The symbolism of cowardice and courage

Theologian Paul Tillich once said humanity’s “ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”

Symbols sometimes speak more eloquently, and with far greater impact, than words.

While Tillich was speaking of our use of symbols to relate to God, his words hold true on any topic of supreme importance — for our purposes here, it is not God, but our treatment of God’s creation.

On the topic of climate change, and our wanton rape of all creation, we’ve received several important symbols this week of how we are failing and how we may proceed with some hope.

The first — in the category of abject failure — was an empty chair.

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Normally, a chair is simply a chair. But, when that chair is supposed to be filled by the president of the United States, and the chair is at the G-7 talks on climate change — well, then that chair is much more than a chair. It is a powerful symbol.

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That chair symbolized, in ways that outstrip my words, just how much our president is failing to lead on the most important crisis to face humanity — perhaps ever.

As the Amazon burns, permafrost thaws and our oceans become choked with plastic, that single, empty chair represented all the willful ignorance, reckless greed and caricaturesque evil of this administration’s attacks on God’s creation.

Our president has undone more than 80 environmental regulations — most notably withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and most recently deregulating methane emissions by the oil and gas industry. So, that empty chair was not surprising.

But, it is a searing image of our nation’s catastrophic failure to elect leadership that will act in a responsible, sane manner on matters of ultimate importance.

From nations that claim to have a more principled approach to climate change, we’ve also seen some symbolic action this week.

In the face of catastrophic fires in the Amazon, the G-7 (minus our delinquent president) pledged $20 million in aid money to help Brazil fight the fires (which Brazil rejected, because their president, like ours, is more interested in short-term corporate profit than environmental stewardship).

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To put that $20 million in perspective, it represents less than a fifth of our president’s expenditures of taxpayer funds on his golf outings as of July, or roughly one-eighth the cost of one F-22 fighter.

It is a flaccid response that symbolizes nothing more than our European partners’ desire to appear proactive on climate change.

We are far past the point of being able to rest on such empty symbolism.

But, we may have more hope in another symbol that sailed into New York harbor on Wednesday.

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived there aboard a sailboat, after a 15-day, 3,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic, to participate in youth climate strikes on Sept. 20 and 27 and the Youth Climate Summit Sept. 21-22 at the United Nations.

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Thunberg sailed past the Statue of Liberty under a black sail emblazoned with the message: “Unite behind the science.”

Her very deliberate manner of arrival carried with it all the symbolism that was missing in that empty chair — of leadership, courage, intelligence, a sense of responsibility for our planet and an honorable compassion toward those who will inherit it.

We should rally around the symbolism Thunberg carries with her. It is perhaps fitting, in an age when heads of state act like petulant children, we’re being retaught leadership by a teenager.

But, Thunberg’s lessons are more than just symbolic.

In March, Thunberg organized and inspired an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries to protest our deliberate destruction of the planet.

She is showing us the way to the kind of mass action, the kind of uprising — most likely led by our youth — it will take to make the voices of science and reason ring louder than the voices of greed and ignorance.

Thunberg aptly pointed out, in an earlier interview with CBS, the futility of trying to appeal to reason with our president.

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“Why should I waste time talking to him when he, of course, is not going to listen to me?” she said of Trump. “I can’t say anything that he hasn’t already heard.”

Instead, she said, “I’m just going to focus on spreading awareness.”

What is needed, if we are to go beyond symbolism and effect real change, is for each of us to ask ourselves: “How can I follow Greta’s example?”

If a teenager can inspire millions, how can we, each of us, inspire others? What small acts can we take to pressure our government to acknowledge science, to take note of the threat to our existence and to act responsibly?

Individually, we may feel powerless to effect any change.

But, it is the collective force of our small, individual acts, the incredible power of our collective will to effect change, that is needed.

Like Greta, we need to have the courage to act for a better world. Be that small amount of change, and great things will follow.

To borrow a phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, we must “start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

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