Angela Denker: Smash the Monuments - A New Christian Iconoclasm
About a month ago, I watched people surround the statue of Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota State Capitol building less than 20 miles from my house.
Many of them were Dakota and Ojibwe, members of the American Indian Movement of the Twin Cities. Their ancestors, their distant relatives, had been beaten and killed by Columbus and his men, a terrifying precursor to the Trail of Tears and Indian boarding schools and smallpox and death and poverty on the reservation.
They surrounded the statue and lifted a rope around it, daringly and fearlessly yanking the man of bronze from his granite pedestal. They had waited many years, seen many legislative bills pass and attended committee meetings with no action taken. In the wake of the gruesome death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police — in a country where Native Americans are the most likely ethnic or racial group to be killed in police encounters — the wait was over. Something had to fall. Something had to die, or change would never come.
The people surrounded the fallen statue. They beat their drums. They sang songs of sorrow and songs of hope. They took photos.
When the statue hit the ground, it made a loud, thudding noise. Underneath the ground, for a while anyway, tiny tremors shook the earth. They vibrated beneath the roots of the trees and foundations of buildings that held up the city.
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come,
oh yes it will. (Sam Cooke)
I’ve been to the Minnesota State Capitol before. As an elementary school student, I marveled at the golden horses, the statue called Quadriga that stands on the middle of the building’s second level, just below the gleaming white rising dome.
Turns out the statue only appears to be golden. It’s copper, gilded with gold. The male figure, of course, represents the state. The two women, their naked breasts bursting out of their blouses, represent agriculture and industry, unintentionally signifying the role of women as the true engine of the economy. The four horses, bucking but bridled, tied to the chariot carrying the man, represent earth, fire, water, and wind. The statue’s official name is Progress of the State.
I remembered the golden horses, their simulated movement driving us forward, the way the sun’s rays caught their gilded golden coat even on 0-degree January days. Unlike most statues, this one suggested motion - impermanence - movement.
I did not remember Columbus.
His bronze statue was so commonplace it faded into the background. He was white and male and so powerful he’d been cast into stone that he might be worshiped for generations to come. I’d seen figures like his all over America and Europe. I’d been to Mount Rushmore multiple times. The gray statues, unlike the golden one above, symbolized stolid, immovable power. They witnessed to the permanence of social, racial, and class order. Rarely if ever were these statues of Black people, or of women. They said to me: “We are in charge.”
Their dominance was so deeply entrenched, centuries after Columbus mistakenly sailed to America, that I never questioned them. I walked past them and bowed my head.
In seminary, I read a great deal about the Protestant Reformation in Europe, which happened not a century after Columbus ignited his reign of terror on the Americas. Looking back now, that’s fitting. The powerful nobility and clergy of Europe saw their power slipping away in the old country, so they salivated at the opportunity of tyranny in another land, of colonialism, of more people who might be readily oppressed, weakened as they were by lack of immunity to European diseases and cruelty.
The European peasants were among the first to cry for Civil Rights.
It was they, the ancestors of American Evangelicals and Protestants and Catholic reformers, who first rushed into European cathedrals and smashed statues and altars and icons and stained glass windows.
I remember this because I read the word so many times in my textbooks. Again and again the historians and theologians wrote of iconoclasm and of iconoclasts, and again and again I had to look up the word.
Today’s dictionary calls an iconoclast one who would attack cherished beliefs or institutions, or secondarily, destroy images used in religious worship. But now the lines have blurred between religious and national worship, as Christian nationalism has wrought its hold over American Christianity, and American flags and bunting decorate sanctuaries, and we sing patriotic songs as we share the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
So too iconoclasm today melds with the holy iconoclasts of the Protestant Reformation. Gleefully and purposefully they destroyed the beautiful sanctuaries and altars. They smashed the monuments to Europe’s Holy Roman Empire, where the King and Emperor and the Pope together shared power and worship.
Anytime we bleed these lines of national power and religious worship, we are in trouble.
Like the boiling down of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the God of the Bible demands the monuments to power be smashed, idols to ideology be broken, and statues to success be pulled down.
A better woman than I would have wondered the first time I saw Columbus at my state capitol, why a man from Spain who didn’t understand global navigation, committed mass genocide of indigenous peoples, and never set foot in what is now the United States, was erected here on grand scale as a monument to a country that called itself free.
A better woman than I would have recognized that Columbus’ message carved in stone to all the people of America, that while perhaps all may live here, only some may truly be free, and only a few are fit to rule. Columbus was a standard-bearer—wealthy, audacious, white, and male. His Christianity, if you can call it that, was in service to a greater master, the pursuit of wealth and power. He paid it lip service in his writings to the European royals who financed him, the same way some politicians today tell us they are praying in the sight of injustice, only to trot out a few repeated incantations to suggest that they worship the God of the Bible.
But the God of the Bible is pretty clear about idols.
Almost a decade ago, I walked the dusty streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and knelt at the foot of the site of Jesus’ tomb, on top of which European Christian crusaders had built a massive sanctuary, called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or Latin for tomb.
I was awestruck the entire length of my visit, moving slowly through the massive, hollow space with hundreds of other pilgrims. The air was heavy with incense. I was grateful for this place where I could worship Jesus, could remember His death.
And yet the Church of Holy Sepulchre, for all its grandeur, has not been able to stem millennia of warfare just outside its doors. Different Christian sects have battled one another for its stewardship. Christians, Jews and Muslims have fought holy wars, killing one another, bleeding for access to the land. The church holds the tomb of Christ but not his grace, his mercy, or his peacemaking. For that we need living stones, built into a spiritual house, to witness to the justice and power and mercy of a God who abhors cruelty and killing and oppression.
I hear the laments of those who wail as the statues tumble, and I think some are lamenting their own loss of power and influence, the waning righteousness of an “American Gospel” that demanded worship of the wealthy and powerful, who hide behind their dusty statues as proof of their once rightful lordship.
I hear them worry about what will come next. Where will we look without our statues, our history, to guide us?
When we stop relying on the men of stone, we, as people faith, can look instead to the tablets of stone, whose challenging words and insistence on worship only of God led to the erection of the first monuments, the golden calves, which Moses would smash and destroy for the Word of God.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water underneath. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
So let the monuments fall and tumble to the earth. Let the Columbus statues be toppled. And then let us gather up the dust, spread it across the land, add water, and plant seeds anew for our nation. Iconoclasm is not an end, but a beginning.
Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump (Fortress: August 2019), is a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. She has pastored congregations in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orange County (Calif.), the Twin Cities, and rural Minnesota.
To write Red State Christians, Angela spent 2018 traveling across America to interview Christians and Christian leaders in red states and counties. While spending time with the people in her book - and her own loved ones living in red states and counties, she found surprise, warning, opportunity and hope. In retelling those stories, she hopes to build empathy and dialogue without shying away from telling hard truths about the politicization of religion and the prevalence of Christian Nationalism in churches across America.
Twitter | @angela_denker
Facebook | @angeladenker1
Blog | http://agoodchristianwoman.blogspot.com
Website | https://www.angeladenker.com
Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.
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