Signs, signs, everywhere a ‘We Believe’ sign. But our faith should not be in something, but Someone.

Sr. Helena Burns: Creeds: What do you believe?

  • November 4, 2020

Across the U.S., prominent, colourful and verbose lawn signs have been popping up. They all begin with “We Believe…” with slight variations in the body of the text. The text is basically a compendium of recent slogans on various hot-button issues. One of my Sisters commented to me as we drove by: “It’s like a secular Creed.” (Simply google “we believe lawn signs” for a sample.)

Having lived and travelled extensively in the U.S. and Canada, I always know when I’m close to a very “political” region by the sudden proliferation of bumper stickers as I drive into the heart of a city. These cities are often “college/university towns” with a youthful population. And it’s never just one bumper sticker — the entire backside of the vehicle is wallpapered in names of politicians, favourite bands, symbols, logos and brands, places visited, alma maters. Most striking (and often strident) are the ideas striving to be heard. These propositions can often take an “in your face” tone, demanding actions others should or should not take; dictating what others should or should not believe. The nouveau lawn placards seem to me to be extended bumper stickers and in the same spirit.

The backgrounds are black, the words multicoloured, and although the word “love” appears more than once, there’s something almost menacing about these proclamations — as though there’s an assumption that the passerby doesn’t share the enlightened beliefs of the house’s inhabitants and therefore is being warned not to approach the house, or think of living in this neighbourhood unless you’re “one of us.” Or perhaps, with all the social unrest, it’s a plea to not approach the house with malicious intent because I’m on your side, see my declaration?

What would possess someone to put their belief system, their personal code on their front lawn for all to see? Fear? Anger? Solidarity? Witness? A hunger for (what is perceived as) justice? Virtue signalling?

Whizzing by sign after sign made me reflect that we all really do live by a credo. If we reject “organized religion,” we must create our own. We must hammer out what we believe and don’t believe. The fascinating thing about these lawn signs is that they are a kind of kerygma, an evangelization to a new religion of sorts. The “articles” of this creed are short and sweet and “sound good.” Even in their simplest, seemingly innocuous formulation, we, as Catholics with our own millennia-old Creed(s), cannot affirm most of them — not without some very heavy qualifications. In fact, the statements are too oversimplified to be true without qualifications. A better exercise might be to deconstruct each statement and then reconstruct a positive, more defined iteration of it that is in harmony with Christianity.

But are front lawns the best place for interreligious dialogue? Are T-shirts? Bumper stickers? Perhaps now I’m the one virtue signalling, but I would never put any kind of summary of my beliefs on my front lawn. My hope is that you know what I believe by what I say and do (and conversely, what I don’t say and do). I used to have a bit of hobby asking people: “What’s your philosophy of life in a nutshell?” I stopped the day someone responded: “Philosophies that fit in a nutshell belong there.”

As a Daughter of St. Paul (aka #medianun), I’m all for even the humblest attempts to communicate truth, beauty and goodness. But to be successful in the short run, I believe we must do our homework in the long run and really know what we believe as Catholic Christians. Then we can craft effective soundbites to sum up a much larger reality. When Pilate (in)famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” Jesus remained silent. The Way, the Truth and the Life was standing right there before Him.

Ultimately, our belief, our faith is not in some things that we believe, but in Someone. That Someone founded a Church to guide us to salvation. We can certainly engage in religious discussions, we can certainly do apologetics online with sincere seekers, but most of all, we need to lead others — with the signposts of our lives — to encounter Jesus Christ. “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that He is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12 RSV).

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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