July 19, 2020 - Pastor Message10/20/2021
“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
That short, simple sentence, the seventh of the ten commandments, should tell us all we need to know as Christians about the current craze of tearing down or vandalizing statues that represent figures with whom certain people disagree. Whether the statues are privately owned or are on public land, unless you personally own that statue, you have no right to tear it down, deface it, or do anything to it without the owner’s permission, regardless of whatever injustice you deem it to embody. That also goes for flags or any other symbol or image. If you don’t own it, you have no right to remove or vandalize it.
That said, there is biblical evidence of instances when people, moved by religious zeal, even at God’s command, tore down pagan images. See Deuteronomy 12:23, for example: “Destroy entirely all the places where the people you are to dispossess serve their gods, whether on the high mountains, on the hills, or under the green trees. Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn up their asherahs, and burn down their idols, that you may destroy every name of them from that place.” There are some important points we need to note about such Bible passages, however. We need to keep in mind the historical context. These commandments were given to the Hebrew people as God was preparing them to occupy the Promised Land thousands of years ago. That in itself carries some pretty heavy political baggage today, the idea of one people driving out and occupying another people’s land, especially when we’re talking about Israel. Right or wrong, we need to remember that such occupations have been a regular part of human history from the dawn of time. Sometimes these occupations are the result of violent conquest; sometimes the result of peaceful migrations. The Bible paints both pictures when it comes to the occupation of the Promised Land by the Hebrew people. The point of the commandment to destroy pagan shrines and images was to encourage adherence to the very first commandment, “I am the lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods beside me” (Exodus 20:23). This is the commandment from which all other commandments flow and the defining commandment of the covenant God made with the Isrealites, that he would be their God and they would be his people. To allow images and shrines to other gods to exist in the land he gave them was to invite them to break that covenant and to mix worship of foreign gods with their worship of the true God, which is exactly what happened and ultimately resulted in their abandonment of the covenant and eventual exile from the Promised Land.
Looking back with the perspective of over 2000 years of human history, we can judge such actions as destroying other people’s sacred images and places to be disrespectful of those people and their culture. We no longer endorse or condone such practices, even though the religious impetus behind such actions remains in effect. There is only one truth revealed by God, and that truth has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ. But we need to find other, more respectful and more effective means of sharing that truth with others. That holds true in the current movement to tear down statues and images held sacred for political or social reasons.
Whatever ones political views, we can never support the practice of mobs vandalizing or tearing down statues or images, even those of figures associated with something as repugnant as human slavery. If people believe that certain statues and images need to be removed for the public good, then they need to do it the right way by rallying public support and having such images removed by the appropriate authorities. Mob rule is no rule at all, and we can never tolerate that as a civilized, free, and faith-based society.
Fr. Marc Stockton