February 3, 2017

The Power of Symbols

Just a few weeks ago Tampa was in the international spotlight for a few reasons. One reason was our city had the honor of hosting a college football national championship playoff game. The other reason wasn’t unrelated; it was a story that went viral about Food Not Bombs volunteers being arrested for sharing food with the homeless. As the story grew there were many who wrote articles trying to protect our city’s reputation and push back on the narrative that FnB volunteers were persecuted saints. Even the Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward published an editorial in the Tampa Bay Times offering what amounted to a wonderful political response. The thing is though, while there may be details to the specific event that could potentially nuance how one understands it, the story itself, became a powerful symbol, which is evidenced by the fact of it going viral. Symbols, like myths, transcend concrete details and take on a broader Truth that we immediately recognize as such. The image was that of people being cuffed as they attempted to love/serve a population that Tampa was trying to repress from conscious attention while hosting the game. As is often the case when we repress things, it grew into something tremendous, beyond what they could have imagined.

It is tempting for those that are familiar with details to be baffled by the story as symbol. Eric Ward wrote about TPD’s work with the city’s homeless through dedicated liaisons. It’s true, there are a few officers that have been dedicated to functioning as case workers and are doing great work to help folks get off the streets. We have worked with them to serve our people and this is one of the most promising things that TPD does. These police have different marching orders and it is substantially obvious when you contrast the way Tampa’s poor are treated by other officers on the force. Many of us, who are intimately familiar with this city’s treatment of the homeless and groups that work with them, were baffled that this was a story at all. It’s just another Saturday. I cannot tell you how many families I know who used to go share spaghetti out of the trunk of their car only to be threatened with arrest by Tampa Police. All of them stopped going out because, well, who wants to go to jail? This is why a defiant crew like Food Not Bombs is a necessity. This wasn’t the first time, and I don’t imagine it will be the last. This move functionally broke the pretense and presented to the world, in symbolic form, something hideous in our own spirit. The event as a symbol is powerful, and it is true. It resonates deeply within us. Across party lines, both democrats and republicans, the rich and the poor, responded viscerally to this symbol. It induced disgust. No explanation or detail can undo disgust as a moral judgement. We know and feel this story on the symbolic level and we know, albeit subconsciously, that that same spirit that this symbol represents, is inside of ourselves, and so we recoil.

We deny and repress it, just as our city denies and represses the symptoms of it’s own illness. We can raise our fists in outrage at the symbol of handcuffed compassion but when we are personally face to face with those who live in hell, we avoid, we deny, and sometimes, if we are honest, we recoil in disgust. Incidentally this is why law and code enforcement are always running the poor off and threatening to fine or arrest, because we demand it. Their phones ring off the hook with complaints from businesses and homeowners, complaining about the hell, the chaos of the streets, encroaching on their clean and ordered worlds. You see society is about order, it stands against chaos. We want nothing to do with the chaos that is, in all actually the underworld. So we arrest the chaos, we lock it in cages, we shoo it from sight. Our terror of death, our denial of chaos, our unwillingness to acknowledge the symptoms of our corporate illness, compel us to maintain safety, stability, and security at almost any cost. So we become pathological and oppressive.

Then there's the fence, another powerful symbol. The Friday before the national championship game, the day before the arrests, a fence appeared out of nowhere walling off a park where many of the city's homeless would spend their days. We walled it off, or quarantined it, like it was a portal to hell. No regard for those who found in that park, a small bit of rest and respite from the chaos. Never mind that so many neighbors of ours, live in hell; socially, psychologically, and economically. The drive for order and our efforts to create our own utopia where there is no mental illness, dirt, or pain, necessitates our blindness to the value of these neighbors, these suffering human beings. A fence, like a wall, is a powerful symbol and I am sure that the gesture communicated our disdain to those for whom it was intended. The city’s message is crystal clear.

The power of these symbols should not be overlooked. In our efforts to secure our own heaven, we are creating a hell. These symbols, as ugly as they are, reveal something about our character. They are representative of the story that we are living into. They are manifestations of a collective spirit. It is good that we recoil from them, even if we are recoiling from something in ourselves.

We know that another story is possible.

So what is the opposite of fences?
Bridges that connect rather than divide maybe?

Maybe a potlatch in the park is a good symbol for this new and emerging story, which by the way, is an ancient and forgotten one.

It is a story of hospitality rather than hostility
of generosity rather than greed,
of light in the darkness,
of sharing, joy, generosity, trust, peace, and community.

Against such things there is no law.


For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. -Ephesians 2:14-17

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