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On Symbols and Identities

The topic of identity and associated symbols has been much discussed of late, especially by those harboring substantial concerns. I wonder what else could be learned if we listened more deeply to what these identities and symbols mean to those who have come to find value and importance in them?

A whole-souled observance of the very first of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” would go a very long way toward eliminating many of the divisions we see around us today. Within the past couple of years, apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have repeatedly encouraged each of us, in the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in the most recent General Conference, to take upon ourselves “one transcendent identity” as beloved children of Heavenly Parents. As we consider together the purposes of additional identities and symbols in our lives, the ordering of those identities is of enormous importance: we must not make a new god of any of our subordinate self-labels.

Obviously, we all have many less-important but still deeply meaningful identities, and it’s understandable that we often want to honor their associated symbols. We may see ourselves with the lenses of our country of birth or residence, identify with religious organizations, creeds, and doctrines, we may use the prism of our racial background or roles in families or professions. We may see ourselves as red or blue (or be determined not to be red or blue!). Each identity and accompanying symbols may help us to find communities of interest, assist us in making meaning of our experiences, and allow us to broaden our own understanding of the world around us.

We must not make a new god of any of our subordinate self-labels.

When we are careful to maintain the appropriate relative importance of each identity, we can more easily tap into the richness of the experience of a whole family, congregation, community, and nation. And yet, identities can also cause us to perceive and create divisions. We can allow barriers to arise between ourselves and others because of the meaning we attach to our own identity, or to the self-identities of others. Surely, there is a better way!

My primary focus in this examination is how we can come to better understand the meanings, experiences, and insights that those who claim particular identities and symbols attach to them —essentially, the perspective from the outside looking in. A separate, and equally useful discussion for another time concerns those inside looking out: how identities and symbols can constrict as well as enlarge the thinking and approach of those who experience and claim them.

The late Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of the Church of Sweden, in reference to public opposition to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ proposed temple in Stockholm, famously proposed three rules of religious understanding:

When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion, not its enemies;
Don’t compare your best to their worst;
Leave room for holy envy.

It seems to me that as we consider personal identities and group symbols, Stendahl’s first rule provides a generous and grace-filled approach to enlarge understanding of the unique individuals around us, how they personally identify, and the symbols that they find meaningful.

As an example, when I view an observant Jew at various times wearing tallit, kippah, and Kittel, I might initially see something anachronistic, or I might imagine that these perform exactly the same role for that individual that temple garments fill for Latter-day Saints, or I might ask what these things mean to that person.

Additionally, when I see a pickup truck with a large American flag attached to its bed, I might imagine that person disputes the result of the last election, or I might wonder if the owner has served in the US Armed Forces. Or, I could ask the driver what flying the flag from their truck means to them.

The same is true when I use the word “gay” as a descriptor of one of my identities. Someone hearing me might hear the word as a euphemism for promiscuous sexual behavior or might expect that I am hostile to Church teachings. Or, that person might ask me what I mean when I use that term.

And similarly, if I display a pride flag outside my home or in my office, a passer-by might imagine that I am left-leaning and anti-family, or they could wonder if I listen to prophets, seers, and revelators. Or, they might ask me what that flag means to me.

Every individual has the opportunity to choose to follow Christ in the unique circumstances of their lives.

Some might feel a frustration with the wide array of “unassailable” individual meanings associated with any single identifier. This may understandably prompt some to try and make sense of the collective meanings by advancing a single narrative in line with their own preconceived preferences. Or they might try to encourage people to use unique and specific terminology, rather than a broad identifier or label.

I call myself a Latter-day Saint, but do I understand every doctrine, every facet of history, every call to action in the same way as every other person in every congregation around the world that identifies in the same way? But if we could imagine uniform, homogeneous, undeviating definitions of a particular identity, wouldn’t we actually lose something? Wouldn’t we lose the glorious abundance of individual life experience that comes with each person’s understanding of the identity they embrace?

In a mutually respectful desire to know another person, we share responsibilities. I hope my partner in this endeavor will strive to be as helpful, as clear, as precise as they can be in interpreting their experiences to help me know them. I will want to be an active listener, probing for understanding, and open to new information.

Sometimes we seem to believe that someone else’s use of an identity label not only tells us everything about their present but gives certainty about their future as well. Well-meaning advice for a young adult not to identify themselves as gay, for instance, can come from compassion springing from personal experience: ‘all the people I see who call themselves gay leave their religion within a few years.’ Here we would be well-served to be cautious about causation versus correlation. Does using the term cause someone to disaffiliate with their church, or is there a frequent, though certainly not universal, correlation? And is it possible the correlation might significantly weaken if, as fellow congregants, we made much greater efforts at acceptance and inclusion?

My identities as a son of Heavenly Parents, who is a Latter-day Saint, an American, and gay, mean that I strive to follow Christ, I am guided by the teaching of prophets past and contemporary, that I cherish freedom to find how best I can act in a pluralistic society as a follower of Jesus, and that one way that I engage with and understand the world around me is through the experiences I have had as a gay man. Yet claiming a gay identity does not mean that I have sex with other men. Others who claim the same identity may interpret it differently. A listener would have to be willing to allow me to explain what this identity means to me in order to understand how my meaning may differ from their preconceptions or from what they have learned from others sharing their personal meaning of the same term. That’s a lot of work. But if I want to act on my desire to find what the Lord loves about the person with whom I am engaged, that work is both necessary and fruitful.

If we will let go of the need to tell other people what their identity means or discourage them from sharing it at any time or place not comfortable for us, I believe we can clarify and put greater effort behind our foundational message as a people and as a Church: namely, that every individual has the opportunity to choose to follow Christ in the unique circumstances of their lives. May I state that again? If we stop putting others on the defensive by stating they ought not to embrace a particular identity as we understand it, I’m convinced we can instead find even greater unity of purpose in sharing our love of Christ and encouraging everyone around us, likewise, to come to know, love and follow Him.

With regard to symbols, organizations and individuals are perfectly sensible choosing to display only symbols that are central to their mission and purpose. Let’s remember, though, that displaying one symbol connotes support for its meaning, not disapproval of every other possible symbol.

I am personally moved by the symbol of the Cross and often wear a small one. Wearing it is a reminder to me of promises I have made to Him. Another person wearing the same symbol may not have made the same promises, but to them, it is a symbol of love and gratitude. My wearing of a cross is not a rebuke to my Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist friends. Not wearing it on a particular day does not mean that I have decided not to think about promises. When I see others wearing a cross, I am gladdened that someone else finds meaning in their lives from the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of our Redeemer.

From time to time, I embrace the rainbow symbols of gay pride, now enlarged to include symbols of transgender pride. Why? One reason is found in my personal history. When I first began my professional career, I was working in Los Angeles, California. Neither my company, nor the City of Los Angeles, nor the State of California offered protections against dismissal based solely on sexual or gender identity. If I chose to tell my employer or the person from whom I rented an apartment, or if the employer or landlord learned in some other fashion that I was gay, I could lose my job and home without any recourse. I did not see anyone senior to me in the first three firms that I joined who openly identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer. I had to chart my own path for career success—hoping that I might be making it somewhat easier for those who came behind me to do the same.

I believe it signifies maturity in our relationships if we refuse to require another person to display a particular symbol, nor demand that they refrain from such display.

I feel pride in the lessons and experiences I gained by putting myself at professional and personal risk coming out as a gay man. I am both grateful and proud of those in other spheres of life who showed such courage and confidence before me and who helped me see broader possibilities in my own life. My display of pride symbols reflects both my gratitude for the opportunities I have enjoyed and my recognition of the cost many have paid making my freedom to express this identity possible. My life experience includes years of hiding my identity, being certain that if anyone knew who I really was they would not want to associate with me, followed by many more years of being determined to be open and honest about myself in every situation. The latter has been life-giving, has allowed me to grow and be more available to others, and most importantly, has allowed me to approach the Lord focused on working and pleading for a changed heart, rather than a changed identity.

I am happy to see other people display this symbol that is meaningful to me, but if they choose not to display it, I do not assume they are hostile to an important identity in my life. I believe it signifies maturity in our relationships if we refuse to require another person to display a particular symbol, nor demand that they refrain from such display.

Allowing others to tell us the meaning they derive from identities and symbols shows our respect, our willingness to learn, and our desire to truly be their neighbor. In the end, this way of following the second great commandment can also enhance our efforts to follow the first: as we find greater beauty in Their crowning creation, we feel even greater love for Heavenly Parents and Their provision to us of a Savior. And we have an ever-increasing gratitude for the truth of our one transcended identity as children of Heavenly Parents.

About the author

Tom Christofferson

Tom Christofferson is a founding board member of Encircle, and author of "That We May Be One" and "A Better Heart." He spent his career in investment management, and is a member of the national advisory council of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.
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