A couple of months ago, I was approached about sharing my thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. And, subsequently, for months I've sat at my computer wondering "Why me?" Who am I to write on the impact of a speech that I wasn't alive to experience? Moreover, who am I, a white male of immeasurable privilege, to speak on a context that I'm personally pretty divorced from?
Sitting obtuse and detached in my multi-layered ivory tower, I feel as though I only know about racism from the textbooks I teach or from news I've picked up. When I asked, a member of this Institute said it was because of a post I wrote about five years ago stating how impactful the speech was to me at that time. Why so impactful? Because that was the first time I remember letting it teach me.
At that time, I was beginning studies in semiotics, which is a discipline I had grown an affinity for that looks at the role of symbols in interpretation and thought, when I sat down to watch Dr. King's speech on YouTube. And I mean really watch It. Aside from being able to quote the popular sound-bites, I honestly couldn't have told you if I had heard it from beginning to end before. So, I sat down and was immediately captivated.
The passion he expressed in his hopes to see such harmony amongst all people is nothing short of the soul of heaven. I didn't care about my privilege. I didn't care that my ratio of black friends to white ones was embarrassingly low. I didn't care how little I had done to help the cause prior to that viewing. All I cared about was that I had to be more intentional moving forward.
My takeaway was this: I might not be in the throes of a stereotypical schism between black and white demographics, but I'm always around another person, and that's enough of a mission field to see the Gospel move through a dream such as Dr. King's.
So what does intentionality with another person look like within my privileged white context? That's where semiotics comes into play. During those studies, the Confederate Flag was back in its infamously polarizing limelight—as it always seems to be once every decade or so. A large group of people was saying it's safe, as it only represents a spirit of freedom from northern oppression, while another large helipad was saying it's racist, as it represents the spirit of a community perpetuating slavery, bigotry, and prejudices.
As this was happening, a lot of the arguments seeking to preserve the flag were from a historically objective stance, or a denotation of the symbol. I noticed that a lot of alternative arguments, those seeking to remove the flag from our culture, were from a present subjective stance, looking at the connotation of the symbol. I couldn't help but see that while everything has a literal, objective meaning, everything opens dialogue for inferencing. In other words, all things can impact and carry many aspects of symbolism.
Italian literary theorist and semiotician Umberto Eco once claimed, "The text is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work." What he means is that while an author or creator has an intent in their piece, too many things can distract us from an unadulterated reading. A level of discipline is needed to recognize what all the thing is communicating.
Take the written word. Understanding can be murky. One reason for this is that words can adapt and gain new definitions. We see it all the time with certain curse words. They start off implying one thing, adapt through inferencing and re-appropriation, and develop a new social implication. And like words, we see this occur in symbols outside of text.
My wife once bought me a mug with a message on the side that looked very similar to the I *heart* NY phrase. However, it replaced the heart symbol with a clover symbol, and instead of "NY", added the word "Semiotics". So, it read "I *clover* Semiotics". And when people asked what it said, I asked them to read it... to which they often replied "I love semiotics." You see, the I *heart* NY text has become its own symbol, that now if something slightly different resembles it, people still associate the wording "I Love..." with it.
My point is this, symbols can begin with one meaning, but when other narratives adopt and use them, asserting new connotations, that symbol becomes representative of multiple meanings. And that's a hard bell to unring. So where does that leave us?
Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't asking us to all look and act alike, nor was he least of all calling us to pick one definition of "things" like a flag. Dr. King was calling all to see the other, "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Here's what all of this means. Back when I listened to this, I was struck with the fact that, for love, it is my responsibility to care more for another man's story. Furthermore, I should definitely care more for a man than I do for an inanimate object’s mere definition. To reverse those does nothing short of devaluing the person. Why sympathize with something with no soul at the expense of someone who does? If it's not about the "inanimate object", it's for the self's freedom and autonomy to see the object the way they want, without any accountability to one who sees it different. My right to deem, coin, and define things that don't care about me is simply about me. This is completely countercultural to the Kingdom Christ calls us to.
So what am I, and others like me, to do in our ivory towers? We apply the old adage of recognizing we have two ears and only one mouth. If I have any hope of helping our national dilemma of racism, but don't slow down to listen to another and empathize, then I'm adding to the schism by a patronizing abstraction.
As much as we might like to think we know all about another's story or their context, we still only see them from our own filtered perspective. That should be extremely humbling! We need to listen to the other. We need to see them, hold space for them. And with a love that transcends social narratives, personal justifications, and objective denotations, we, implored by both Dr. King and the Gospels, need to love the other as ourselves. Anything less is living a life solely devoted to the letter of the Law, missing its heart.
Jordan Goings is the Spiritual Life Director at Portland Christian School, as well as a local artist here in town. He completed both an MDiv and ThM, studying philosophy and aesthetics. You can see his art and read more of his thoughts at www.TowardTeleios.com