“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship….” (Acts 17:22-23)
Across my newsfeeds recently has come news of an “Exceptional trove of 24 ancient statues found immersed in [a] Tuscan spa.” Archeologists estimate the statues were made “between the second century BC and the first century AD.” Two comments piqued my attention: First, the hot springs in which these statues were discovered “remained active until the fifth century, before being closed, but not destroyed [emphasis added], during the Christian times.”
Second, that “the relics represent an important testament to the transition between the Etruscan and Roman periods, with the baths being considered a haven of peace. Even in historical epochs in which the most awful conflicts were raging outside, inside these pools and on these altars the two worlds, the Etruscan and the Roman one, appear to have coexisted without problems” [again, emphasis added].
This story should remind us of two important points relevant for today. First, religious iconoclasm, the destruction of icons for religious reasons, was a rare phenomenon that only came about during certain times in the two-thousand-year history of the Christian church. The leaders during those periods were inspired by the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Second, the most important form of iconoclasm today, however, is what I would call secular iconoclasm. It is motivated not by religious teaching but by a form of secular moral purity. I contend that Christians should resist both the first and second forms of iconoclasm for similar reasons.
Statues and monuments reveal something about the persons being memorialized (those persons are never perfect). They also reveal something about the persons who erect them (also, never perfect). They also very often reveal something about the persons who deface or destroy them (or who do not deface or destroy them).
Religious iconoclasts demonstrated a fever for religious purity. For example, on my bucket list is to visit the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt, especially the Great Sphinx of Giza, which, according to fifteenth-century historian al-Maqrīzī, was purposely defaced by removing its nose by a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr. Its reverence by the locals was intolerable to the new conquerors. They cut off its nose to spite its face.
Christians did the same thing to the first-century AD marble heads of Aphrodite. They removed the noses of many of the statues, and on at least one etched a cross into her forehead. She was baptized by chisel!
I find the silliest of such defacing to be the removed penises and added fig leaves to Greek and Roman statues by Popes Paul IV, Innocent X, and Clement XIII. Really?
History is littered with statues and monuments that victors, successors, oppressed or oppressors found intolerable. Art historians tell us that “destruction is the norm and preservation is the rare exception.” Add to those examples countless churches, synagogues, mosques, works of art, books, and scrolls.
Today, with secular ideologies gaining sacred status, we are more likely to see secular forms of iconoclasm. For instance, a wave of sentiment protesting against police violence morphed into iconoclasm of Civil War statues and other monuments in Southern states. That movement quickly became a paroxysm of hatred against revered American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington—and other historical figures. I’m looking at a list online as I write that is too long to fathom.
As I write, there is a robust debate in the city of Philadelphia about what to do with a statue of Columbus. As they weigh the merits of destruction or removal, I aver that we diminish the courage and fortitude of Columbus at our own peril. What will we do without imperfect adventurers who are willing to sail off the edge of the earth, or into the vastness of space?
Evidently, no person in history who failed to live up to some standard in their distant future can now be considered safe. What future standard have I failed to anticipate and meet by writing this essay? I shudder.
I am, generally, disinclined to both religious and secular iconoclasm, and not just because history is generally unkind in its judgement of iconoclasts, and not because damnatio memoriae (destruction of memory) is so ineffective. Instead, I am against it because our world and humanity are less because of the destruction of churches, temples, and mosques, books, scrolls, and inscriptions, statues, monuments, and pyramids—even those which stand for something with which we vehemently disagree. Icons are symbols of humanity—good and bad—from which we learn.
Just as Paul engaged the “men of Athens,” I encourage our culture, especially Christians, to become redemptive stewards of all icons, be they Christian or pagan, evidence of good or evil actions/intent. Merely destroying them is to ignore our call to thoughtfully engage, and probably even takes away an opportunity to bear witness to the Gospel.
I once visited Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. Now, you will never meet anyone less sympathetic to Lenin or Communism than me, but if Russia were to fall (and that is no longer so impossible to imagine) and anti-Russian sentiment were to ignite, I would argue that Lenin’s Tomb should be preserved. It is an artifact of history, a testament to people both in favor and against, and its value to posterity outweighs any present or future resentment and hatred.
Colleagues whose opinions I trust tell me I would feel differently if my family were the victims of, say, Stalin and Lenin, or Hitler, or Civil War generals and leaders. It’s a valid point. But the farther defacement and destruction are in the past, the colder the light of objectivity becomes. I can think of no statue or monument older than a couple of generations—certainly none from antiquity—that I would not rather be preserved.
Can no one imagine parents standing before a statue with their children in the relatively distant future—say, 2223—and teaching them that here is an example of a man or woman with feet of clay (Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln)? This person did such-and-such wrong, but we shouldn’t forget they also did such-and-such right? Or, that the wrong for which this statue or monument stands can now be seen in a clearer light; a negative role model (Stalin, Lenin, Robert E. Lee)?
My rules-of-thumb are sunlight, air, analysis, but also preservation, not destruction. I’m sure you can think of exceptions to my rules-of-thumb. Heck, I can think of exceptions to my rules-of-thumb.
But, in our country, at least for now, there is a right way to remove a statue. Laws can be changed, hearts and minds can be changed, and cultures can be changed. Perhaps alternate venues or museums will be a means of responsibly and redemptively—Christianly—engaging those icons representative of clearly fallen ideologies and individuals. There are better responses than iconoclasm, but they take evidence, logic, persuasion, compromise, and especially civility.
Destruction of statues and monuments, often seen in the moment as an act of courage, is far from virtuous. Rather, it is a sign of weakness and intolerance that lacks any Christian imagination to see the future. Christians are called to be a people who remember, not a people to quickly forget—though the latter has long been our sinful tendency. Thus, I cast a Christian vision for thoughtful engagement with symbols of the past—be they worthy of scorn or admiration. Surely, our own work—and symbols of it—will be similarly judged in the future, which awaits us all.