symbolism

Recharting Our Course

USERS OF MAPS—that’s all of us—may suppose that what we see is factual, accurate, bias-free. Of course location, distance, elevation, and comparative importance are reliably shown!

Not so fast, says social activist and pastor Ward L. Kaiser. A map may be “right” in some ways but still dangerous to the way we live in the world.

Why? Because maps are layered with meaning. Surprisingly, their most important messages may lie beneath the surface. In his full-color book How Maps Change Things, Kaiser helps the reader to dig in and discover some of those hidden, mind-bending messages.

As a college chaplain I am acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of the often-hidden narratives and symbols that define us as individuals and as a culture. This book has helped me analyze how maps—an increasingly pervasive form of symbolic messaging and storytelling in our time—connect us to power and privilege or consign us to society’s also-rans.

Examples make the case: An intriguing regional map developed for schools in Cuba raises the question of how this image contributes to that nation’s distorted view of the U.S. A secret map of Iraq drawn up in Washington so shifted our perception of that country that it lubricated the decision by the U.S. and other Western powers to go to war there. Several of the most popular maps of the world support a Eurocentric or North America-centered worldview, aggrandizing “our” place in the world and downplaying the importance of developing nations.

Kaiser’s point: Maps are always selective, often biased, constantly nudging us to see, think, and behave in particular ways. We shape maps; equally important, they shape us. Like the faith we hold, maps powerfully influence how we live in the world. And maps may work with our faith or against it.

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'Simple is the New Chic'

RIGHT FROM THE beginning, John Carr saw Pope Francis as a “great sign of hope.”

Carr, who spent more than two decades as the U.S. bishops’ top peace and justice officer, was home, working at his kitchen table, when the white smoke came up announcing the selection of the new pope. “I thought, ‘Oh, my,’ and this guy I didn’t recognize came out,” Carr said. “When he said the name ‘Francis,’ I thought ‘it’s going to be okay.’”

As executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, Carr carried a rather large portfolio. He often tells the story of being introduced by a man who said, “He’s in charge of social development and world peace.” The man’s wife, in Carr’s telling, looked at him and said, “You need to do a better job.”

Since leaving the bishops’ staff last year, Carr has launched a new initiative, based at Georgetown University, aimed at helping lay people “become more informed and engaged in their vocation to be ‘salt, light, and leaven’” in public life. Carr, who visited Sojourners’ office this spring, is encouraged that the election of Pope Francis “has provided incredible visibility, urgency, and passion” around social issues. “When he was going to be elected, his friend said, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” Carr explained. “A church that moves to the edge to care for the weak and vulnerable is a church you want to be a part of.”

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