Ambivalent iconoclasms and deliberate forgetting: Catholicism and the tearing down of statues

3 mins read
Statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Park in Boston. Shutterstock

Several times in the past weeks I’ve seen Catholics on social media denounce the removal of statues in the United States, the United Kingdom and Belgium as acts of “iconoclasm,” using that theological term from the eighth century in a careless way to suggest there is only one permissible view for Catholics today: to be against the removal of statues. But is that so?

When I teach courses on Christian iconography and iconoclasm, I help students to appreciate that most theological fights of the first millennium were close-run things, with at least some plausible arguments on both sides.

When the Church was finally compelled to take a stance about images in the late eighth century, she recognized that the opponents of images had some legitimate anxiety about their usage. The approval for images granted at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, then, is noteworthy for its studied ambivalence.

The Church was finally compelled to defend images less because of their worth and utility and more because the underlying attack was on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. When my students are struggling to organize in their heads all the debates from the first ecumenical council in 325 to the seventh in 787, I tell them one shortcut is to remember that every debate was in some way over Jesus’ question to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15).

This, then, is the first crucial difference between today’s debates and those of the eighth century: removing statues of Christopher Columbus, or King Leopold II of the Belgians, or Confederate warriors, has nothing to do with Christology or the Incarnation. It is, therefore, improper in one way for Catholics to describe these actions as “iconoclasm” in a theologically strict sense, but quite proper to use that term in another, wider sense.

That wider sense has been much articulated in recent scholarship over the last 15 years or so. Leslie Brubaker, John Haldon, James Noyes and others have made clear that everybody can become an iconoclast under the right circumstances. Didn’t you and your girlfriends have a bonfire to burn the pictures of the boyfriends who unceremoniously dumped in 10th grade? Didn’t you put into the shredder that giant bedroom poster of the NFL star who treacherously moved to a rival team you hate with a red-hot passion?

What are you doing in those actions? First, you are saying that you now order your life in a new way, that you shall (attempt to) live differently, free from the burdens and passions of those past entanglements. Second, you are seeking to heal your memory of these hurtful people by obliterating images that remind you of them.

The first of your actions is politics — which, as Aristotle taught, is simply an answer to the question, “How ought we to order our life together?” In this light, then, iconoclasm is always political. As James Noyes (see his invaluable 2013 book “The Politics of Iconoclasm”) has made clear, the struggle over images is always a political act, and the destruction of images is always a prelude to a new politics, a new ordering of our life. This was as true for Christians in the eighth century as it is for Belgians, Americans and Britons today.

What position, if any, should Catholics take on these contemporary political fights over images? Some, as noted above, assert that the Church’s previous battles against iconoclasts require it today to be against the destruction of historical monuments.

Others might be ambivalent about today’s new forms of iconoclasm and want to think more about these issues. For such Catholics, consider some practical wisdom offered by the Church in the 1999 document “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.” Composed by the International Theological Commission (ITC), under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger, it merits careful reading in its entirety, but let me highlight two passages.

First, the ITC noted the importance in historical controversies of “eliminating from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past.” Second, we need to move towards a “new assessment of past history” in which the “memory of division and opposition is purified and substituted by a reconciled memory” (No. 5.1).

Americans have scarcely begun to do either. But to both eliminate past traces of violence and find new, reconciled memories, I would argue we need first to engage in some deliberate forgetting. Pulling down of statutes of figures associated with racism, colonialism and violence can be the first step toward forgetting them.

Once more, Catholics can benefit from recent scholarship — from such as Bradford Vivian, David Rieff and Manuel Cruz — on forgetting. These scholars have suggested that in cases of historical trauma and violent conflict — of which slavery is the worst example still for this country — sometimes deliberate forgetting may well be the only way to move forward to genuine healing. Removing statues, then, removes these reminders, allowing us rightly to forget these figures.

The Spanish philosopher Cruz, in his 2016 book “On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History,” put it most forthrightly: deliberate forgetting is “a way of draining history,” particularly painful and traumatic history that still holds us in its thrall. If, today, people around the world pull down images of conquerors and warmongers, seeking to forget them, then it is entirely possible for Catholics to approve of such acts.

In the end, Catholics can see such actions in theological terms: not as iconoclasm, but instead as anamnesis (cf. Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25), a remembering of the past that recapitulates our present, opening to us once more the reconciliation offered us by Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Adam A.J. DeVille is author of “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.95). He writes from Indiana.