Thursday, June 11, 2020

Idol chatter

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall make you no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the LORD your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.”

Exodus 20:1-6

(The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter)

In these days, I find myself in conversations with very defensive white people. Our defensiveness ought to tell us something, if we will listen. I hear bewildered statements like “The world’s gone mad” and “Where will it end?” and a particular focus on statues.

The power statues have over us calls to mind the Commandments. Through Moses, God warns against the raising of likenesses, images. Later in the biblical account, as this word is ignored, such likenesses are called idols. Representations of some claimant over us, to our allegiance; things made by God, for blessing and fruitfulness, to whom we hand over a power to hold us captive. To enslave us.

When we cannot even acknowledge that there may be good reason to pull down the likeness of a literal slave trader, or, even more recently, to revisit whether it is a good idea to immortalise a man who was a vocal supporter of Adolf Hitler, then are not these images idols?

I am not arguing that there should be no sculpture, no three-dimensional tactile art. Indeed, such things are a way in which we explore the world, and our place in it.

I do wonder whether it might be a good practice for any and all public statues to stand on their plinth for one hundred years, and then be removed; alongside an assessment—a re-evaluation—of their impact. This would not be to erase history—and certainly, not to lose the gift of the sculptor to society—but to engage with history.

In issuing such a strong warning against the power of likenesses to cut us off from our Creator and Redeemer, from ourselves as created and redeemed, and from our neighbour, God speaks about generations. God demands retribution from only three or four generations, and upholds treaty obligation to the (vastly more) thousandth.

And this is why I wonder about a one-hundred-year statue limitation. Three or four generations. The longer reparations go unreconciled, the more difficult they become. We are all guilty of sin, of that which separates us from God and neighbour, and of the particular ways that manifests itself in our lives. It isn’t enough to argue, “On such an exacting measure, no-one is guiltless!” and it isn’t enough to say, “It is dangerous to assess historical figures on the morals of our times rather than theirs.” Yes, Baden-Powell’s vocal homophobia must be seen in the context of a society that was structurally hostile to gay people; yes, our common values are very different today; and, yes—take note—these may change again in the future. Neither removing a statue too soon nor leaving it for ever are wise.

Statues commemorate the people we look up to, and statues in turn shape us, mould us, set us hard—and brittle—in bronze. The longer we gaze upon a slave trader in admiration, the harder it is for us to be set free from our own captivity to the believe that some people are justifiably more human than others. (The great irony being the diminishing of our own humanity.) The longer we gaze on statues of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in public parks and squares the length and breadth of the land, the longer we justify ‘our’ Empire, and the harder it becomes to journey on into freedom.

Sometimes what we need is to be melted down and remade, by the One who creates and redeems, and who is committed to doing so through all generations.

Where does it all end? My hope is in it arriving at the life shared with us by the God who unites all. My expectation is that this will be a life-long pattern of being brought out of the house of slaves. I note how hard we resist that kindness. Lord, have mercy.

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