Should the Church of England remove its images of Jesus?

History is littered with iconoclasts, from the Babylonians to the Romans, from Henry VIII to the Puritans, from ISIS and now to Justin Welby. 

It wasn’t so many years ago that Christians faced ridicule for decrying art and film that depicted Jesus Christ in mocking ways. Netflix’s, ‘The First Temptation of Christ’ came out only one year ago. I was only a kid at the time, but Melbournians still remember the controversial ‘Piss Christ’ that hung in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Christians were scorned for their protests and narrow-minded bigotry toward popular expressions of human thought and creativity. Expressions of Jesus and of God are more than permissible, they are lauded no matter how grotesque and inaccurate they are.

How quickly the culture turns.

B8AE15FC-4A57-4F23-8DF2-70F71A381890

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has just announced that the Church of England will reconsider hundreds of statues and portraits that portray Jesus Christ, Mary, and other Biblical figures. The reason for this break with centuries of tradition?  They are too white. The Archbishop’s statement is a direct response to the Black Lives Matter Movement that is sweeping around the world. Statues around the world are toppling faster than in a game of 10 pin bowling.

To be clear, racism is real and there are legitimate concerns relating to how people of different ethnicities are treated. In Australia, racism is not as widespread as some would have us believe and it is more commonplace than many others appreciate. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Shai Linne’s story that was recently published by The Gospel Coalition. There is also an important conversation to be had in Australia about our ignorance of indigenous history.

I think there is a valid argument for removing statues of people who were involved in the slave trade or were slave owners. It’s also important to note here in Australia, while there are voices calling for monuments to go and for names to change, some indigenous leaders are arguing that these concrete and marble edifices should remain.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has spoken against the removal of statues,

“I don’t believe removing statues contributes positively to this conversation”.

“These statues should remain as a reminder of a point in time in our lives – even when detrimental. They serve as prompts to encourage people to talk about history.”

“As Indigenous Australians we have sought to have the true history of this nation told so that it reflects both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and history.”

While some of the targeted statues represent person directly involved in slavery, other historical monuments been vandalised have either distant connections with slavery and at times, none. 

In America, General Ulysses Grant may have led the Union army to victory over the Confederacy but that’s not enough for saving from the spray paint, rope, and hammer. Rioters even defaced a statue of Matthias Baldwin, a figure involved in the abolitionist movement!

In the United Kingdom, the famed statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was last week defaced, despite the fact that he lived 400 years before the infamous slave trade.

The University of Liverpool is now considering renaming Gladstone Hall, not because the former Prime Minister was involved in slavery but because his father owned slaves.

It’s not only public edifices that are facing demise; the prophetic title, ’Gone with the Wind’ has come to pass, shows on Netflix are being removed, the children’s cartoon, ’Paw Control’ is in trouble for depicting police through the positive prism of a friendly dog. Another Australian beer (‘Colonial’), has found itself being removed from bottle shops. And perhaps with a note of irony, one of the world’s most progress leaning newspapers, ‘The Guardian’, is also facing the shredding machine because of its connections with slavery in the 19th Century. The Guardian’s founder, John Edward Taylor, was a slave owner and during the American Civil War, the paper opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Union.

History, including our Australian history, is a complex mix of the good and the evil, the noble and the ignominious. Past generations were either blind to or supportive of sins in their day, as will future generations look upon us with horror at some of the practices we have embraced. Understanding history requires humility, not hubris. Appreciating the pain experienced by people in our communities requires patient listening and wise reflection.

Others are making the point, rather than destroying history, is it not better to relocate genuinely offensive sculptures to a more appropriate setting, perhaps a Museum?

What about Churches? Many a Puritan in heaven is probably saying right now, “well, we did tell you”.

Many church artefacts have historical significance, and some have artistic and cultural importance. I may be an iconoclast, but I’m not a Philistine! Even Baptists can appreciate art and history. I love visiting Westminster Abbey and soaking up history and listening to exquisite music. Unfortunately, it’s not good theology that has finally caught up with the Church of England but woke culture that is forcing the arm of this now largely derelict institution. What a sad indictment on a church who ignored centuries of preachers and pastors calling for reforms. I’m not saying that we should ignore cultural shifts when they come knocking, but churches should not succumb to mob rule. This is what has led to today’s confrontation on the doorstep of Canterbury.

It’s not all bad. Indeed, there is merit in reevaluating the presence and prominence of many church figurines and works of art. After all, Christianity is a religion of the word. We worship a God who cannot be seen, not a God who is represented by the artist’s brushstroke or chisel.

If there is to be repentance about Christian iconography, it should be less about a particular cultural expression of Jesus Christ, and more about the fact that our religious forebears thought it a great idea to depict Jesus at all.

As the Church of England evaluates the objects and art that adorns her beautiful buildings, I hope they realise that this won’t be an easy fix. Justin Welby is mistaken if he believes that removing a few statues of an Anglo- Saxon Jesus will appease the broader narrative that is taking hold of the West. Cultural vigilantes either don’t know how far to go or they are fully cognizant of their intentions, which in some cases seems to be the dismantling of western culture. Addressing racism is, as far as Christians are concerned, a Gospel issue. Agitating for the complete destruction of our history and of Western values is quite another story.

I can foresee the situation where there will be very little left in Westminster Abbey and many an English Cathedral. Once all the sinners will have their names scratched out and their memorials removed, what will the glorious buildings have to offer?

Western civilisation has always been a faulty tower; it is, after all, built by sinful human hands and imaginations. At the same time, there is much good to be found and these are goods that have come about because of Christianity. The imago dei and therefore equality of all people, secularism and religious freedom, the scientific revolution, the music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, hospitals, universities and orphanages, are all flowers born out the Christian worldview. This is certainly a vast improvement on the alternatives that are built without reference to Christianity (cf. North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia).

However, we never conflate the Kingdom of God with the West, that is a tragic mistake which needs to be repented of in parts of even Australian Church thinking.  Part of the dynamism of the Church is her ability to make a home across cultures. Language is no barrier. National borders are not an inhibitor. The Church is not the Church of Germany or England, Africa or Asia; it is the Church belonging to Jesus Christ. 

So what are we to make of Anglo-Saxon versions of Jesus Christ? It shouldn’t need saying but just in case, Jesus wasn’t Scandinavian. He wasn’t an Englishman or an Italian. Neither is Jesus American or Australian. Jesus was Jewish, as was Mary and the first disciples. If anything Jesus was more brown than white, and he had dark hair and he was circumcised. This Narazene, however, came into the world for his own people and for the nations.  This Jesus born in Bethlehem, who is the eternal God, is the Lord over the nations.

“Great and marvelous are your deeds,

    Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

    King of the nations.

Who will not fear you, Lord,

    and bring glory to your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

    and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15)

This King of the nations theme is first indicated in the covenantal promises to Abraham. Further details are revealed as the Old Testament progresses. With the birth of Jesus Christ, the Kingly theme finds fulfilment: He is the Saviour of the world. He is the one whose Gospel goes to the nations. It is his Gospel that has Divine power to save both Jew and Gentile.

The real and living Jesus, as opposed to the artist’s imagination, was born of a particular ethnicity and he transcends ethnicity. In this sense, there can be an argument for representing Jesus as white, or as brown or black or yellow. He is the Jewish Messiah who will bring healing to the nations. As the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Colossians,  In Christ,

“there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

Here lies the good news message that brings death to racism. On this, I do believe Justin Welby and myself are in agreement.

It is not Western civilisation that will ultimately win, no more than it will be Persian, Chinese, Ethiopian, or Greek. Jesus both supersedes culture and he will transform culture. Indeed, despite being profoundly indebted to this Christian message, Anglo-Saxon societies are gradually moving away toward atheistic secularism and even toward old fashion paganism and panentheism. It is across Africa and China, in Brazil and Iran that Christianity is growing at tremendous rates. In this single message of forgiveness and love, people of all colours are finding home and hope.

My advice is, let’s give up trying to make Jesus’ out of concrete, stone, and paint. Let objects of historical or artistic value be taken to a museum. A Church is no place for icons, lest of course Westminster and Canterbury qualify as museums rather than places for Christian worship. Instead, let’s speak the message of Christ in the languages of the world that everyone might hear of the true King who reconciles sinners, dismantles racism, and creates unending peace.

Here’s a vision worth preaching,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s