Culture At Large

Symbolic action at the State of the Union

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

At this year's State of the Union address, members of Congress decided to break the tradition of sitting by political parties. Instead, pairs of Democrats and Republicans started announcing that they would sit together during the speech. The lawmakers themselves and pundits compared the scramble for partners to a high school prom. I was calling the new seating arrangement “cute” before I heard this metaphor, and after hearing it, it’s hard to describe it otherwise. But it got me wondering: Does a symbolic action like who you sit with for a speech do anything?

Lawmakers themselves seemed skeptical, and that makes me skeptical as well. As the President Obama said in his speech, “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow." And whether our leaders can work together in the coming months and years to make real changes to face our country's problems remains to be seen. I was discouraged when I saw immediately after the speech my own representative tweeted something about the president believing in socialism and not the Constitution.

Despite my skepticism, as a Christian I know that symbolic actions can have the power to shape the way we act moving forward. I know this because I go to church on Sundays. I think of Sunday worship as a kind of practice in every sense, acting out our relationships with God and with each other so we can live in them for the rest of the week. And sometimes I see those real effects. I have come to church with anger or resentment, received the unquestioning grace of God and relented in my own pettiness. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience of new faith or love or hope after moving your lips and your body in the shapes of worship. Of course, it isn’t perfect. We all could think of examples of people who come to church and speak of justice and love and act the rest of the week as though that was irrelevant. Perhaps we have even been those people.

I do know, though, that God works through shaking up our routines. Worship is, in many ways, a shaking up. Worship reminds us that God’s logic is different from our defaults, that grace is real and we are called to live with each other in a culture of love and generosity. It’s easy to forget how rituals such as passing the peace and the Eucharist can be subversive to our world’s way of being, yet they force our bodies out of the usual routines whether our brains go along or not. And that’s why I’m hopeful that a shaken-up seating chart could lead to real change. In an interview after the speech at least one congressperson said that the feeling and tone were different, that people felt off because they couldn’t engage in their usual way. They said this lowered the energy level, but I also suspect it brought the opportunity for reflection.

I don’t want to put too much faith in a simple act of friendship, though. The changes we experience in church are aided by our actions, but really happen through God’s working in our hearts. I expect a change in the way politics takes place in the U.S. will also only happen through a similar miracle, but it’s a miracle our God is capable of. For that reason, I always have hope.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Worship, News & Politics, North America