The book of James, one of my favorite books in the Christian scriptures, is famous for the phrase “Faith without works is dead.” The writer argues that we demonstrate belief with the actions we take: our convictions have material consequences and we prove our commitment with the degree to which we’ll live out what we believe.
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” —James 2:15-16
So many people have been moved to adopt symbols of resistance to bigotry in the last week. The safety pin has helped would-be-allies to find one another, and has also very quickly spurred discussions on whether adopters would go on to design more active and more visible social interventions, and how willing they were to receive feedback from those they wanted to be supportive of.
The argument in James has implications for personal change as well as social change. In the book The Mind-Body Code, Mario Martinez writes about what it takes to rewire our automatic and autonomic responses to life circumstances. He says it takes both routines and rituals:
Living a theory entails embodying its principles in the form of actions. And to sustain a change, to live the theory, actions must become rituals… Routine is action we take to maintain a level of functioning, whereas ritual is meaningful action that defines who we are in our culture.” —Mario Martinez
Personal and social changes are less about willpower and more about collective design: when we reframe how we perceive ourselves, relate to others, and interact with the external world, we can make it that much easier for ourselves to choose whatever serves us—not just “me” and not just “my group,” but us.
Rituals allow us to express shared meanings; they’re like stories we’re acting out as we go about life, and they help us to embody, a little more each time, the values we say motivate us most.