The place of statues in public spaces is currently under great scrutiny.
This examination includes not only statues erected to commemorate Confederate generals, soldiers and political leaders, but also those erected in honor of presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt.
The legitimacy of statues honoring explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Father Junipero Serra and Captain William Clark has already been challenged.
The Minnesota Twins have put a statue of former owner Calvin Griffith into storage.
The state of Arkansas is planning on replacing its pair of statues in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol with those of Daisy Lee Bates and Johnny Cash.
There is no lack of commentary on these happenings. Some defend the statues saying the effort to remove them is an effort to “erase history.”
Others say the time to remove memorials to oppression and oppressors, slavery and slave owners, is long past.
The 45th president of the United States has bemoaned the loss of “our beautiful statues” and threatened those who attack them with jail sentences.
Sports columnist Mark Whicker suggests, “Here’s an idea; Lets quit building statues. The whole point of a statue is permanence. Unlike a plaque or a star on a sidewalk, a statue is an outsized image to preserve the person. Unfortunately, people can’t be buffed into perfection the way a statue is.”
Whicker’s pragmatic assessment is in keeping with the Bible’s consistent caution when it comes to graven images (statues).
Exodus 20:4 reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.”
This prohibition is aimed at keeping a barrier between the act of creating, the realm of God, and the act of worshipping, the realm of humans.
It is concerned with the human propensity to limit and confine God to structures and representations we are comfortable with.
A golden calf erected in the wilderness was a symbol of rebellion against YHWH and Moses, YHWH’s most prominent representative.
The calf sent a message on behalf of the disgruntled populace – “Dear Holy One, we want your attention when we want it and how we want it. Anything less will result in a tantrum of epic proportions.”
The Hebrew prophets inveighed against the construction and worship of idols. These distracted from the worship of the one God who alone was worthy of respect.
These were invitations to forget the one God’s resolute commitment to justice, care for the downtrodden and concern for the well-being of widows and orphans.
The Roman emperor’s visage on a coin was problematic to Jesus and his contemporaries.
Jesus acknowledged there wasn’t much he could do to undo this act of arrogant grandiosity, but he refused to be subservient to the emperor.
“Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s but reserve for God that which is God’s,” he proclaimed.
In a profoundly inhumane manner, the Roman Empire erected the crucified as temporary statues.
Statues to the power of the state. Statues warning against insurrection. Statues declaring who it was that deserved to be treated as human and who did not.
Statues that stood sentinel against dreams of a better day for the people of the land.
The word statue comes to us from Latin via Old French. It has to do with that which is represented in metal, that which is set up.
This etymology reminds us that statues have a history. They do not spontaneously evolve.
In a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular way, they are made. They are set up. They are created to send a message.
The message statues send is often problematic. The Bible understands this. Hence, its caution in their regard.
The Bible understands that human beings are very complex, that our motives are often less than pure.
Thus, it urges us to be very careful about how we enshrine ourselves, how we tell our story.
Jim Hopkins has been the Senior Minister at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989. He has served as Chair of the Board of Trustees at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.