On tearing down statues

On the 9th April 2003, Iraqis gathered in Firdos Square following the Coalition invasion and tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein.  The world watched on and cheered as this event symbolised the freedom of the Iraqi people from slavery and tyranny.

This week we have seen further attempts to tear down statues, some successful, some less so. In the States, there are campaigns to remove statues in honour of the Civil War General and commander of the Confederate armies, Robert Lee. Here in the UK we saw a crowd tear down and destroy a monument in Bristol to Edward Colston.

Colston was a merchant and member of Parliament in the 18th century. He is also described as a philanthropist.

“He founded almshouses in King Street and on St Michael’s Hill, endowed Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school and helped found Colston’s Hospital, a boarding school which opened in 1710 leaving an endowment to be managed by the Society of Merchant Venturers for its upkeep. He gave money to schools in Temple (one of which went on to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School) and other parts of Bristol, and to several churches and the cathedral.”[1]

However, he was also a prominent slave trader.

And that’s what the issue is about.  Should we remove statues of people because of unpleasant aspects of their character and their actions?  Or, should we keep them up, recognising that they lived in different times and that we can still honour and remember their good and heroic deeds? 

Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

First of all, we might note the irony that we can celebrate the removal of a statue as an act representing the freedom of a people today from slavery and tyranny whilst condemning the removal of a statue as an act representing the condemnation of past slavery and tyranny.

Secondly, we should be able to distinguish between honouring the life of someone who did good whilst recognising that they were imperfect, a fallen human being who like all of us sinned and held to wrong beliefs. At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate how strongly people affected by the sin will feel about its association with the person and the statue. It is not for those of us who have not suffered as a consequence of their actions to minimise them.

Thirdly, we often hide behind the argument that someone was simple “a man of their time” that they lived in different times.  I say “hide” because I think we all too readily reach for an argument which goes against what we know and believe from Scripture. The argument of the abolitionists was not that the slave traders and owners were being reasonable and so needed to be enlightened by an amazing new discovery that all people are equal and slavery wrong. Rather, as per Romans 1, their argument was that the immorality of slavery was self-evident. They also argued that the enslavers were the innovators against the tradition of history because Christians had been against this cruel trade from the start.

However, if I can push the argument a little bit further, what is our obsession with putting up statues of people?  In the Ten Commandments, Moses told God’s people not to make graven images, idols to worship. So why do we do it?  The argument that we need these statues to help us to remember the people and their actions doesn’t really work does it?  In my experience, there are two types of statue. There are the ones of people like Queen Victoria, Admiral Nelson and Winston Churchill. Those monuments represent famous people. You go to see Winston Churchill’s statue because it is a prominent landmark so that you can take pictures of it. Then there are the statues that we walk past and think little of.

In the centre of Chatham stands a proud tall statue of a man called Thomas Waghorn. Every weekend, boozed up youths scale the statue to put a cone on its head, no doubt heading home laughing and congratulation each other on their original wit.  Now, here’s the thing. If you were to ask your average resident of the Medway Towns who the guy was and what his statue was for, then I can guarantee that the vast majority wouldn’t have a clue.  I suspect that most of us wouldn’t have a clue who Edward Colston was and weren’t planning trips to Bristol to see his statue either.

Statues are not really that useful in helping us to learn history. Rather, what they do is point us towards the futility of trying to hold on to some thing when history forgets more than it remembers. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes that life is like vapour, it is fleeting and fragile and we are soon forgotten. He describes a poor man who rescues his town from siege but is soon forgotten.  We are fighting against the fleeting nature of time and against our own mortality and we are fighting a losing battle. In a world that no longer believes in life after death then the only hope we have is to pass on a legacy that will be remembered here.  If that is our only hope, then we will be disappointed. Christians have a better hope. We know that we will be soon forgotten here by our descendants, but we know that there is one who does not forget. Our heavenly father knows our names and he remembers us not with memorials and museums but with the sure and certain promise of eternal life and resurrection from the dead. We do not need statues to give us a shot at permanence. God has set eternity in our hearts


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Colston

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