Why we shouldn’t tear down statues

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are attentive to their cry;
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to blot out their name from the earth.

Psalm 34:15-16

Something else that’s been in the news this week: the protesters for Black Lives Matter (which I wrote about a couple of days ago) have now torn down a statue in Bristol. The statue was of a man called Edward Colston, who was a 17th Century slave trader. On his death he gave his wealth to charitable causes, and lots of things in Bristol still bear his name.

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What has surprised me about all this is that this action seems to have received a generally positive response from people I’d normally say were quite reasonable and sensible. The fact that he was a slave trader is enough, it seems, to justify the actions of the crowd.

In my opinion, I don’t think we should be so quick to start toppling statues, and here’s why.

#1: Mob rule is not justice

I think it’s probably fair to say that no mob in history has ever actually resulted in justice. It might make people feel better for a while in making sure that “the bad guy gets it”, but that’s about it. This is why in this country we have as one of our British Values “the rule of law”: there is such a thing as due process, and due process should be followed. Yes, it doesn’t always come out with the outcome that we want, and there are some occasions where we should rise up. But unleashing anger in this way is destructive and will never actually result in anything good.

Think of all the social changes for good we saw in the 20th century. Think of the American civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King – peaceful protests. Think of the fall of the Berlin wall – peaceful protests. Every time I can think of something good like that happening, it’s been as a result of peaceful protest rather than angry protesters. The abolition of slavery itself did not happen with angry mobs but with democracy and the rule of law (and, I should point out, Christians such as William Wilberforce were at the forefront of the abolition movement).

Maybe this is because protesters, when they are confident that they are on the side of justice, do not feel the need to use violence. If you use violence and mob tactics like this, you lose the moral high ground and undermine your cause.

#2: You can’t erase history

There’s a wise saying by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We can’t change the past – but we can learn from it. If I lived in Bristol, and had to walk past the statue of Edward Colston every day, I think it would have given me a lot to think about:

  1. How it’s possible for such a great philanthropist to be such a flawed man;
  2. How a society can be so blind that most people can believe something wrong is actually right (let’s not forget that Edward Colston’s views were pretty mainstream back then);
  3. How I’m thankful for the way in which society has changed.

In other words, a statue like that can actually help us to remember where we’ve come from and be thankful for where we are as a society. They should teach us something about where we were and where we’re going.

#3: Where does it end?

Who decides what statues are allowed? Plato and Aristotle, for example – they had some pretty abhorrent views about slavery. Are protesters going to start smashing statues of them? There’s a whole website set up called Topple the Racists – indicating which statues we should tear down. They say they have only included cases where there is “colonial violence” – so I guess that doesn’t include Plato and Aristotle, then.

But the point is, if you look hard enough at anyone throughout history, you’re going to find they had some pretty abhorrent views. That’s because societies change. We can’t simply erase everything that happened in the past.

This is exactly the message of the Bible – all the people who God used throughout history were deeply flawed. Abraham was a liar; Moses was a murderer; David was an adulterer – and the list goes on. No-one in the Bible is perfect – no-one, that is, except for one: Jesus.

And Jesus was the man who said: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I think this would be a good saying to remember in these days: when we cast stones at others for their sins, we need to remember there are things in our own lives and in our own society which future generations will consider abhorrent. One thing I believe we will look back on with horror is abortion – the killing of 200,000 unborn babies every year. We’re about as barbaric as the ancient Romans in that respect!

When we point the finger at figures in the past and demand they be toppled from their places, we are casting ourselves in the place of judge. But there is a judge, who will judge us all. He is the one who will blot out the name of the wicked from the earth. On that day, believe me, toppling statues will be the least of our worries.

The book of Revelation in the Bible pictures that day:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

Revelation 6:15-17

There is a God who judges rightly and justly. And the key question for us is, not which bad guys can we stand in judgement over – but whether we are right with the God who judges justly, who one day will judge us. And on the day he comes as our judge, it won’t make one bit of difference how many statues we’ve toppled.

There is only one way to stand in that judgement, and that is through repenting of our sin and trusting in Christ alone for salvation.

2 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t tear down statues

  1. Thinking about judges, what is your view of Gideon and his friends tearing down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole (Judges 6)? I was just thinking that seems a bit more on the side of violence and mob tactics than would be a democratic vote of the local townspeople. By your logic could one not argue that such a monument should be left in place to remind people of the previous blindness of their society? Josiah in 2 Kings 23 seems rather determined to erase history.

    I wonder if there is justification for taking down a monument if i) it is recognised that the installation of a monument was inherently wrong and ii) the continued existence of the monument leads people into wrong patterns of thought or courses of action. In the recent case, it was not simply the case that Colston was a flawed person, as we all are today, but that the philanthropy for which Colston was celebrated by a statue was the direct consequence of his active participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If i) we now recognise that physically branding human beings and selling them to be worked to death is a sin, on a par with worshipping gods other than the LORD, and ii) the continued existence of the statue, while leading good people like yourself to self-criticism and thankfulness, was perceived by BAME people as a symbol of ongoing social oppression, and by others as an implicit justification of profit over valuing ones fellow human beings, might there be a more direct parallel with some of the actions of those who are recorded in the Old Testament?

    This would not imply smashing all statues; for example Aristotle might be celebrated for his founding of the Western approach to the biological sciences without explicitly lauding his views on slavery; the connection between his character flaws and the act being praised is tenuous at best. Further, there is debate to be had on the merits of different approaches to how a statue might best be physically removed. However, I wonder if there exists not just a reasonable and sensible argument, but dare one say it a Biblical argument for the removal of certain pieces of statuary that currently blight our good nation.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment! It’s a point of view I hadn’t really considered, I never really thought about parallels with smashing the high places in the OT.

      What I’m thinking is, the Asherah pole in Judges 6 was dedicated to a false god. It had been expressly forbidden by God, and Gideon was commanded to destroy it.

      Edward Colston, on the other hand, was simply a man: a human being who was flawed, as we all are. As I tried to say, if you put up a statue of me or you or any individual on that plinth there would be reasons to tear it down. No-one is worthy of that adoration – except one, of course!

      I find your linking of the statue with false gods somewhat tenuous… I mean, we all break the first and second commandments. we don’t love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. So all statues would fall on that front.

      I don’t see how ignoring Aristotle’s approach to slavery because of his contributions to science is anything but special pleading. It certainly didn’t work for Churchhill (not his contributions to science, of course!) The protesters seem to care only about someone’s views about slavery and racism, not about the contribution that someone has made. Although it’s interesting how – as far as I know – the protesters have not yet called for the demolishing of Karl Marx’s monument.

      One thing I think I have changed on since I wrote this piece (such a long time ago…) is I object more to the *way* the statue was removed than its actual removal. I still don’t think removing statues makes much sense, but I don’t think mobs should have that kind of say.

      I also appreciate that for BAME people especially this is a difficult and heartfelt issue and I don’t wish to be careless with it. I appreciate your perspective, even if I remain unconvinced at the moment!

      Thanks again,

      Phill

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