On the image of God and its eradication (and restoration): or, more thoughts on cancel culture and statues

I believe the “Image of God” is a vocation not purely an ontological reality that gives an inherent dignity to human beings by virtue of their being human.

Humans have dignity because we have the created capacity and purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God as his representatives in the world; our task is to be for the God of the universe what the idol statues in other theocracies did for their gods.

But the imago dei as it has been understood and developed in church tradition (particularly via ‘systematic theology’) is built on a bunch of assumptions about the nature of human being that I think are problematic; partly in that they emphasise “being” over “doing.” I’ve written about why we’re better off speaking about the “tselem elohim” than the imago dei, and grounding our Genesis 1 informed ‘theological anthropology’ in the Hebrew/Ancient Near Eastern thought world rather than the thought world of the early church in the Latin East with its graeco-roman influence (which isn’t to say the historical church has nothing to say about Anthropology, where I’m going here resonates with, for example, Augustine and Irenaeus), it’s just to say ‘systematic theology’ can often be built on some pretty shaky systematising, especially if it’s built on exegesis that reflects a particular age, and its obsessions and suppositions, rather than (inasmuch as we can access it) the world of the text and both its first audience (Old Testament Israel, whether pre-, mid-, or post- exile — or all three), and its (to borrow a phrase from Old Testament scholar Doug Green) ‘Christotelic’ fulfilment.

For more on how Biblical studies, rather than just church tradition, should inform how we understand the Image of God I’d recommend John Walton’s work on what the nature of ‘being’ is in Hebrew thought, where he suggests ‘function in a system’ not ‘material essence’ is how we should view the ‘making of things,’ J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, a book exploring the relationship between images and idols in Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern belief and practice, and Alistair McFadyen, who in a paper titled “Imaging God” identified this same “tendency within theological tradition” for the “image” to function as a noun, rather than as a verb. It’s a good article that draws on Psalm 8 to make the case that this ‘verb’ — this ‘imaging God’ — requires us to be relationally connected to God for our calling to reflect him to be possible; he says Psalm 8 provides a reflection on how to ask what it means to be human, but one that as we enter the reflection we start reflecting God…

“What we have, rather, is liturgical performance. And if there is a sense in which we might say the anthropological question is not only asked but answered in the psalm it is not by the communication of facts about essential human nature. Rather, the psalm IS its own
answer to the question. That is to say, in singing the psalm and praising God, in asking the anthropological question, we are performing an answer to it: actively imaging God by seeking our humanity as sought and called by God. The psalm becomes a kind of performative utterance, drawing the singer into the dynamics of imaging relationality of which it speaks through direct invocation of the power of the divine Name through direct address.”

I’ve written before about how the Bible, in its form as a narrative centred on, and fulfilled in Jesus, contains the story of humanity’s glorious creation, our fall, our struggle to be who or what we were created to be, and God’s redemption, restoration, and transformation of our function through Jesus. I drew on Mesopotamian and Babylonian sources to show how this story happens against a particular backdrop with very different stories, and a very different concept of who and what the ‘tselem elohim’ (or “image of God” is) and what it looks like to carry out that vocation in the world, and then looked at how the work of Jesus in the New Testament is a work of re-creation and revivification of us as living, breathing, images of God. That the image of God in us needs restoration, and that we need to be resurrected and recreated, suggests that we can (and do) in our failure to be who we were made to be, start a lifelong process of attempting to eradicate the image of God imprinted on us, so that we can, instead, function as the images of our gods. There’s an increasingly popular phrase articulating this idea — drawing on Augustine, but also on Paul, on Psalms, on Isaiah (and pretty much the entire Old Testament); this is the idea that “we become what we worship” — our decision to worship created things, in the place of our creator, distorts our bodies and hearts and minds so that we represent something other than God, while as “created things” ourselves we are meant to reveal the divine nature and character of God. There are aspects of God’s image that we don’t eradicate before we die — that we live, and breathe, speak, create, and love — but as we worship other things in God’s place, our lives, breath, speech, creativity, and love are given to things other than God and so ‘image’ or reflect the things we worship.

When we engage in false worship we participate in a process that leads to death, and thus, to the eradication of the image of God in our bodies; we return to the dust from whence we came, as we die — as we expire rather than being inspired (receiving God’s Spirit to re-create us so that we do not bear the image of Adam, but the image of Jesus (1 Cor 15), we die in “lives” that aren’t participating in our created vocation as God’s image bearers, but rather lives in rebellion against him, expressed as we reflect the gods of our choice. If we choose to worship things other than God we were “made in God’s image” — created with a purpose — but we are explicitly and wilfully rejecting that purpose. Eradicating the image.

Jesus the image of God (Colossians 1) then comes to transform us into his image (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15), by the Spirit, which enables us to turn from false worship (Romans 1) to true worship (Romans 12), participating in a new script for our lives that shapes us, again, to be living, breathing, images who live and love like God.

There are, of course, ethical implications for this.

I should love my neighbour, as Jesus commanded, because my neighbour (as C.S Lewis might put it in the Weight of Glory) has the capacity not just to function as God intended us to in this creation, but the potential to be a glorious new creation, heavenly even, not just indwelt by the breath of life (psyche in the Greek), but by God’s Spirit (pneuma in the Greek) — Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, has those glorified in Christ shifting from being psyche-icons to pneuma-icons (icon is the Greek word for ‘image’).

I should view people according to the capacity for a person to participate in their created vocation (and that I too, was once dead), but I should also recognise that so long as a person has life, and breath, and speaks and loves and is capable of creativity and still the tension between knowing what we should do, and fighting the temptation to do something else (Romans 7 — which I take, because it’s pre-Spirit, to be Paul describing life in Adam). There is an inherent dignity to that; and yet, that same dignity, which is given as a reason to not murder to Noah, is eradicated enough by idolatry that the same texts (the Torah) can command the destruction of idolatrous nations around Israel, while the prophets warn that Israel will share the same fate should it worship the breathless and dead idols of the nations. This command, for example, in Numbers: “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52) is actually a command to destroy ‘cast tselems’. If a “tselem elohim” is an ‘idol statue’ then to ‘become like them’ is to become an image of something else.

The image of God as a sort of ‘inherent dignity’ is a place people go to both to ethically justify any ‘natural’ human behaviours; the enacting of our basest internal desires, and it’s also a place people go to affirm the dignity of those who fall outside other norms and constructs (often set up from frameworks and anthropologies that look more Babylonian than Christian); that is, the image of God is cited as the reason to love and value those on the margins. It is appealed to in debates about race. But, I suspect, if you’d asked why an Israelite felt justified in going to war with Canaan, on the basis that the Canaanites were made in God’s image, they’d have said it was precisely because Canaan was failing in this calling that war was justified; and yet, Israel’s counter-narrative in Babylonian exile is not just that all Israelites are made in God’s image (where, in Babylon, it’s just the king), but that even the Babylonians have that capacity, lost in their own exile from God. This different view of the image of God in those we might treat as lacking dignity (if we see godlike as the ability to, say, use power or perform as a contributor in an economy) still focuses on something internal (a person’s capacity to reflect the divine nature and character of God, to participate in being fruitful and mulitplying by reflecting the life and ‘doing’ of God), but emphasises that this happens in relationship with God. The ‘image’ isn’t a thing we reflect through performance, but through relationship with God. Classic, Biblical, Christianity (whether Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, or Arminian) doesn’t ever see this as exclusively a human action, but as an enaction enabled by God’s self-revelation through the world, his word, and Jesus and the Spirit; we can’t exclude any human with life and breath from participating in the ‘breath of life,’ given by God, or from God loving and relating to that person as they are. Yet, we can say that idolatry and a person’s breaking of relationship with God does affect a person’s image bearing function. There are also lots of other reasons to see those at the margins of a society that devalues people who can’t perform certain functions as our neighbours, made and loved by God, and as precisely the people Jesus came to liberate through the restoration of the image of God in humanity, the liberation of the world from bondage to curse, sin, and death, and in the renewal and restoration of all things.

“Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8)

We can also, when it comes to ethics and politics say ‘that person is not reflecting the image of God’ in how they live; we can say that certain behaviours push us away from the image of God and into the image of other gods (so Paul in Colossians 3, for example, and all the warnings about idolatry in both Testaments). We can say that these behaviours are sometimes systematised in laws, in political systems, and in cultures (practices, art, rituals, norms, etc); and react accordingly — both seeking to set our hearts and minds on heavenly things, not earthly things (the liturgy of Psalm 8) through true worship — including how we use our bodies and interact with the world (Romans 12), and speaking to condemn idolatry and warn about its affects; and I think even to talk about how idolaters are not ‘imaging God’; not being who they were created to be. This doesn’t mean following Israel’s example in the Old Testament (which was tied to an explicit command of God connected to his actions in the world to restore an image bearing people, and thus creation itself, that anticipated and were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus to pour out the Spirit into the lives of a people). This doesn’t mean operating as judge, condemning to dust, or executioner (though I do think “the state” can do that) — but it does mean recognising that idolatry systematically (both at an individual and cultural level) eradicates the ‘doing’ part of the function of humanity, and that restoration is found in union with Christ, and the Spirit’s act of renewing and re-creating as we are “raised with Christ” and transformed into his image; that is “the image.” It does mean not simply appealing to the ‘image of God’ in a person to say their natural desires should be affirmed and celebrated, or that they must be treated with a particular dignity (there are commands from Jesus that should shape the way we act towards others). This allows us to recognise the distorting impact of sin on our ‘nature’ — we all ‘know what we ought to do,’ but ‘because of sin at work in our flesh,’ naturally choose to do non-image-of-God things with our lives; and when we choose to worship created things in the place of the creator this drastically amplifies this distortion.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the eradication of a variety of tselems; of statues, but also the cancellation, by different groups, of a variety of human images. Someone asked a question in a discussion about Aimee Byrd’s cancellation at the hands of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (and the similar abhorrent treatment she’s receiving at the hands of a cabal of so-called Reformed Christians in a closed group on Facebook) and statue toppling. I think both are acts of desecration; deliberate expressions of judgment about a person’s function as a representative; an image bearer of God.

The question is whether a person who is either erecting a ‘sacred’ digital icon of themselves, desecrating a statue, or desecrating a person’s reputation by ‘cancelling them’ is operating with a true or false picture of God, and thus seeking to reflect, or promote a true image of God while destroying or ‘desacredising’ (trying to capture what ‘desecrate’ means in a not-word word) false images. To ‘cancel’ someone is to ‘demolish their image’ — to damn their memory — to pass judgment on that image as not worthy. I think, in some ways, to cancel someone is to take the sword (in Romans 13) into one’s own hands; to position oneself as God, not a person — and to take up the role of Israel entering the land. Because there is no secular/sacred divide; and because every person operates as ‘the image of their god’ (we become what we worship), both every human ‘image’ affirmed or cancelled, and every toppled or erected statue is either a ‘desecration’ — a claim that this image is not of God, or a ‘consecration’ — an attempt to secure or reflect the image of a particular god. Some acts are both at the same time; to put an image on the outer is an act of defining who is on the ‘inner’ — but also, often images are replaced, not simply eradicated. So, for example, a mining company blowing up a sacred indigenous site simultaneously declares that site ‘de-sacred’ (delegitimising an alternative view) while ‘consecrating’ mining as a holy act in service of a view of humanity and who we should be that is ultimately also religious.

Those cancelling Aimee Byrd should just honestly say they don’t see Aimee Byrd representing truths about God; they might say at that point she is representing an image of an idol, and that, like idol statues in Israel, she should be destroyed… Just as Trump, when he positions himself as a monumental figure of faithfulness (even in a photo opp) should admit that he is presenting himself as an image of the god he worships, and those holding Trump up as a leader (or even just a ‘good Christian’) who ‘bears the image of God’ should acknowledge that the god Trump then represents is the god they are worshipping and reflecting; a God who, incidentally, looks nothing like Jesus, and a whole lot like the false images Paul tells us to get rid of in Colossians 3. The trick is, often in desecrating others who are bearing the image of God we actually eradicate something of our own humanity by propping up and worshipping a false god, or we reveal the gods we’re really worshipping; and the screenshots circulating of the kinds of criticism levelled at Aimee Byrd are revealing.

The ‘image of God’ is a more flexible, dynamic, vocational thing than simply an ontological reality underpinning the common humanity of Trump, Byrd, and those being deformed by the cesspool of the “Genevan Commons” Facebook group. For what it’s worth, I think Aimee Byrd is seeking to reflect the image of God, in relationship with God as we see God revealed in Jesus; and this may also be true of those raising questions about her ideas from good faith positions…

But I think those who take the bold step of appointing themselves as gods, whether in her ‘cancellation’ or in the support of alternative images (idols) like, for example, Trump and his image, are on pretty dangerous ground. Ultimately it’ll be God who determines who bears his image, because of his Spirit dwelling in them, transforming them into the image of Christ, with heavenly, imperishable bodies, and resurrected life in the New Creation in perfect relationship with him, and those who become tranformed ultimately into the images they’ve worshipped — images of dead idols, who return to the dust.

If this model is correct, then it’s actually more theologically true to say that it is those with the Spirit of God dwelling in us, and connecting us to God so that we both worship, relate to, and reflect him who are the image of God in the world; to cast someone out of the church is not to damn them, but to recognise that God’s image is found in the body of Christ, and the goal of such casting out — whether of an idolater (1 Cor 5) or false teacher is not simply to damn their false image, but also to position them alongside other humans we believe desperately need the image of God restored in them by the Spirit. Images in the Ancient world weren’t so much ‘destroyed’ but ‘exiled‘ from the relationship systems that made them function. It’s not our job to give or takeaway life, or the potential for image bearing, but to point to how that image bearing potential is found in Christ, and in true worship.

The Image of Trump or the Image of Jesus: on Trump’s sacrilege and the toppling of idols

In the last two posts I’ve explored how the practice of destroying statues — the damnatio memoraie — is an ancient one, and how public space has always been sacred and contested (and how when Jesus turns up in a contested public space, both sides of the contest joined sides to kill him).

There’s a picture of this for those who would follow Jesus in the book of Revelation; John’s apocalypse. Up front John writes to some churches in the Roman world. He pictures these seven churches as lamp stands. Churches who are meant to bring light to the world as they reflect the glory of Jesus. By the time you get into the ‘apocalyptic’ stuff — the vivid picture of life in this world that John offered, the seven lamp stands are reduced to two. Two faithful churches — witnesses to Jesus — are pictured as martyrs, and we’re told they speak up, and the beastly world kills them, celebrating the sacrilegious erasure of their voice from the public square like first century statue topplers. John says, of these witnesses, “their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt — where also their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8). To follow Jesus in the world is to be treated like Jesus because we act like Jesus because we worship Jesus.

The book of Revelation serves up a picture of beastly worldly power as opposed to God; it ties Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Jerusalem together as pictures of an economically motivated monster opposed to the kingdom of God; in love with the things of this world, and the prince of this world, Satan. The desecration of these faithful churches — these bodies pulled down in the public square is paralleled with the desecration of Jesus, the image of God, in the public square of Jerusalem.

It’s fascinating that the debate about the tearing down of statues — images cast in metal or stone — in public squares around the world — the outpouring of anger of the sort evoked by sacrilege that we’re hearing from one side of the ‘history wars’/’culture wars’ divide because statues-as-history are being destroyed in such a sacrilegious manner, and the outpouring of anger we’re seeing from the other side of the same conflict in the desecrating destruction these of statues happened at the same time that the President of the United States so ‘sacrilegiously’ (or desacrilegiously) set himself up as a pixelated image in a brazen photo opp on the footsteps of a church.

Trump’s photo opp was straight out of the playbook of the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose cultural and religious conquest of Jerusalem was framed by the writer of the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees as “the abomination that causes desolation.”

And perhaps the most distressing part of this scene was not Trump’s following the image-erecting playbook of the idol-kings of the ancient world; it was the way he was cheered on by the faithful — the sort of lamp stands in Revelation who forsook their first love, Jesus, to cosy up with the Beastly Roman empire; the new Babylon, Egypt, and Sodom.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — it’s not pointing to some future moment of cataclysmic end times so much as revealing the cataclysmic results of siding with anybody but God; given that ultimately the victory of Jesus won at the cross will turn the whole world on its head. Revelation talks about the Spiritual reality behind political realities; there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide — everything is religious; every political act is an act of sacrilege or sanctification — an act of elevating some thing or other to holy status, or applying a religious paradigm to the organisation of life in the world, in terms of how we organise communities of people and how we make and enjoy created things. That those kingdoms that set themselves up to oppose Jesus because they love money and the things of this world are collectives of people — systems, structures, cultures — that have rejected Jesus and picked Satan. Instead of being bearers of the divine image — and so being treated like Jesus and executed in the public square; they’re joining with corrupt power in order to reject God’s king and kingdom, and to destroy their own enemies (those who would take from them the things they really love). In Revelation you’ve got the image of Israel as a harlot, jumping on the back of beastly Rome.

1 Maccabees condemns Israel for not being desperately offended by the sacrilegious act of Antiochus Epiphanes; instead of tearing down the idol and seeking to rededicate the Temple to Yahweh (after Antiochus dedicates it to Zeus), “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Maccabees 1:43). Israel’s hearts have been captured by this beastly foreign ruler and his promise of order, and status, and the benefits flowing from belonging to such a powerful empire.

Trump’s photo opp — secured through violent action (this Washington Post composite of smart phone footage and police radio audio puts the idea that he didn’t use tear gas or equivalents squarely in the ‘fake news’ column) — was an act of sacrilege; co-opting the symbols of Christianity — the Kingdom of God — for his own political agenda (so much so that even his military has since distanced itself from the photo opp). This was the digital equivalent of the erection of a statue; a pixelated bust. An image that he hoped might spread frictionlessly around his empire to shore up his rule, and a call to worship his image. In Empire and Communication (1950), Harold Innis argued that empires rose and fell, historically, based on how well and widely they were able to communicate. Statues were an expensive but long lasting way to share an imperial imagery through the landscape an emperor ruled. They were fixed in place, but would last for a long time. They were limited. Trump is the master of harnessing the digital landscape to create imagery and words that spread through the empire; a master of propaganda and pageantry. He doesn’t need statues to spread his image; there is now a permanent picture of Trump with a Bible, in front of a church, engraved in the American pysche. The Roman empire followed other ancient near eastern practice by using coins as propaganda; the emperor’s image was carried in the pockets of the average Roman citizen (see Jesus on coins ‘the image of Caesar’ v ‘the image of God), when Trump wanted his name on the cheques sent out as stimulus to citizens during the Covid-19 lockdown he was again borrowing straight from the ancient playbook.

Just as Revelation depicts a faithful church who stand against the empire and so get slaughtered, 1 Maccabees tells the story that not all in Israel succumbed to Antiochus’ attempts to profane the Temple, while glorifying the image of his gods.

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)”

These were the #NeverTrumpers of the first century B.C.

My observations of peers in the U.S who won’t bend the knee to Trump is that it’s more costly within Christian community to refuse than it is for an NFL player to bend the knee during the anthem. Leader after leader seem to be coming forward to pledge their allegience to the Trump re-election campaign; excited by his fusion of the sword of empire with the sword of God’s word… while ignoring the picture God’s word paints of the empire while telling Christians to submit to its authority — to the point of martyrdom; just as Jesus did. Now, this is complicated of course, and people of God are able to be a faithful presence working for change in idolatrous foreign governments — the guiding principle from Joseph, to Daniel, to Esther, to Nehemiah, to Erastus in Corinth, to the early Christians in the Roman empire — seems to be a refusal to worship at the feet of the emperor because Jesus is their Lord and King — their spiritual and political leader. Daniel, the courtier, was chucked in the lion’s den explicitly for his refusal to bend the knee to the king he served. Serving in the courts of the king isn’t the problem — that’s precisely where God’s people can act as a faithful presence to see actions aligned with God’s kingdom (so when Esther doesn’t mention God, that’s not because God is absent in the story, he’s present through the faithful presence of his people). In Daniel, in case the symbolism needs to be any more overt, Nebuchadnezzar literally becomes beastly as a result of the pride he takes in the size and scope of his power.

“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4:33)

Trump is the embodiment of the worship of the things of this world. He is beastly in every sense of the word, as the Bible describes it. He is the personification of the vice list in Colossians 3 that Christians are told to put off as they are restored in the knowledge of the image of our creator. Find one thing in this list that Trump hasn’t proudly demonstrated in his tweeting, rallies, and photo opps.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices (Colossians 3:5-10)

He is a living, breathing, idol, erecting pixelated statues to himself and inviting all to bend the knee to him (and getting angry when they take a knee to any other god).

But when he stands in front of a church, co-opting it to maintain his position in his empire, church leaders in America aren’t falling in behind the example of the two faithful lamp stands in Revelation 11; they’re the five who left. And it’s appalling. It’s a symptom of a Christian culture that cares more about results and appearance and power than about virtue, and faithfulness, and following the example of a crucified king. It’s the sign of a church who learns nothing from history, because it cares nothing about history; or the role of narrative — both from the Bible, and through history, and its foundational role in shaping character; a church obsessed with technique, coopted by the forms and strategies of the world, because those are the ones that for good and for ill, have provided influence (and, on the whole, less martyrdom).

Christians might ‘bend the knee’ while holding their nose; but there was no space for that in Jerusalem when Antiochus swept to power, and none in Rome in John’s revelation; the faithful church was martyred for its refusal to take a knee. There’s even evidence of this in Pliny’s letter to Trajan. The trial Pliny devised for those accused of being Christians was simple; straight from the pages of Daniel. They were asked to worship an image of the emperor.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Trajan’s response is a model of reasonableness — he doesn’t want a witch hunt; but, if people are accused of being Christians and fail this test, then they are to be punished.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

There’s a whole swathe of Christians failing this test; putting Supreme Court seats, religious freedom, political influence, abortion law reform, and victory in the culture wars against the evil “woke left” as justification for joining in Trump’s profanity. But it’s not just the church of the right co-opted by the empire… by the lure of worldly power — they’re not the only Christians lured by the sides going toe-to-toe in the culture wars and backing their chosen champion to the hilt; not the only ones taking a knee… There’s a whole swathe of Christians also failing this test by becoming political and spiritual progressives who deny the resurrection, reject any created norms in terms of biological sex, sexuality, or sexual morality, where allegiance to the institutions of the left seems to require a particular stance on the lives of the unborn, who take on the more radical ‘deconstruction’ aims of the extremes of the left not only to dismantle oppression but the idea of any construction outside the self-constructed authenticity we all want to pursue as tribes of individuals… The litmus test might not be invoking the gods in words supplied by the agents of the empire, but it sure feels close; the Christian leaders who paraded out in lockstep to praise Trump’s strong and god-annointed leadership, and to celebrate the photo, have something to learn from Daniel, from Esther, from the faithful Israelites in the time of Antiochus, and from the faithful churches in Revelation…

Both the ‘Christian right’ and ‘Christian left’ — when they’re expressions of the culture wars, and the fight to control the empire (at the expense of the other) — have forsaken their first love. And it might seem like this is a world away from Australia, and America’s narrative — especially when it comes to civic religion — is a very different animal to Australia; but the same symptoms are there in Australia’s own version of political Christianity; especially, I think, on the Christian Right, with the Australian Christian Lobby and a variety of similar bodies spearheading the charge. There’s, frankly, not enough calling this out from leaders of the institutional church in Australia because our temptation to idolatry is often aligned with the right; we Christians (apparently) want a government that will make life comfortable for us (religious freedom), that will keep the invocation of God’s name in the parliamentary process (the Lord’s prayer), and who will give conservative Christian voices access to the throne room (even if it means justifying a vote for One Nation).

There’s another interesting dynamic to Antiochus Epiphanes and his abomination that causes desolation. The temple he profanes is empty. It’s a shell. It stopped housing God’s glorious presence in the exile. When Solomon builds the temple in 1 Kings, the glorious presence of God shakes the foundations of heaven and earth, and God speaks, as he comes to dwell in Israel as their God. The Temple is the seat of his political and spiritual rule; his footstool in the earth. The curtain in the temple marks off the ‘holy of holies’ — as a sort of boundary marker between heavens and earth.

The second temple never witnesses God’s glorious presence arriving (well, it might, I’ll get to this below); the Old Testament ends in anticipation of God gloriously dwelling with his people again. Israel, with the help of the rulers of Persia, rebuild and rededicate the Temple.

There’s a sense in Ezra that things just aren’t the same; first, people who remember the original temple mourn the difference as the foundation is laid: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:12), and then, the whole thing launches with a party without any divine intervention.

“Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:16-17)

And that’s it. It goes off with a whimper, rather than a bang. There’s no ground-shaking arrival of God in his house from the thunderclouds. No cloud of glory. The house that Antiochus desecrates has not yet been resanctified; the Day of the Lord has not arrived; Israel is still essentially exiled from God when this house is renovated by Herod, when Jesus turns up as the Messiah and calls it a ‘den of Robbers,’ he turns up as an entirely new temple.

And, just in case you think this is some weird over-reading of a lack of cosmic fireworks in Ezra, the prophets anticipate a future ‘day of the Lord’ when the temple would be restored…

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai also has this change coming with a judgment on beastly empires.

“I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (Haggai 2:22).

The sort of destruction longed for, and promised, in the closing chapters of Revelation. The one that comes when Jesus returns to ‘make all things new’ — the sort of kingdom — political and spiritual — that Christians are now meant to anticipate that allows us to faithfully avoid being co-opted by the empires of this world.

The same Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Washington (the denomination St John’s, the church in Trump’s photo, is part of), Mariann Budd, who said “Mr. Trump used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands,” also said, in a widely quoted (now deleted) blog post “The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.” There’s every chance Trump stood in front of an empty house, just as Antiochus re-dedicated an empty house to Zeus. Denying not just the ‘in the flesh’ nature of the incarnation, but the resurrection, was something John (who by-the-by, I think is the same John who wrote the Gospel, and Revelation) had pretty squarely in mind when he talked about anti-Christs in 1 John (see more on this here).

I’m not here to play the theological witch-hunt game or to be a watch-blogger railing against the wishy-washy world of the Episcopalian Church; the bishop might have had a bad day, and this might be why that post is now deleted and the quote found circulating elsewhere on the interent. As an Aussie Presbyterian, I don’t have a dog in that fight. But the left hand side of the culture wars demands allegiance just like the right does; you get to be part of an empire on that side if you give up the spiritual reality of the Gospel in order to pursue the political vision of justice that was part of Jesus’ kingdom. Christians explicitly taking sides in the culture wars — championing or being championed by visions from the left, or the right, end up doing eschatologically odd things, and aligning themselves with empty temples. You get a pass from the left for championing feelings and desires above the created reality of our bodies, and the ‘feeling of resurrection’ over the embodied reality of resurrection, and the goodness of humanity over the darkness of sin and God’s holiness and so the reality of judgment (and exile from God). You get a pass for the left for sharing its political vision, and so sharing its spiritual vision — because there is no secular/sacred divide. You get a pass for totally over-realising your eschatology; and, just like the right, seeking to build your vision of the kingdom here and now through whatever levers of power are on offer. So you play your own part in the culture wars, and bend your knee to your own alternative gods when you should stand. And yet, again, a caveat — Christians can be faithfully present in the institutions of the left, just as they can in the right, the question, ultimately, is about allegiance (and one of the signs for who your allegiance is to might be in how you make space for Christians on the other side of the political fence).

We followers of Jesus should have no part in sacrilegious abominations that are not the destruction of our own image in the same way that the image of God was destroyed in first century Israel, in the public square of that beastly city. We’re not meant to jump on board with the erection of other images that represent worldly power; not to nail our colours to those masts; not to bow the knee to other emperors — we’re to stand, and die, with the one who stood and died for us. To pick a side in the culture wars is to pick an idol, and to sign up for a particular form of iconoclasm, and a particular form of idol construction. And the Bible consistently calls the people of God away from idols because to participate in such image making conforms us into a particular image… As Psalm 115 puts it, when it comes to idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You lie down with dogs, you get fleas. You side with Antiochus, you get the Pharisees executing Jesus. You side with Satan, and the rulers who rule using his playbook, you become beastly. You follow Trump and suddenly you lose all public credibility when preaching Jesus. You join young Martyn and his political revolution aimed at securing access in the corridors of power through endorsing One Nation, and you get… And here’s the thing, you sign up as a card carrying supporter of Black Lives Matter, the organisation (as opposed to participating in the conversation and using the statement)… well, it’s very likely you’ll be conformed to its view of the world. The trick is figuring out how to be in an empire but not of the empire; to serve in the government of Rome without worshipping the emperor. To work in the public service without campaigning for the leader, which is hard — a lesson a certain general, and stacks of other ex-Trump staffers have learned the hard way: you refuse to be in the photo opp, or facilitate it, you say “no,” you differentiate yourself in words and actions, you speak up clearly and with conviction to call out bad behaviour, you recognise the good and the humanity not just in your own side, but the other, you love your enemy and practice forgiveness, you draw a line and you hold it with integrity, you preach Jesus even rebuking those in power on your own side, when it costs you everything… You stand when you’re called to bow. And look, I get that my friends on the right see that this is an issue with Black Lives Matter TM, and so don’t want to take a knee — but I’d like them to take the same stance when it comes to those idolators on the right, not stay silent when it suits them. You stand against racism and for the plight of the marginalised and oppressed; and you stand for J.K Rowling as she gets cancelled. You do both. 100%, or 50-50, not chucking stones at the other side and its excesses with a caveat about the goodness of their diagnosis of the issue, not defending the excesses of your side with a caveat that Trump is really bad “but”… You use “and” instead of “but” — a pox on both their houses… Both houses are empty.

Revelation 11 gives us a picture of faithful image bearers of Christ, and what that looks like in the public squares of beastly empires.

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

Right and Left, without Jesus, are just beastly versions of the same beastly game of rejecting God in favour of self; both are insidious expressions of and co-opted to a political system that loves money and power and autonomy; both are idolatry.

We might well get thrown to the lions, but not bending the knee, is also how to patiently and faithfully bring about the sort of change and reform that shook the world, it’s also what we do in the hope of real, embodied, resurrection.

Choosing either side of the culture wars has a cost for our faithfulness, and deforms us into false images of false gods… and I’ll explain in a future post why I write so much more about the dangers from the ‘right’ and Trump, than from the left… but for now let me conclude by saying that Trump’s photo opp, like the original ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is the product of the fusion between the political and the spiritual; there’s no secular/sacred divide.

Trump’s photo opp was a profane and idolatrous act as he sought to glorify himself by creating an image to spread through and support his empire; and that should be massively problematic for Christians, and we should faithfully speak out not just in opposition to that, but to testify to the same Jesus who was executed in the public square of a beastly city by religious people who should’ve kept the faith, but whose track record was being the descendants of those who did not oppose Antiochus. How could they do anything but cuddle up to worldly power?

If you’re upset about statues of ancient white dudes being toppled, but not by this old white dude erecting pixel images of himself while surrounded by symbols of Christianity, then I think you need a little more iconoclasm in your diet.

Images are powerful. That’s precisely why not only are those statues ‘powerful’ — but the pictures of statues being toppled get sent around the world.

And if you can’t bring yourself to condemn Trump’s image-building, without qualification, as an act of political beastliness, rather than godliness — I’d ask you to check your motives. Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend. The lesser of two evils is still evil (and may actually be the greater danger if you can’t call it evil). Trump’s image, because we’re now in the digital age, is likely to be harder to remove than a statue. It will be reduplicated and distributed as part of the historical record; unlike a statue, it’s going to be very hard to erase.

When it comes to the culture wars, without a differentiated Christian presence challenging the idol building game, the temples on both sides are empty; devoid of life and the presence of God. A St. John’s without the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, if indeed this is the case, is a profane building already; empty and de-sacred (‘desecrated’). God is present through his Spirit; his Spirit is present in those who recognise and proclaim the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Trump’s digital statue exercise and rededication didn’t significantly change its spiritual state.

Israel’s exile from God didn’t end with her return from exile; the captivity of their hearts continued. The return, and even the building of an inadequate, empty, temple was a precursor to God’s plans to return to his people and re-create us in his image again; to give us new hearts. The day of the Lord required an empty Temple, so that god’s presence might fill his new temple as his spirit created new images.

And that happens with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I think, for some reason I’d always pictured this moment at Pentecost happening in “the upper room” (because the events of Acts 1 happen there). But Luke is at pains to tell us that the disciples practice was to ‘meet daily in the temple courts’ (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). The events of Pentecost happen in front of lots of people — heaps more than you’d expect in an upper room where the disciples met in Acts 1. There’s chronological distance between Acts 1 and Acts 2. So I think the events of Pentecost happen in the empty-of-God’s-presence Temple; the Temple that was judged when the curtain tore, that has no claim on being the dwelling place of God because of the way Israel participated in the ultimate desolating abomination (the destruction of Jesus).

There, in the temple that had been waiting all those years to be renewed by God’s presence coming back, God’s presence comes to those who believe in the resurrection of king Jesus. It comes in the same glorious firey way that God came into the Temple in 1 Kings, only it lands not in the holy of holies, but on God’s holy people. People made holy (sanctified… made ‘sacred’), by the Holy Spirit. Holy just means ‘set apart’ from the beastly people around them. The Holy Spirit is what gives animating life to God’s living, breathing, images — the representatives of his kingdom — as we live in the world as his ambassadors; those who might be present in the corridors of power in different empires, but who won’t support or bow the knee to the elevation of abominations — those who call people to worship something other than the living God. To pick a side in the culture war — to choose an empire with its associated imagery — and to be excited or upset about the image games played by your side (or the other) — is to choose an idol.

One way to avoid the appearance of picking a side — even while seeking to be a faithful presence within an empire and its machinery — is to call out this idolatry, the idolatry of your own particular political ideologies or inclinations, another is to keep faithfully proclaiming the death resurrection of Jesus and seeing his kingdom as one that challenges the beastly regimes of this world so much that they put him to death; such that to follow him means a commitment to a certain sort of martyrdom; to being desecrated by the world.

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:19-21)

Why would your people kill Jesus? On statues, culture wars, and modern day politics as religion

When Jesus was executed by crucifixion there were some particularly interesting political dynamics at play. The Pharisees who hated Roman occupation almost as much as the zealots; or pretended to; cuddled up to the Roman empire and got Pilate and co to get their hands dirty in a state sanctioned murder where both sides had political justifications; in Luke’s Gospel we even hear that the execution of Jesus brought Pilate — Rome’s official presence in the region — and Herod — a kind of vassal king — together as friends, where previously they had been ‘enemies’.

It’s funny what a common enemy can do for us, in terms of getting us on the same page.

And so I’m wondering — what would it be about Jesus that would lead your side in the culture war, your politics, to kill him — as a natural extension of what you’re holding dear, or seeing as ultimate? What standard would he offend that would see you join a mob baying for his blood and pulling him down in an act of desecration?

The culture wars that we’re seeing played out in recent times; amplified by race rallies, the destruction of public idols statues, and figures from the right coming out against “Cultural Marxism” and the ‘long march of the left’ through our civic institutions, feel like something out of the pages of the first century A.D, and even before.

The contest of ideas has, almost forever, been fought out in public space. Public space is an interesting phenomenon in the battle between left and right — the question of who owns such space; the public, private enterprise (and its outdoor advertising), the government (on behalf of ‘the public’ at large, or its ideology), is an interesting one, and we’ve very much lost the idea of the commons; but in the past, public space was also contested, and explicitly religious. Now it’s contested and implicitly religious; it has the same function, but we want to pretend that graven icons have suddenly lost their function as permanent visions; images of the good life and our story etched into our public psyche.

The erection and destruction of statues has always been both political and religious, because almost all politics (if not all politics) is actually religious, in that it comes from a vision not just of ‘the good,’ but the relationship of ‘the good’ to ‘the gods.’ In the ancient world we see this in, say, statues of Gudea, a Sumerian king (circa 2100BC) who became a god through his propagation of statues — literally “images of God” — to spread his rule and influence. He was a king (politics) whose reign was justified by ‘the gods’ (religion) who became a god (religion) by spreading statues throughout public spaces in his empire (religion and politics). Here’s a sample of one of his statues and its inscription. This became a pretty solid move in the political playbook in the ancient world; but it wasn’t just rulers-as-gods that propped up empires; an empire’s gods and how widely and well represented they were (partly in public space) propped up political regimes too. So you get, for example Esarhaddon, king of Neo-Assyria (680ish BC), who plays games of ‘capture the flag’ with idols from the surrounding nation; such that we have inscriptions about revivifying god statues that have previously been captured, but returned to life, prominence, and public space, through conquest. In an inscription, Essarhaddon boasts about the restoration of statues in Babylon. An expression of political achievement or dominion over his enemies; and a justification of his reign as ‘beloved by the gods.’

“I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. “

Esarhaddon boasts that his public statues to the gods legitimise his reign; they form part of the story or myth that justifies his political position.

Before Gudea and Esarhaddon, we have Dagon, the “Lord of Canaan.” Dagon emerges in the historical record from around 2500 BC. He’s a reasonably constant visual presence in the public spaces of the Ancient Near East until he pops up in the story of the Bible (he’s around after that for a little while too). Dagon is the god of the Philistines; who play their own political-religious game of ‘capture the flag’ when they capture Israel’s Ark of the Covenant and treat it like an idol. They pop it in their temple (the same temple they later pop chopped up bits of King Saul, a king who does politics like the nations around Israel).

There’s a political-religious critique going on in this story captured in 1 Samuel; and it’s part of the same story that made Israel politically different from the nations; Israel was a country built on a different sort of public architecture; it had architecture that supported its belief; absolutely — the Temple, and its adornments — all of them — told a story in public space. But it had no political or theological statues; no idols (just altars, and the politicisation of altars for personal gain became problematic, again, see King Saul). Israel’s lack of statues was a novelty; but also a profound critique of the surrounding nations. Israel’s God could not be reduced to dead images; Israel’s God was not just represented by one king who was the living image of God; Israel’s God had a whole nation of living images; not a “priest-king” whose reign was justified by the gods, but a “priest-nation”…

Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” — 1 Samuel 5:2-4

Israel was meant to engage in a purging of public spaces; a toppling of statues — because public space, and how we order it, is inherently religious, not just political. Because Israel was to be a monotheistic public space with a story testifying to the one true God, their public spaces — their commons — were not to be pluralistic; they were to destroy all statues (and certainly they weren’t to build their own, see Golden Calf, The).

‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’ — Numbers 33:51-53

They weren’t meant to be worried about preserving history, or ‘preserving the story’ of these other political/religious systems. That was the point; to keep these statues around was to keep these religions alive. To legitimise the story. To be captivated and captured by the gods they were meant to be removing. They were to not make statues or images of living things, or people, and give them religious significance; but they were to seek God by being people shaped by his story and his presence with them, first through the Tabernacle, and then the Temple. They were the images. The promised land was to be their new Eden; where they would be God’s priestly presence to the world. Their use of space was meant to tell that story. In Deuteronomy 4 the Exodus is described as being like the fire used to make statues or images, on Israel as a nation, while they’re told not to make their own images in these fires. And then we get the 10 Commandments restated in Deuteronomy 5 (because remember how well that went last time, see Golden Calf, The).

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” — Deuteronomy 5:8-9

While we’re on public space, it’s interesting to see how the ‘architecture of belief’ is a factor that Deuteronomy raises for Israel; there aren’t really neutral uses of public space, it has to be approached in connection with a story. So Israel will find itself with a new architecture: “a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12), and they’ll be tempted to forget God, the God without statues, and his story, and so be shaped instead by these things (and maybe, any statues they don’t knock down). To help this memory exercise; to help public spaces (and private spaces) testify to their place in the world, Israel was to: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 7:5-6).

Public space matters; statues aren’t neutral or simply ‘political’ — they’re religious. They’re also not simply ‘religious’ — they’re political. They shape our stories and our shared vision of life together.

In the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Israelites have been returned (like a captured flag) from exile in Babylon (then Persia); they’ve rebuilt a temple (see Ezra-Nehemiah (as the separate books in the Old Testament) under Persian rule, but then they’ve been smashed again and occupied. The “Second Temple” built by Ezra and crew (in the 400s BC) has been radically renovated by the Herod family (specifically Herod the Great, in the late first century BC). Before this rebuild the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, learning from the playbook of the ancient world and the religious/political use of public space, has, in an invasion of Jerusalem, set up idol statues on the altar in Israel’s temple, rededicating it as a Temple to Zeus. The book of 1 Maccabees tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world as they knew it, and Antiochus Epiphanes succeeding him as king of the Greek empire; including Israel. It’s here that the writers of the Maccabees see this as the fulfilment of a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a future ‘Abomination that causes desolation’ or a ‘desolating sacrilege’:

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah.” — 1 Maccabees 1:41-54

Here’s a foreign king practicing Deuteronomy style conquest on Israel.

Here’s a foreign king altering (altaring) the public architecture of Israel to change its religion and politics.

Here’s a foreign king conducting the ‘desolating sacrilege’ of altering a people’s public religion by putting up statues.

In the ancient world, politics was sacred business.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t true today. History unfolded religiously, and continues to; the church played a part in this as the Roman empire Christianised. The Medieval period was one where rulers continued to be viewed as those appointed by God to rule (ala Romans 13); the Reformation survived and thrived thanks to the political protection of rulers and movements won over by its theological (and political) vision. In Dominion, Tom Holland argues that even the secularity of the modern west is a fruit of religious convictions (specifically, Christian ones). While our public landscape in the late, secular, west isn’t as explicitly Christian in its architecture (you won’t find many statues of Dagon, Gudea, or Zeus), our public spaces are still surrounded by the architecture of modern religion — city halls, clock towers, sky scrapers, casinos, banks, and statues. Statues of people because modern political-religion in a particularly secular form is not pluralist — we don’t recognise that our culture is one where many religions come together in both contest and tension — it’s humanist, our civic religion doesn’t happen in a contest of “transcendent” visions of the good, where our statues throw us beyond ourselves to a vision of the good that comes from the gods; in our secular vision we are the gods, and these figures from history serve our political agenda; we just forget that our politics is inherently, still, an expression of our religion.

The statues Antiochus Epiphanes erected in Jersualem are part of the city’s history — but they were rightly torn down as its history continued. The tearing down of the statues of Zeus were also a form of desacration — a denial of the sacred vision of the Greek empire; all tearing down of statues is religious and desecrating; because public space is actually sacred space; it’s just our vision of the sacred has collapsed to ‘the political’ not ‘the political as an expression of the religious’… This is a slightly different view of the distinction between secular and sacred offered by, for example, Mirsolav Volf in his critique of those rejoicing that Donald Trump conducted his own desolating sacrilege recently, with his Bible-in-hand photo opp (the criticism that the church he’s standing in front of has long abandoned traditional Christian teaching about the literal resurrection of Jesus is, in itself, another desecration).

Volf says (on Facebook):

“Some evangelicals think that public religious gestures (e.g. Trump’s holding the Bible) will halt secularization. They won’t. They ENACT SECULARIZATION: they put the sacred to profane use that’s contrary to the character of the sacred. That’s desecration and secularization.” 

There’s something to this critique; but it does reinforce a secular-sacred divide that just isn’t actually there. Trump’s act was explicitly political and religious — it just wasn’t Christian. It was more like Gudea, and the conquering God-kings of the ancient world, than Jesus. His act in public space, for an image-opp — creating a statue-like moment in the form of pixels — like the tearing down of statues — was both desecration of a religious view (in his case, Christianity, rather than “secularism”), and its own expression of a view of the sacred. The ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ — locked in a culture war, are actually locked in a religious-political war; a war built on acts of desecration of the other’s religious architecture and attempts to replace those icons with one’s own. Modern expressions of the ancient game of capture the flag; modern attempts to create the most egregiously offensive or “triggering” acts (photo opps or statue destruction) to both demoralise the other and radicalise one’s own base. ISIS has been playing the same game in its destruction of what are now seen as only religious symbols (and only from history) — rather than political and religious symbols of previous regimes; at least they’re being theologically (and historically) consistent.

And so I wonder, if Jesus were to walk onto the battle field of the culture war, would both sides unite to execute him all over again.

Because that’s what happened in Israel.

The side who were all about religious and moral purity and the Temple (but who had turned the temple into a house of robbers; desecrating it) conspired with the side who had built the Temple to secure political power, while killing any from Israel who would oppose him (Herod and family put to death those opposed to their rule on the basis that they were Idumeans, Herod the Great’s son Archelus, erected a statue of an eagle on the temple, killed those who took it down, then massacred 3,000 people in the following riots in the Temple, and then cancelled Passover), conspired with the Romans (who were busy deifying Caesar, installing images of Julius and Augustus all over the empire) and had Jesus executed for political and religious reasons.

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Caesar did too, and the Jews knew he was claiming to be divine, in that claim; a threat to their religious and political status quo.

Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews. Caesar and Herod did too. This was the charge brought to Pilate, who had no choice under Roman law but to crucify someone committing this sort of treason, to make them a public image of what happened to opponents of Rome; a sacred statement, not just a political one, and for the leaders of Israel an act of desecration to remove any sacred claims Jesus was making.

Here’s the thing.

In the Gospels, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple; the ultimate desecration of God’s sacred presence in the world. In John’s Gospel we get the explicit interpretive guide that he isn’t talking about what Rome will do in 70AD, but what Rome, and Israel, will do to him in 33AD. That he is the Temple. That the crucifixion then is the ultimate act of desecration; an ultimate political and religious expression. Perhaps when Jesus, after talking about the ‘destruction of the Temple’ in Matthew 24, says:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand…”

He’s not talking about a new Antiochus, dedicating the Temple to Zeus. He’s not talking about Nero rolling through Jerusalem with his armies in 30 years… He’s talking about the sacrilegious destruction of God’s most sacred image.

He’s not talking about Trump with a Bible.

He’s not talking about the tearing down of statues in public spaces.

He’s talking about the destruction of God’s divine image, orchestrated in the place that is meant to be his presence in the world; by those whose job it is to manage his house, the Temple.

The crucifixion is the abomination of desolation. It is the ultimate statue toppling act. A political and religious statement.

A profound treatment of a religious image — one that has ultimate significance not just to those who worship him; but to God — “the image of the invisible God” — the one true priestly representative of God, the “exact representation of his being”… To follow Jesus and enter his kingdom is both a religious and political act. And the political systems of this world — that aren’t the kingdom of God — are geared up for his execution.

And maybe, just maybe, our politics — as people who claim to follow Jesus — should be shaped by how we treat images of God, and where how we do politics and religion as those made and given the vocation of being images of God; and maybe as our politics gets distorted so that we see other image bearers of God as enemies in a “culture war” so that we get caught up in games of capture the flag or ‘desecrate their idols’ (like those excited at pulling down statues of dead humans) or ‘defend out idols’ (like those excited to keep statues in public spaces to prop up an idolatrous civic religion), while ‘making our own idols’ or defending those who make them (like those excited about Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church and the ‘Christianisation of space’) — maybe we’re just becoming those people who wouldn’t recognise Jesus if he looked us in the eye; but would kill him instead. And maybe that’s what actually unites those people playing culture war politics games, politicising religion — a rejection of the kingdom of Jesus, in favour of little man made gods. It was stupid when it was Gudea; stupid when Antiochus Epiphanes did it; and it’s stupid now.

It’s interesting to ask what political or religious idolatry would lead those on your ‘side’ of politics — of the culture wars — if that’s the game you’re playing — to kill Jesus? Because all the sides of the first century’s culture war suddenly agreed on that being the absolute best thing to do in the moment; so they could go back to fighting each other undisrupted.

You might want to pretend that Jesus plays the culture war for the right team, or the left team. But that’s to create a Jesus in your image. There were ‘righties’ and ‘lefties’ in Jesus’ day too; and the idea that your side has exclusive access to the truth and an exclusive mandate to conduct divine political and religious business here in the world, by building an empire, well… that gets to some ugly places fast in history — and it’s tricky to maintain when other followers of Jesus have different politics to yours.

Maybe our call isn’t to play the game of ‘idol building’ or ‘idol destroying’ but pointing to the one God raised up? Maybe we should trust this to hollow out the value of other idols? Maybe we should see this as the task of building our own alternative polis, in and through the church (as a people).

Maybe we should look to Paul in Athens; who didn’t come in to a public square saturated with political and religious imagery with a sledgehammer; but seeking to understand why they’d carved the things they’d carved out of stone; what good might be affirmed in the quest for truth he saw in their political and religious systems, so that he could connect the good with the search for God, and maybe we could help people meet the unknown God behind their religiousity, their politics, their pursuit of the good, in ‘the man God has appointed’ through his resurrection, so that we might find the God we’re reaching for. Maybe we’re not meant to be culture warriors — because that’s a path to killing a Jesus who doesn’t line up with our cultural expectations — maybe we’re meant to be peacemakers, who follow Jesus and so make space for others. Paul introduces a new God to the Athenian landscape, not by building a temple, but by being an image bearer of that God who speaks in a way that heralds his truth, and tells his story.

When he gets to Ephesus (a couple of chapters later) he disrupts the statue making economy of Ephesus — a city built on a more monotheistic love for one particular God — by, again — proclaiming the one true God. The city riots. He doesn’t smash Artemis statues down, and melt them in the fire, he pronounces a better, more loving, God — the God we meet in Jesus. Public space occupies a profoundly interesting place in the narratives in Acts, and Paul introduces Jesus to crowded and contested public space not by knocking other gods down, but by hollowing out their value, and pointing the hearts that find meaning in alternative religions and political systems to Jesus and his kingdom. By joining, by affirming, but also by differentiating, and offering a better story — not just hard opposition — and he doesn’t even get out the sledgehammer when his (right) methods fail to see others take up the sledgehammer.

He is not a cultural warrior; he’s an ambassador for the crucified king.

Memories be damned: On the modern hunt for the perfect image of humanity

Scenes of protestors tearing down statues of figures from history around the world this week have prompted conversations here in Australia about what to do with our monuments to people with stories, that from our perspective here in the future have become problematised. If the conversations aren’t happening already around the names of some of our universities — James Cook, Deakin, and Macquarie — then you can be sure they will be soon. When the moral code of the present is applied to towering figures of the past — especially those memorialised as statues in public places; held up as examples to us all, cultural and architectural reminders of our story — it becomes clear those figures have feet of clay. A new story for our cultural moment means a hunt for new icons from past and present.

History is an important teacher, and while erasing these figures from our national, or international, stories might help us forget some sordid aspects of our racist past here in the west, their removal will not necessarily guarantee a better future. It will also remove, with the clay feet, those good deeds that these figures performed; as Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. One photo of a plaque to Winston Churchill, defaced with the word “racist,” that I saw this week on Twitter was framed with the statement “wait till they hear about the other guy.”

In the Roman world statues were a popular form of propaganda; those looking to gain favour with the empire would commission and build statues of the imperial household, and these statues would become icons that dictated fashion, even hairstyles, throughout the Roman world. The Greco-Roman world were no stranger to a good old fashioned statue toppling either; an orator named Favorinus had so pleased the people of Corinth that they erected a statue to him, putting him on a pedestal in the city’s library, as an example of the sort of oratorical skill and thoughtfulness they hoped their city might aspire to. In a speech Favorinus gave to the Corinthians about this honour he said they placed his image “where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.” This quote comes in a speech Favorinus gives to the Corinthians having returned to the city to discover his statue — a monument to him as an icon — is no longer standing; he accuses the Corinthians of a personal attack.

There was a common practice in the ancient world of ‘damnatio memoriae,’ a latinism with a meaning not so difficult to decipher in English; the eradication of a person from memory via the destruction of their icon; a collective refusal to view a person as an icon or image from whom a culture seeks inspiration or example. This, of course, was an expensive practice when statues were carved of marble, by artisans, so such damnation could include the defacing of an inscription, or the reuse of marble slabs in promenades; a toppled statue could literally be trodden into the ground. Another Roman practice tied to this sort of cultural iconography, and perhaps to save on costs, was the practice of producing statue bodies with removable heads; people could check in on who was trending (and what fashion to adopt), knowing the statues and their iconography would keep pace with the political and cultural times.

Recent iconoclastic rallies are, rightly, asking questions about whose images should be used to inspire today’s youth (and the not so young). What human from history (or the present) is fit to serve as an inspiration for ‘the good’? Selecting someone to semi-immortalise in a more concrete form than the flesh is difficult in the present, and made almost impossible with the benefit of hindsight and progress. Sporting figures being celebrated for their sporting prowess seem safe, after all, King Wally is still the king of Lang Park; and yet, while ‘image rights’ are an increasingly valuable commodity in the sporting world, if there’s one thing media coverage of the off field exploits of many of today’s athletes tells us, it’s that athletic prowess should not qualify someone as an icon or example. It’s better for companies to celebrate athletes in pixel and print, than in stone or bronze.

Part of the question about making a statue (or tearing one down) is a question of who should represent us; who should present an image to us of the ideal person, who should we aspire to be? But another function of images is that they serve as objects in a cultural architecture, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘a social imaginary,’ they help frame our beliefs, values, and understanding of virtue. It seems right to be careful about whose visage or name we memorialise, and right to be prepared to damn some icons or even tred them into the ground; but another question we might ask ourselves is what this realisation that even our heroes in history had feet of clay, is perhaps we should be asking ourselves about the danger of iconography to begin with. The anger we feel when an icon; or an ideal; disappoints; that anger might be because these icons have become idols. In the ancient world the line between icon and idol was a fairly blurry one; the same images on street corners of the imperial family could also be found in imperial temples dedicated to the worship of the Caesars, alongside the Roman pantheon. Perhaps these objects are actually occupying a ‘sacred’ space in a modern civic religion; one where we’ve pushed out the old gods, or God, and turned to people to fill a place previously occupied by something transcendent. Perhaps what we’re seeing in the toppling of these statues is an act of desecration; a deliberate renunciation of previous forms of worship, or religion, or visions of the good life, so that we might replace the religious symbols of the past, and their representation with a previous story, with images that we, in the present, wish to create.

And maybe here there is some wisdom in those ancient words that are, sometimes themselves, erected as stone monuments near civic institutions; the ‘Ten Commandments’ — God’s commands, through Moses, to the people of Israel. Commandment number two is a prohibition against making and worshipping ‘graven images,’ this is part of what was meant to be an Israelite commitment to monotheism; a rejection of the icons and gods of the surrounding nations, based on a wholehearted commitment to worshipping the God who could not be reduced to an image. The God of the Bible is a living, breathing, creating God who gives life to his own living, breathing, images (or icons in the Greek text of the Old Testament). Part of the prohibition of icons and idols is that people — typically ancient rulers — will never properly represent the goodness of God or a truly good pattern of humanity; to worship them, or an image of any other thing, is to commit yourself, to aspire, to becoming like them. You become what you worship. The choice about what to immortalise in bronze or stone is an important one — and in the moral vision of the Bible, we’re better off not making that choice at all; remembering that humans are humans who will disappoint, who will be capable of good and right choices, but who will — in the Bible’s vision — always be ‘dust’ infused with divine breath; with feet of clay, and hearts capable of leading us to both goodness and evil.

In the story of the Bible there is one true image of the good human life; one true icon who should be imitated. Jesus, who the apostle Paul describes as “the image of the Invisible God,” the one good man. As statues and icons are toppled in modern damnatio memoriae, the image of Jesus remains the image of a human who did no wrong, who stood for the oppressed rather than the oppressor, who because all people are made in the image of God, offered his life to secure life for us, who loved and forgave his enemies and taught us to do likewise, even as the powerful rulers of his day, those busy building statues of themselves, created a system that was used to put him to death; crucifixion was a certain sort of damnatiomemoriae in the Roman world, and yet it is Jesus, not Caesar, whose memory stands the test of time, and who stands as one hero from history whose example is worth turning to even now.