Posted in theology

Toppling Statues, a Historical and a Biblical Perspective

By Elizabeth Prata

The anarchy continues. Riots, takeovers, protests. Now the lawless rioters are demanding to defund the police, dictating that Rhode Island drop the “plantations” from its full name, and toppling statues. Because, racism. The statues to which these anarchists object are Confederate statues, Christopher Columbus, or politicians.

In one case, police stood by in Portsmouth VA as rioters defaced a statue, and when they began to topple part of it, a man was hit with chunks and put into a coma.

Elsewhere, they defaced Philadelphia’s Matthias Baldwin statue, apparently ignorant of the fact that Baldwin was an abolitionist 30 years before the Civil War, advocated for freedom of blacks, advocated for them being allowed to vote, and hired them in his shops.

So some of the revolutionaries are not only lawless but ignorant of history too.

Being ignorant of one’s own history is a bad thing.

I am old enough to remember when the Soviet Union fell. Statues toppled all over the place. The Ukraine is particularly known for immediately toppling many of its 5500 statues to Lenin when the Union fell apart, and continue to do so to this day. The ongoing phenomenon is so embedded by now that it has a name, “Leninopad” meaning literally “Lenin Fall.” In other former Soviet States, we read,

Beauty often fades, as does our fascination with buildings and monuments built to glorify or represent ideals that seem somewhat antiquated today. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, many of the memorials and grand structures embodying the military, economic, and scientific achievements of the Soviet experiment were gradually (or quickly) torn down, or else neglected, left in states of disrepair, or even abandoned altogether.

Toppling statues as a symbolic gesture of protest is nothing new. And in some cases, warranted. I mean, do Germans really want statues of Hitler standing around? Or do Russians want to keep looking at statues of Stalin?

The Colossus at Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It fell in the earthquake of 226 BC. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris is a world famous monument representing Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and also to commemorate to military achievements of the French armies.

Are statues a monument to history or embarrassing relics of the past? Both.

Some worry that toppling statues will end up cutting too deep into a nation’s fabric, as this British journalist opines:

Our country is literally a museum to its imperialist past. So, what are we to do, start tearing down our town halls, art galleries, and university buildings? How far are we to take the destruction of our material world in order to meet our contemporary standards?

Others are unruffled by the physical tearing down of the once revered symbols of history, as this British University historian writes

Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew.

In the Bible, the LORD hated idolatrous statues. The Golden Calf and the snake Neshutan were not benign statues but were structures built and erected, in the former case, expressly to worship another god and in Neshutan’s case, becoming an idol over time. Ashereh poles, (Deuteronomy 7:5) statutes of Molech (1 Kings 11:7) or images of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:3) were rightly toppled or smashed because they were odes to other gods, who are no gods.

On the other hand, the Lord either commanded or accepted Altars of Remembrance. Jacob built a pillar after having had the dream of the stairway to heaven. (Genesis 28:10-19). Jacob built another after having safely re-met his brother Esau, and called it El-Elohe-Israel. (Genesis 33:20). After the LORD stopped the Jordan from flowing so the People could safely cross, Joshua commanded an altar of remembrance made out of 12 stones, one stone for each of the tribes. It was purposely a memorial so that when the children ask, ‘what is this?’ they will be re-told the glorious things the LORD had done for them. (Joshua 4:4-7).

That’s what these structures do, remind us of our past, our journey from one point in history to another. They are part of the fabric of a People. Sometimes that journey contains embarrassing events (defeats, unwise exaltation of certain individuals) or even by now representations of events we may no longer wish to remember, (slavery, genocide).

Sometimes a statue is so much a part of a nation that to take it down or lose it to neglect or war would be devastating. The Statue of Liberty comes to mind. The shock ending of the original Planet of the Apes movie was so successful and resonates to this day because of the incomprehensible devastation of a symbol so embedded in America’s psyche. I myself feel deeply about that statue, my grandparents and great-grandparents came through Ellis Island as immigrants.

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The “Three Soldiers” statue in the National Mall in Washington DC contains the first representation of a black soldier on the Mall. Initially the design of Maya Lin’s VietNam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall was controversial. It’s familiarly known as “The Wall” and it is a granite structure embedded into the ground containing the names of those declared dead or missing in that war. It is said of Lin’s design,

According to Lin, her intention was to create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the pain caused by the war and its many casualties. “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, and with the passage of time, that initial violence and pain would heal,” she recalled.

Vietnam_veterans_wall_satellite_image

No matter where you stand on the issue of putting up or tearing down statues and what or who they represent, they are part of the life of every nation on earth. Even the Muslims who strongly discourage visual representations, have the giant black cube in Mecca. (The Kaaba, which means “cube”.). Statues, obelisks, pillars, arches, and other structures that are erected for a triumph or an ode to someone or a remembrance and exist everywhere. Toppling them also happens, in every era and everywhere. It’s sad for some to see them come down, or it’s happy to others.

There are some statues I’d hate to see come down, others I am neutral over. This article talks about Why There are No Nazi Statues in Germany (and compares this to the American South). Putting up a statue takes time and deliberation, and taking one down also should take time and deliberation. Yet at times toppling statues during protests against a current system, as against Haiti’s dictator Duvalier or Russia’s oppression of the Ukrainians, are a potent part of a movement for needed change.

Wherever you come down on the toppling/defacing statue movement or even if you have no opinion, I’d like to return to the Bible for this last bit. There was a statue. It was a big statue. It wasn’t real, but was a symbolic representation given to King Nebuchadnezzar in a dream, and it represented nations and times. Daniel interpreted the statue dream,

Daniel 2:31-35,

You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

Daniel 2:44-45

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.

On His Day, Jesus will strike down ALL monuments to man’s endeavors. He will smash all memory of structures giving laud to mans’ skirmishes, odes, battles, people, and works. We will not need statues, we will be with and can see the only One who will matter on that Day- Jesus.

This world is not our home. While we may be emotionally attached to certain structures representing history or memory, when Jesus comes the old statues will pale and the living One will be gloriously bright, real, and present. Maybe God is using this present time to separate our hearts from things to which we should not be SO attached, or maybe He is demonstrating the sin present in every man’s heart that boils over into unreasoning animalistic acts with the least provocation.

Whatever the LORD is doing, let’s remember that this world is not our home. We can mourn present situations, for sure, but ultimately we cry out in joy because of the very reason that we can call our God, Abba, Father,

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). And what is a statue compared to that?

Author:

Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

4 thoughts on “Toppling Statues, a Historical and a Biblical Perspective

  1. Very well written, Elizabeth! I remember when people mourned the burning of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris last year, citing the destruction of history and culture, crying over pieces of art. I honestly didn’t understand that point of view. I know from the book of Revelation that all we know will burn away, making room for a new heaven and earth, where we will worship and glorify God, not silly materialistic things. I really liked this statement…”Maybe God is using this present time to separate our hearts from things to which we should not be SO attached, or maybe He is demonstrating the sin present in every man’s heart that boils over into unreasoning animalistic acts with the least provocation”. Thank you.

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  2. What really or ultimately matters is what God’s word says about making statues in the first place?

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    1. True! God’s word says not to make statues or likenesses of Him, and not to make items that become idols (As Neshutan had). Leviticus 26:1, Ex 20:4-5. Bowing down to it would be the key to recognizing if it is an idol.

      But God’s word also says to build “memorials” (to Him) so as to remember what He has done (Joshua 4:4-7, Gen 28:18, 1 Sam 7:12).

      Absalom built a monument to himself in order to perpetuate his memory, not a great idea! (2 Samuel 18:18)

      Jacob set up a pillar in honor of the memory of Rachel. (Genesis 35:20)

      They built a monument as a signal of union with the other tribes (Joshua 22:10-34)

      Monuments were erected to commemorate events, Jacob did to honor his vision of angels (Genesis 28:18)

      It’s likely not wrong to build a monument in remembrance of a dignitary so as to honor him, the Bible does say to honor leaders. HE raises up leaders after all. As long as a statue, marker, pillar, or monument doesn’t compete with God for primacy and it doesn’t become an idol, it would seem they are OK to erect.

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