Symbolism Matters

As Vice President Pence claps for President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rips a copy of Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
After sitting through 78 minutes of gaslighting, Nancy Pelosi sums up the feelings of the majority of Americans.

Tuesday night, Nancy Pelosi spoke for millions of Americans without using her voice.

President Trump had started the evening by playing the "psych!" game, refusing her handshake as he arrived at the podium for the State of the Union address on the eve of his acquittal by a cowardly Republican Senate majority for blatant abuse of the powers of his office. She returned the favor with curt dignity, introducing him to Congress without the flowery flourishes traditional to that task. Then for 78 minutes she sat behind him as he spoke to that part of the Union that agrees with him, delivering a campaign speech accompanied by manipulative and sometimes shocking gestures culled from his years in reality TV.

(Disclaimer: I did not watch the speech, and have only heard snippets of it from the politics podcasts I listen to. I have lost the ability to hear Trump's voice for more than a few seconds without shouting obscenities at whatever speaker it's coming from. Now back to the blog.)

To be clear, sitting through this excruciating charade with the cameras on her, never uttering a word of dissent, maintaining her dignity throughout, Speaker Pelosi demonstrated more grace than I'll ever have. But that's not what we're hearing about. What's making news is the studied symbolic gesture she made at the conclusion of the speech, as the GOP legislators were giving their puppetmaster the obligatory standing ovation: she held up part of her copy of the speech and tore it in half. Just to be sure the symbolism wasn't missed, she then picked up the remaining pages of the speech and repeated the act.

As political theater, this simple protest was incredibly effective. The right-wing media flashed instantly into wounded snowflake mode, appalled at the lack of civility she had just displayed to the president whose Twitter feed teems with playground taunts. Many on the left applauded the act. In between, I've seen many of my own friends and family roll their eyes at it. They've grown tired and cynical about gestures like this, knowing it will have no real impact on the people who most need to be shamed out of their stupor: Republican Senators.

As if to underline the futility of ripping up the words of our would-be dictator, the Senate, as expected, voted to acquit Trump on both impeachment charges the following day. The lone exception to the partisan vote was Utah Senator Mitt Romney, whose principled speech about taking his oath seriously encapsulated what I had wanted to hear from at least a few more from his side of the aisle: that integrity matters more than party, that standing up for what you believe in is more important than holding onto power. After casting his vote of "guilty," Senator Romney was immediately savaged by the same reactionary voices who'd been aghast at Speaker Pelosi's small gesture the night before. Donald Trump, Jr., called for him to be ejected from the party. Freshly honored fascist Rush Limbaugh called him a Republican In Name Only.

And on the left--well, again, a lot of shrugged shoulders. What difference does it make to have one Republican vote on one count of impeachment? Trump's still acquitted. He's still in power. Now he's joking about never leaving the White House, no matter what happens in November, or four years from now, claiming an unconstitutional third term whether or not he's elected. The country's going down the toilet, and these puny gestures of dissent aren't going to stop it.

I have to agree that they may not, in fact, put a stop to the regime. Sometimes I think it will take something akin to a coup to enforce the will of the majority on this reckless outlaw of a president. But puny? Ineffective? Powerless? Hardly.

What both these senior politicians understand is the power of symbolism. Romney related his decision to his LDS faith, and Pelosi has frequently brought up her own Catholic tradition to explain her actions. Religion is the province of symbols and ritual acts freighted with far more meaning than words alone, and it's not surprising these two publicly religious politicians would act symbolically with an eye toward wringing the most power from those acts.

As both a music educator and an ordained minister, I have spent most of my adult life performing symbolic acts, and I've always been aware of how powerful they can be compared to the words I've used to argue points and persuade others. Symbolism is beyond logic. There are levels and layers of meaning in a symbol that no written piece, however eloquent, can begin to achieve. One could argue that poetry moves into the world of the symbolic, as it paints word pictures that convey more than plain text can, but it is necessarily using a pointillistic medium to evoke something greater than that medium normally does.

In my previous career as a pastor, I regularly performed symbolic ritual acts that were, to me, more powerful than any sermon I could preach. The heart of worship, the moment that meant the most to me, was when, presiding over the Eucharist, I broke a loaf of bread in front of my congregation, then stepped down onto the floor to break off smaller pieces of it for my parishioners. As a participant in the Eucharist, I preferred receiving a piece to breaking it off myself, a distinction that emphasized that grace is a gift to be accepted, not an entitlement to be taken. I also waited until the entire congregation had been served before I took Communion myself, believing this was more in keeping with my understanding of my role as servant leader. These may seem like small distinctions, but they mattered to me--and, I hoped, to at least some of the parishioners I led through the ritual.

I'm aware that Communion Sundays were, in the Methodist tradition, often "low" Sundays, most likely because congregations had not had the experience of pastors conveying both the joy and solemnity of the rite. I tried hard not to be one of those pastors, not to just go through the motions, but to channel all my own spirituality into the Eucharist. This did become more difficult as my own faith became more rarified, but even at the end of my pastoral work, it was still the most important part for me.

That sense of the symbolic bled into other parts of my life. During my first divorce, I discovered that coastal sunsets mattered to me. As an Oregonian, I found them especially precious--one can go for weeks without seeing the sun on the Oregon coast--but also, when they did happen and I was lucky enough to see them, the slow sinking of the sun behind the horizon became a powerful metaphor for the truth that all things die. Twenty-five years later, I still feel the need to linger over a sunset, waiting for the moment my heart tells me to say "Goodbye" to the last sliver of orange vanishing behind the earth's curve.

There are other ritual acts I've continued to perform long after I left ministry. On the occasion of leaving a toxic workplace for the last time, I will pause before getting into my car to brush the dust off my shoes, a ritual Jesus commended to the disciples for towns that had rejected their ministry (Matthew 10:14). I've held to the meditation practice of breathing deeply, holding the air in my lungs, then slowly letting it out as I survey the wild natural vistas that have taken the place of churches and cathedrals for me. At times it's been important to me to destroy a document in a ritual fashion--ripping, shredding, burning--to acknowledge my transition away from a harmful relationship or job.

These are all personal rites. I've also grown in my embrace of communal acts, and my awareness of how powerful it can be to sing together, even if there are no lyrics involved. A year and a half ago, while at the International Body Music Festival, I was privileged to participate in song circles, an indescribably powerful way of spiritualizing the act of making music together that originates with Bobby McFerrin. In a song circle, a leader--a musician assuming the priestly role--plants the germ of a musical idea, perhaps lines out a few parts, then works to shape a growing group improvisation. The resulting product may have little merit as a performance for an audience, but for the participants, it can be incredibly moving. I've had similar experiences in drum circles, sometimes as a participant, more often as a facilitator.

In fact, for me, group improvisation has become a true religion. There is nothing I have found that is as powerful as a group of people creating together with little or no idea of where the improvisation will take them. It embodies the creative force that brings order to chaos; and in a world dominated by chaotic autocrats like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, people desperately need that experience.

So I give kudos to both Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney who, while not achieving any great reversal of our collective political trainwreck, in their own small ways spoiled the victory dance of the reckless engineer merrily driving us off the cliff. These acts matter in the same way that the great collective outpouring of resistance that was the Women's March did back in January, 2017: announcing to the world that there are plenty of Americans--a majority of us, in fact--who are not goosestepping lemmings traipsing down the garden path behind a narcissistic monster. I'll hold onto these acts in the days ahead, drawing strength from them, letting the power of them hold me back from the despair I'm so often tempted to feel.

I encourage you to do the same. Resistance is not futile, but it is hard work. Symbolic acts of resistance, committed in the public eye, ease the burden of those of us who don't live out large portions of our lives on national TV. The tearing up of that speech, and the delivery of that vote, may just be enough to deny Trump the victory laps he so desperately wants to take. If they can just work on a few thousand more people in some key states, they may deny him a second term, as well.

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