Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

The limitations of statues

THE FUNDAMENTAL problem with statues is that God only ever set ten things in stone, and people’s reputations weren’t included. In fact, the Ten Commandments etched for Moses explicitly excluded the practice.

In Exodus 20:4 God declared, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

With the current debate over the place of memorials to people with questionable pasts, it’s instructive to see what the Bible has to say about statues. Perhaps not surprisingly, given God’s declaration, it’s not good, for the most part. In addition to repeated warnings against making idols, there are concrete (smile) examples.

Look at what happened to the Philistines when they took the Ark of the Covenant and put it in the temple where they had a statue to their false god, Dagon (1 Samuel 6). The two simply couldn’t share the same space: the effigy was toppled supernaturally and the people were afflicted with disease. Later, Samson brought the whole thing crashing down in final judgment (see Judges 16).

Then there was the time Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a giant statue with feet of clay that fell, a picture of the temporary and fragile nature of human greatness (Daniel 2).

The basic problem seems to be that when we put someone or something on a pedestal, we start to look up to them/it instead of looking higher, to God. When honor calcifies, it becomes dishonorable. We settle for the flawed rather than the Lord, you might say. So maybe there comes a time when, heritage notwithstanding, those things need to come down.

That was the case with Gideon. When he was called to rise up as Israel’s deliverer from under the thumb of the oppressive Midianites, he was instructed to pull down his father’s altar to Baal and in its place erect one to the one true God.

There’s a lot of acrimony on both sides of the memorial issue, currently. But beyond the charges of racism and revisionism, maybe there’s an opportunity to steer the conversation towards something more hopeful, like Paul did.

When he saw all the idols in Athens, he didn’t lecture the people on how wrong they were. Instead, he used the moment as an opportunity to direct their eyes to something higher than the stone plinths around them. Referencing the altar inscribed to an unknown god, he said that he could make an introduction:

“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything . . . he is actually not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:23-27).

Important as the questions of accurate history, appropriate honor, and acceptable heritage are, there is an even bigger one being asked in this whole issue. Ultimately, it’s not so much who are we looking down on by revering wrong, but Who should we be looking up to instead?

Photo by Dmitry Djouce on Foter.com/CC BY

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