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  • Ross Moughtin

Why the iconoclasm?


“Where’s Zimbabwe?” I finally asked my fellow student Richard, responding to the prominent lapel badge he invariably wore with the legend “Free Zimbabwe.” It was, literally, ‘in your face.’ That was 50 years ago, shortly after the British colony of Southern Rhodesia had declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence during my first term at university. This triggered a 15-year guerrilla war as the white colonialists vainly tried to hold onto power against the black nationalist forces. One of the first actions of the new majority government in 1980 was to rename their country confining, at least they hoped, the 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes to history. They soon changed the name of their capital city from Salisbury to Harare. Clearly names matter, especially if they prompt painful memories and particularly if they seek to honour those who have caused great hurt. Just a short distance from where Richard and I were having our conversation is the Eagle public house which served an excellent salad in our era. Today a large blue plaque commemorates that this is the very place where Francis Crick and James Watson announced their discovery of secrets of the double helix of DNA. I mention this because I read only yesterday in Nature that Watson’s name was being expunged from the graduate school of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. We are now witnessing a huge shift in how we commemorate the past and the roles of particular individuals, especially those who, like Watson, were out-and-out racists. This has been brought to recent prominence by the Black Lives Movement. Not just names but especially statues, which simply just by being there endorse a shameful past. Hence Edward Colston being dumped into Bristol Harbour for his role in the Atlantic slave trade. In fact, going back to Cecil Rhodes, his statue in Oriel college, Oxford has for some years been the focus for the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, now about to achieve its goal. Not all changes go uncontested, however. The recent decision of Liverpool University to rename its Gladstone hall of residence has been widely challenged. The father of this Victorian prime minister may have owned slaves in the West Indies but the man himself declared that the slave trade "to be by the far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind in any Christian or pagan country". When there is a pronounced shift in public thinking there is invariably the danger of over-shooting the target but nevertheless we need to be sensitive to those who have been wronged by history, which has to be the main aim of this iconoclasm . Interesting word, iconoclasm. Literally, the destruction of idols – something which happened on a regular basis through the Old Testament. They may have been the people of God but the people of Israel seemed to have a penchant for disregarding God and going their own way. Even as the very pinnacle of their nation’s history, even as Moses receives the Ten Commandment at Mount Sinai, there they are with Moses’ brother, Aaron, making a golden calf to worship. Amazingly, in direct contradiction of all that has happened, they declare ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4). No wonder Moses has it ground into powder, the first of many idols to be destroyed over the centuries. The LORD, the God of Israel, is a jealous God and brooks no rivals. Such is his commitment to his people that he will do whatever it takes to win their love and disarm all idols and false gods. Hence the cross of Jesus. And the good news is that such is his victory that anyone is welcome to belong to his people, especially the marginalized and the outsider. One of the most powerful statements that Jesus ever made was when he told the religious elite of his era “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) And as Christians we need to adopt his mindset, what the apostle Paul calls the mind of Christ. In fact, I was reading only yesterday his care for his beloved Timothy; “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 2: 20) For the apostle the sign of a true disciple is a concern for others, not least the poor and vulnerable. Above all that we learn to see through the eyes of Jesus. Rather than seeing a dirty and demanding beggar, we see someone made in the image of God, beloved and precious. Once we learn to see like this, a gift of the Holy Spirit, our whole vista is transformed. So rather than see a mighty warrior astride a splendid horse (there are many examples) we see a brutal tyrant who caused much suffering. Not to be forgotten but maybe a terrible past owned. Such an acknowledgment may make all the difference. At least a starting point. #justice #idols #seeing


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