The line between hero and villain is often so thin that it’s transparent, sin and virtue written on either side of a piece of glass, a double exposure of virtue and atrocity. History is complicated, messy, and should come with a health warning: handle with care, lest the contents burn you, lest they carpet-bomb the idyllic images we’ve constructed of our past.
I woke this morning to tabloid outrage: protesters have, apparently, defaced the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. ‘CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST’ the epithet now reads, a reference towards his attitude towards Indians. Meanwhile, in Bristol, a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down, protesters kneeling on its neck in reference to George Floyd before throwing it into the harbour. In Richmond, capital of the state of Virginia, a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is to be put in storage, and while actions such as this often generate spittle-flecked outrage, it feels like something else is going on. Some claim that this is vandalism or cultural erasure, but what if it’s something deeper? What if it’s iconoclasm?
Let’s not kid ourselves; we live in a secular society, and because of this we have secular icons. The reason the tabloids are so angry about the vandalism of Churchill is partly because of the mythic status of the Second World War in British culture, part of the whole ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ thing. To draw attention to Churchill’s failings is, in some way, to expose the failings of Britain at the same time, and alongside the political and social implications of this, there’s also a spiritual element. After all, we’re in a time of change, when plague, violence and greed are shaking our foundations. It’s been said that the times feel apocalyptic and that’s true, not because zombie hoards stalk the streets but because much that was hidden is now being revealed. And because that trashes some of our most sacred icons, the pain it brings may seem brutal. Brutal, but ultimately necessary, because all this forces us to ask questions, to see things anew, to change course.
A preacher I know once did a sermon on a famous biblical villain – King David. Because the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm and killed a giant with a slingshot also became a murder, a rapist who didn’t deliver justice when his daughter was herself raped. The biblical writers could have left these latter stories well alone, stuck with the giant-slaying and the action movie bad-assery. But no; there are the failings of our heroes in black and white. It’s an invitation to live in the tension, to accept that history is messy, difficult, problematic. To not get too comfortable in our constructed histories but to be moved to change, to embrace grace, to recognise that sometimes the truth gets spray-painted on the side of a statue.
But, in the words of Homer Simpson’s review of the Bible, “Everyone’s a sinner! Except that guy.” I have to have faith that there’s one person who doesn’t fall short of the glory, who I can trust, who can provide a way forward in these times. The world is shaking, but there’s still hope. There can still be justice. We can still change.
And Jesus once vandalised a Temple.