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How shall we remember?

June 11, 2020

"Now they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves from their silver, cleverly fashioned images, all of them the work of craftsmen." Hosea 13. 2

 

A new rage has erupted to distract us from the virus. It started with fury over the tragic death of George Floyd, which could not be contained. Despite the pleas of his family, demonstrations in America turned ugly and then crossed the ocean. Outrage at the killing of one man has unleashed the resentment of decades and centuries. Not content with venting pent up emotions, some protesters turned to violence and, when that was not enough, visual history was put in the dock and found guilty. So down came the statue of Edward Colston. No doubt others will follow.

 

Will the purging of our streets and cities of fallen heroes deliver us from the ugly side of colonialism, or will it invite us to forget our history and risk making the same mistakes all over again? Is there a way of commemorating those who have brought justice or prosperity or entertainment to our communities, which is less vulnerable to the changing opinions of future generations? How do we acknowledge the darker side of what made us who we are, without appearing to celebrate it?

 

The Bible has always been against expressions of vainglory. You won't find any mention of statues or even portraits of prophets or apostles or even Jesus. Only much later did artists and craftsmen decide that visual aids to worship might be appropriate. Is there a lesson in here for us, in our current social confusion? As Hosea reminds us, allowing graven images to become objects of veneration sets us on a dangerous course. But applied appropriately, tangible representations of what and whom we believe in can be helpful: consider the painted monasteries of Moldavia, whereby an illiterate peasantry could encounter stories of the Bible.

 

In our visual age, we seize upon symbols and public art to educate us about life, to remind us of where we came from and to inspire our ambitions for the future. But these do not need to lionise individuals. In fact it is probably better if they do not. Diana, self-styled "Queen of Hearts", who was killed in tragic circumstances in 1997 is commemorated in a fountain at the southwest corner of Hyde Park in London. Driving through the Western Isles one meets a growing number of cairns testifying to formative events of the last two hundred years. With what shall we replace the statues which the current generation of iconoclasts is tearing down?

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