In the Spring of 1982, no longer a Chinese major or a freshman, I began to finish off the liberal arts requirements at my new college within the same university. I was particularly taken in by Introduction to Sociology and Father Chris Johnson. He often paced and penetrated into the aisles during his lectures, gesticulating to make his points. He was easily no taller than five foot five inches or so, but he had a presence, he knew it and he used it to great effect.
Maybe a third of the way into the semester, we were learning about symbols. Sometime after he’d gotten the class talking about what a symbol is, how they are used and so on, someone’s remarks provoked him into ripping off his clerical collar, throwing it down like a gauntlet and then jumping up and down on it repeatedly.
Even as as Jew raised in the Reform movement, this priest completely shattered the image I’d constructed of Catholic clergy over my lifetime. What was he DOING??? was all I could think as I watched him turn almost red in the face until he stopped.
I couldn’t wait for the end of class. I went up to him and explained how unbelievable that image was and he explained to me: The collar was just a symbol. It didn’t make him not a priest. It didn’t make him have to go to confession. It didn’t make him blasphemous, rebellious or in need of excommunication.
That act by Father Johnson made me decide to add a second major of sociology and I spent a lot of time talking with him over the next two and a half years of school. He had a huge influence on me, but that jumping up and down, stomping on that clerical collar – and his statement about it being just a symbol is one of the most vivid memories I have from college.
The flag of the United States of America. If our laws were changed to revoke our citizenship because we burned that flag, those laws would elevate the physical flag to being more than a symbol. Is that a precedent we want to set?
What does a symbol mean to you? Do you feel it is more than an external, visible expression of an idea, or a representation of a single entity – in this case, the USA? Do we really want to imbue symbols in this way, restricting expression and behavior likewise?
None of this precludes an individual from believing, feeling or defining a symbol as more than the thing itself. But if that becomes the case with our flag, then it is no longer a symbol of freedom or democracy. To criminalize flag burning and to assign revocation of one’s citizenship as the penalty is to turn that symbol of freedom into something confining, stunted and, frankly, undesirable, unenviable and unworthy of admiration. I know I don’t want that transformation for our flag.
Perhaps not all my classmates viewed Father Johnson’s tantrum on top of his collar the way I did. But I certainly took his lesson to heart and pray that others might too.