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.

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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)

The Archbishop of Canterbury Tweets a Tale

A pandemic is not the time to begin showing love for fellow humanity, it is an important time for us to continue loving and caring and demonstrating solidarity. A pandemic, however, is not an occasion for lowering the bar on theological conversation and for confusing or conflating essential understandings of God.

Justin Welby yesterday tweeted something that no Anglican Archbishop or Christian leader should ever tweet. He has given us an example of how not to exercise religious ecumenicalism. He said,

“Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer for an end to the pandemic on 14th May, and a day of good works. People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time. Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  #PrayForHumanity

I’m sure the tweet will go down like a treat among religious progressives who have already given up almost every distinctive aspect of Christianity.

I’m sure it’ll also be a hit among some irreligious types who think it’s fantastic that the religions of the world are leaving behind differences and are working together.

However, beneath this appealing facade is something dishonest and dishonouring to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet was unnecessary, unhelpful, and untrue.

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The problem isn’t to do with prayer or encouraging Christians from around to pray about the COVID-19 pandemic. Many millions of Christians around the world have been praying through this pandemic and will continue to pray. It is entirely right to pray, for God remains Sovereign over the world today. There is no event in the world, significant or small, that escapes his attention and concern. He is the God of whom the Lord Jesus said, “ Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet is going considerably further than encouraging Christians to pray to God.  He appears to be adopting the position established by the Second Vatican Council toward world religions when as an Anglican (and Christian) leader he ought not. There are two key problems here: first, what are we suggesting by calling people from different faiths to pray together, and second, are people of all faiths praying to God?

Yoking is more than a metaphor

My question is, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury’s message communicate to people about God? The fact that he ends the tweet with, “Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, doesn’t make up for what he says earlier in the tweet. It’s almost as though he’s trying to appease Christians, hey this is what I mean by God: the Father, the Son and the Holy, while at the same time offering what is a best a murky statement about other religions and how they view God.

To begin with, what is Welby (and Pope Francis) communicating by the ecumenical call to prayer? When I invite someone to pray with me, I am signalling that there exists some spiritual commonality between us and that this union is adequate for us to share in this activity together. I am implying a spiritual union with the other person as we together address God. Justin Welby is calling for and therefore implying that we (regardless of faith) can share in the some spiritual activity together as though we are united in this task. However, do Christians share spiritual union with other faiths?

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (1 Corinthians 6:14-16)

People of different faiths have (or should have) freedom to exercise their views about prayer and to pray on any day they choose. But a Christian leader inviting and encouraging global prayer between religions suggests an alignment that is clearly discouraged in the Bible, and even forbidden.

Playing pretend about  prayers to the same God

Justin Welby has also suggested that “People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time.” By using the upper case for God it implies that all these religions are praying to a true and real God. That Welby uses the noun in the singular, suggests that we are all ultimately praying to the same God.

Does a man say to his wife, “well, so that I don’t make all these other people feel left out and call me mean words like ‘exclusionary’ and ‘bigot’, let’s have everyone join us in bed tonight”. By the way, that is one of Bible’s metaphor’s to describe how awful it is when we betray God.

Do people from other religions pray to the same God as Christians, or do their own version of god have merit such that these prayers are efficacious?

“Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

    over it he prepares his meal,

    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.

He also warms himself and says,

    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

    he bows down to it and worships.

He prays to it and says,

    “Save me! You are my god!”

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;

    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.” (Isaiah 44:16-18)

I am not trying to establish the case here that the God of the Bible is real and living (although I am convinced he is), but that the Bible makes a sharp distinction between God and the rest. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council may give room for thinking all religions are somehow drawing toward the same God (it is from this Council that arises the current Pope’s predications toward religious pluralism and syncretism). However, neither the Christian Bible nor basic human reasoning can support this thesis. For example, Hindus believe there are millions of different gods, while such thinking is abhorrent to Muslims, Jews, and Christians who are monotheists. The Bible reveals one God who is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both Muslims and Jewish people find this objectionable and irreconcilable. Indeed this is the case.

God was pretty clear when he announced the first two of the 10 Commandments,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  (Exodus 20)

God’s insistence on there being only one God continues throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

“I am the Lord, and there is no other;

    apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you,

    though you have not acknowledged me,

so that from the rising of the sun

    to the place of its setting

people may know there is none besides me.

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness,

    I bring prosperity and create disaster;

    I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

 

“For this is what the Lord says—

he who created the heavens,

    he is God;

he who fashioned and made the earth,

    he founded it;

he did not create it to be empty,

    but formed it to be inhabited—

he says:

“I am the Lord,

    and there is no other.”  Isaiah 45:18

And it is Jesus Christ who has revealed God to us,

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)

 “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known”. (John 1:18)

Not only does the Bible describe there existing only one living God, but his person, nature and attributes are unlike the many deities that have been suggested and worshipped through the millennia. For example, while some religions claim that their god(s) loves, only the Bible speaks of ‘God is love’.

I doubt if Justin Welby believes that all religions worship the same God or that other gods are capable of answering prayer. I suspect the Archbishop is simply trying to be careful with his words, and so avoid offending anyone. However, that is the problem. It’s one of the chief issues confounding Christianity in Western nations. We aim to be unclear on any Biblical doctrine that causes offence and we’re super keen to use catchwords that find common ascent and praise in the culture. We shouldn’t do theology in this manner and we certainly shouldn’t exercise prayer and religious activity in this way. Why add to peoples’ confusion about God? Why turn beautiful and vital Christian beliefs into sludge?

We love our neighbours and friends from other religions by treating them with respect and kindness, not by conflating their god with God, or pretending that we are somehow engaged in the same activity. We affirm to the death our shared humanity and imago dei, and we engage in gentle but robust conversation to persuade people about the truth and goodness and grace of Jesus Christ, but we do not play the game of ‘we’re all in the same family’.  More importantly, we love God by honouring his name and nature and character as he reveals himself to be, not by cavorting with a religious version of illogical identity politics; that road ends in denying God’s unique being and qualities. If I wouldn’t treat my friends in such a way, why do we think it is okay to do with God?