On Symbols and Symbolism: The Power of Religion in Protest

By: Susan Hayward

August 25, 2017

Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville

In the days since I participated in the counterprotests in Charlottesville my mind has been spinning and my heart has been brimming. I was present as a member of Congregate C’ville, a collective of faith leaders who responded to a call from local clergy to show up. These faith leaders, who came from around the country and many different faiths and races, were pulled together by a cord of conviction that our voices and bodies were made for precisely this; that our ordination vows were a commitment to serve God and God’s people, especially those most vulnerable, and especially in the worst of times.

In truth, when the call first came in mid-July, I didn’t know if I would respond. I questioned whether it was the right strategy—if by showing up we might give these supremacists media attention that could embolden and lure people toward them. I told myself I prefer to mobilize for causes rather than against them as a “counterprotestor.” But I also knew this was not the first time Charlottesville had been visited by supremacists seeking to terrorize the local community over the summer, and that the fact that these earlier efforts had received little media attention hadn’t seem to take the wind from their sails, just as the past 10 years of virtually ignoring the rising tide of white supremacist organizing hadn’t seemed to hold it back. I knew also that vulnerable groups, particularly people of color, didn’t have the option simply to ignore these supremacists, so I shouldn’t either.

And there was something else. In between the time the call went out and August 12, I traveled to Myanmar and Japan with the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), where I work as a senior advisor on religion and inclusive societies. In Japan, I was participating in the Niwano Peace Prize ceremony which recognizes religious peacebuilders of distinction who, in some of the most violent places on earth, have put their voice and body on the line for the cause of peace. In Myanmar, I met with faith leaders with whom I’ve worked who seek to challenge and undermine Buddhist nationalist actors espousing hate, particularly against vulnerable groups—hate that has led to violence against Muslim businesses and bodies.

The work of the religion program at USIP is rooted in the recognition that religion is powerful. It’s a powerful source of moral suasion, a shaper of social, political, and economic forces, and it matters to most people around the world. Faith summons the most deeply held convictions of individuals and compels them into self-sacrificial action. And this power can be directed toward hate and violence and toward peace and reconciliation. I have seen this at play in Myanmar, as Buddhist nationalists use Buddhist ideas, scripture, images, and practices to recruit followers and to convey and legitimate their goals. I have seen it used as well to directly challenge those movements, to pull people together in a shared commitment to what’s right and a vision of what’s good; who can forget the power of religious imagery and ritual on display in Myanmar’s 2007 Saffron Revolution, a power that helped seed a dramatic political transition? I’ve seen the power of religion stand up to and deeply challenge forces of violence and exploitation when harnessed by Catholic nuns in Colombia, or civil rights leaders in the United States, or a Hindu layman in India.

What I saw in Charlottesville, however, brought this all home and made it personal for me in a way I have never before experienced. The white supremacists who gathered did so under a range of powerful symbols. The flags they carried depicted images, many of which were unfamiliar to me, but that I know reflect a world of meaning: ideas, beliefs, goals. They carried torches on Friday night in a ritual act carefully chosen to invoke historical memory of the KKK’s use of torches and blazing fire to terrorize communities of color in the twentieth century. They wore outfits, used hand and arm gestures, and chanted slogans that were all derived from their world of meaning constructed as a false temple to hate and death. Most claimed a Christian cause: that they were fighting for the preservation of Christianity itself, motivated by it. Some drew on Christianity’s own world of symbolism, twisting it to their hateful agenda. They came to terrorize Charlottesville for daring to threaten one of their precious symbols: a statue of the confederacy, a rebellious movement that nearly destroyed our country as it fought for the preservation of slavery. They were willing to travel from afar and to fight with violence in order to defend their symbol, this statue, and the world of meaning it holds for them, grounded in a white supremacist vision of the country.

But we had symbols too. The male and female faith leaders who participated wore our vestments—kippah for the rabbis, an abaya worn by a Muslim activist, collars and stoles for the Christian clergy, many of which were adorned with images meaningful to our respective faith traditions. We had our own mantras—words of sacred scripture my colleagues participating in direct action spoke aloud to the supremacists as they, in turn, hurled homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic slurs at them outside Emancipation Park. We had freedom songs we sang defiantly to drown out the slogans of hate; we had ancient stories of liberation and love we brought to bear on the current moment; and we had worship we participated in just off the park to call on God’s presence in the face of evil. We had an entire world of meaning in religious images, ideas, and rituals that we brought with us to Charlottesville that day in order to defend life and love. And our symbols were more powerful than theirs, because they come from God, a source stronger than any worldly ideology of hate. I saw our symbols empowering the peacemakers, the prophets, and the caretakers that day—those who risked their lives for the cause of what’s good and what’s God. These symbols handed down to us from our faith ancestors evoke a power that will be the victorious one, when and if we keep drawing on them to address this time of crisis and to direct our country in the direction of what is life-giving: justice.

The white supremacists summon a religious power—using their constructed symbols of hate and resources provided within Christianity—to propel their movement. It’s up to us to render their symbols impotent.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece is derived from the author's longer reflection on her experience in Charlottesville, which can be found on her personal blog.

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