The Treacherous Image
On Monday, August 14th, 2017, a crowd of several hundred rioters in Durham, North Carolina, pulled down a nearly one hundred year old statue of an unknown Confederate soldier. As they did, the mob chanted “No Cops, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”
As if the anarchist timbre of the crowd wasn’t unsettling enough, the scenes of near hysteria that followed the toppling of the statue were truly disturbing. As soon as the bent form of the statue hit the ground, several members of the mob rushed forwarded to hit, spit on and kick the focus of their rage.
One witness, a certain Isaiah Wallace (who was identified as black), was quoted as saying, “I was a little bit shocked people could come here and come together like that,” and “I feel like this is going to send shockwaves through the country and hopefully they can bring down other racist symbols.”
As Christians we should be deeply concerned about what happened in Durham. First, as Christians we must stand for the democratic process which upholds the laws that protect the minority, whomever they might be, from the tyranny of the majority. If a community wishes to remember those who died in the Civil War, the very real throes of agony of our national reckoning with the evils of slavery, with a statue, that is a matter for the community, not the mob, to decided.
But more importantly for Christians, as a faith, as a people, we have dealt with riotous iconoclasts many times before, and we should recognize and denounce them before they develop any mob-driven momentum. They have just as often come for our symbols, our crosses and words, as they have for statues of unknown young men who lost their lives in battle.
(René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928)
For example, though many missed it, back in 2014 the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the organization of American Atheists to produce evidence that substantiated their claim that the Ground Zero Cross causes non-Christians “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety,” when seen. The group had filed a lawsuit that sought to prevent the Ground Zero Cross from being displayed in the 911 Memorial Museum, claiming that any such display made non-Christians feel excluded from the “ranks of those who were injured on 911.”
Wisely, at least this time, the court correctly pointed out that one does not have a Constitutional right not to be offended (or in this case, depressed) by what one does or does not see. This line of argument was, we can be certain, completely lost (gone?) in the case of the Durham rioters.
But there is a deeper and more significant issue here that Christians must attend to, namely, that images of a thing are not the thing itself. In 1928 the Belgian artist and philosopher René Magritte painted a worked called The Treachery of Images, which featured an image of a smoking pipe with the caption “this is not a pipe.” What was Magritte’s point? That a symbol of something, like a cross (or a statue) is not the thing that it represents. The statue in Durham, North Carolina, no more establishes (or represents) racism as does the the Ground Zero Cross, or any cross anywhere, establish religion. No one is being forced to discriminate against anyone because of a statue, just as no one is forced to swear a creed, adopt a lifestyle or practice a faith because of a publicly displayed cross.
Christians have a duty to understand, and teach, what images do and do not do in a public space. This understanding and teaching is the light that must not be hidden, the light that is the first barrier in protecting all of us from those with a base and riotous agenda.