other thing about symbols is this: powerful symbols might not change the circumstances and injustice that we face, but they do change us. An open communion table changes the way we view hospitality and grace, and asks us to offer those gifts differently. The vision of Christian community as the body of Christ changes the way that we see and value the people who sit next to us during worship, and asks us to love and work with those people differently. Symbols ask us to change in response to the truth(s) they convey.
As a symbol, the decision to move GA 2017 out of Indiana might not change the circumstances on the ground in that state, but it does force us to change. We now have to do the hard work of finding a new place, researching other state laws, and communicating the hows and whys of the decision. We have to talk about how the One we follow and the faith we affirm do or do not (and will or will not) shape the practical decisions of our life together. We’re forced into a new place and a perhaps a new way of being.
So is it a symbolic gesture? Yes. But is it “just” a symbol? No.
A symbol is never just a symbol.