In a gentler, more placid time, back before the world was on fire, which is to say when I was in graduate school, I remember a conversation about iconoclasm. We were studying icon theology with Geoffrey Wainwright at Duke Divinity School. This ecumenical theologian taught us mostly Reformed types why Orthodox Christians write (not paint) and venerate (not adore) and kiss (yes: kiss!) icons. God took flesh in a human body. Before the incarnation, the second commandment forbids all depiction of God. But after God depicts God in human flesh, we had better draw him. And if we draw him, we’d better venerate him.
That’s what I got from the class anyway.
The location where I heard this matters. Duke University was built with tobacco money from the estate of one James B. Duke, the world’s richest man at one time, king of the American Tobacco enterprise. His statue stands in front of Duke Chapel, holding a cigar—enjoying the leaf that was source of his immense wealth. Upon his death, much of his estate went to re-endow a once-struggling little North Carolina bible college into being the world-renowned research university it is today. Dr. Wainwright prophesied that if there were ever an outbreak of iconoclasm on campus, it’d be against Buck Duke’s cigar. When I first arrived at Duke in the mid-1990s you could still smell the sickly sweet tobacco being rolled into cigarettes. Now they don’t make cigarettes in Durham at all anymore. But Mr. Duke still holds his cigar (and, no, Dr. Freud: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).
There has been an outbreak of iconoclasm in the US South, you may have heard, but not so much on the Duke campus. Across town, in the same parking lot shared by the church that the Wainwrights long attended, a Confederate memorial came down in Black Lives Matter protests a few years ago. Similar monuments long stood in front of courthouses throughout the old Confederacy, not always built just after the Civil War, when the South lay in ruins, but decades later, either to fortify Jim Crow or to thumb the nose at the civil rights movement. Confederate flags began to emblazon state emblems then too—in the 1950s, not the late 1860s. The town where my parents live was named for “General” Carr, who was actually a buck private, but lived long enough and grew wealthy enough that folks started calling him “general.” He was glad to cut ribbons and give speeches at neo-Confederate events into the 20th century, offering up generous dollops of racism in the process. Carrboro should surely be renamed.
Here’s the problem: to what? My parents joked that Ghandiville might soon be taken.
This new outbreak of iconoclasm is a blessed thing. The anger over police brutality directed against black and brown people has brought down monuments to white supremacists much faster than go-slow legislatures ever would have. The sentiment has even reached Canada, where a Maritime city put one John A. McDonald “in timeout,” as my Cree colleague Ray Aldred says, over his anti-indigenous racism. Here in Vancouver the statue of one Gassy Jack may come down over his marriage to a 12-year old indigenous girl. Some statues here up north may be safe. A tour guide once told me that when Canadian schoolchildren are asked who the statue of George Vancouver is in city hall, they usually respond, “George Washington?”
And there’s the rub. Protestors have also recently targeted statues of such onetime American untouchables as Mr. Washington. He was as racist as any 18th century Virginia founding father could be, owner of hundreds of other human beings. Yet we have states named for him. Cities. He’s on the money. Lincoln too. His memorial is one of our greatest monuments in our capitol. He is the Great Emancipator, but his comments on race are not exemplary. Jefferson’s worse than any of them. Yet these monuments in stone and city and coinage are likely to stand. For now.
It might be worth asking what monuments are for. Presumably, to recognize someone’s gifts to the larger community, to inspire children to ask about their lives. If the figures in stone were dedicated to enslaving, oppressing, and denigrating whole classes of our neighbours, they should come down.
I say this with some anxiety. If we are only going to civically honour those above reproach a century after their deaths, we may have no statues at all.
But would that be so bad?!
In a biblical vocabulary, the living God has an “image.” That image is humanity. A God of life did not produce static, dull, idolatrous “images.” Instead this God reflected himself in human flesh. The incarnation is a natural outgrowth of God’s delight to create. Of course we reflect poorly. From nearly the moment we were made we set about unmaking God’s creative purposes. All except one of us. Jesus. And maybe his mother, depending on your church tradition. It would be fine, on Christian grounds, to have no stone monuments at all. Our God only makes images in skin.
Our Reformed Protestant forebears were against statues. Catholics venerated them, so Protestants tore them down. They didn’t get the memo on Orthodox veneration of icons, and thought the second commandment remained straightforward enough. The impulse to pull down statues then is a Jewish and Protestant one. Just don’t replace them with . . . anything. Israel remembers her stories not with statues, but with practices: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). Memorialize the words of the Lord, not the faces of “great” leaders.
Of course it’s not likely to work. We won’t be putting religious words up in public anytime soon in the secular west. But people do seem to want to place memorials in civic space. We human beings are incurable idol-makers. We will find something else to erect that will look embarrassing in a few decades’ time. We’d better keep those iconoclastic skills sharp. Our Jewish and Reformed forebears and the BLM movement show us as much.