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Lessons From History’s Iconoclasts On How To Handle Controversial Public Monuments Without Vandalism


Throughout recorded human history there have occurred sporadic spasms of iconoclasm, the destruction of images, usually with a religious or anti-religious motivation. Perhaps the earliest, and one of the most destructive, was in approximately 1349 B.C. when Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV became a worshipper of Aten, the sun disc, and changed his own name to Akhenaten, “Benevolent One of Aten.” He then had the name of Amun, formerly the pre-eminent Egyptian god, systematically obliterated from monuments and documents throughout Egypt’s vast empire.

An even more wide‑scale and far-reaching instance of iconoclasm was in the same vicinity two millennia later, under the rapid expansion of Islam beginning in the seventh century A.D. Based on a prohibition in the Hadith against depicting living beings, either animal or human, this generally involved violent and thorough acts of wanton destruction.

Most fortunate for art history, when Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, finally fell in 1453 A.D. and Hagia Sophia, the grandest church in Christendom at the time, was converted into a mosque its extraordinary mosaics were mostly only whitewashed or plastered over. In a very rare instance of iconoclastic reversal, they were exposed again in 1935 when Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum under secular ruler Kemal Ataturk. However, during Ramadan beginning in 2016, it has controversially been used again as a mosque, and Turkey’s Islamists are increasingly demanding to return it to mosque status full-time.

Islamists have recently added to their millennia of destruction a long list of religious monuments and other historic, artistic, and archaeological treasures: the Buddhas of Bamiyan; the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud; the Graeco-Roman treasures of Palmyra; even many Muslim sites such as the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah and the Grand al-Nuri Mosque with its famous leaning al-Habda minaret. Since I’ve worked as an archaeologist in the Middle East, it was sickening to see a picture of Islamists recently taking jackhammers to priceless ancient artifacts in Iraq’s Mosul Museum.

How Christianity Learned to Treat Iconoclasm

Christianity has also had its own bouts of iconoclasm. A period in early church history is known as the “Iconoclastic Controversy.” As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation this year, we would do well to remember that many medieval treasures were lost in the Reformation’s wake.

In a 1529 letter Erasmus described such destruction in Basel: “They heaped such insults on the images of the saints, and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle. . . Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime; whatever would burn was thrown into the fire, and the rest pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for either love or money” (Epistle MXLVIII).

Among the Lutherans such outbursts were limited in scope, thanks to the attitude of Martin Luther. While Luther was ensconced incognito at Wartburg Castle, his associate Andreas Karlstadt launched a radical reformation in Wittenberg, including a purge of public religious imagery. Coming out of hiding, Luther ordered a stop to the destruction, deposed Karlstadt from office, and later had him exiled from Saxony.

In a series of sermons Luther taught how necessary changes should occur in the church: not by physical force or violence, but by the power of God’s Word and the persuasion of the gospel. The Lutheran Reformation is thus described by historians as “conservative,” in the sense that only minimal changes were made when something was deemed contrary to biblical doctrine, but otherwise whatever could be was conserved.

This attitude was later codified in the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church, which declared that “no conspicuous changes have been made” in public worship (Article XXIV), and the later Apology of the Augsburg Confession, which affirmed: “We gladly keep the old traditions set up the church . . . Nothing should be changed . . . without good reason, and to foster harmony those ancient customs should be kept which can be kept without sin or great disadvantage” (Article XV).

Thus, on a recent tour of Lutheran sites in Germany, several times my fellow Lutherans asked me as the only clergyman in the group, “Is this a Lutheran Church? It looks Catholic to me!” I explained that’s because it was Roman Catholic—500 years ago. And for the most part, “no conspicuous changes have been made . . . without good reason.” Even statues and other images that could have a non-Lutheran significance were often kept, if some way could be found to explain them in an evangelical manner.

Let’s Keep as Much as We Can

A modern American example occurred in the 1980s when Concordia University Wisconsin, a conservative Lutheran university that is now the largest Lutheran institution of higher education in North America, purchased for its new campus a former Roman Catholic convent built in the 1960s. It included a magnificent chapel featuring an enormous stained-glass window with a 35-foot-tall Virgin Mary showing her Assumption into heaven—an extra-biblical teaching not held by Lutherans.

What to do? Fortunately, the studio that originally created it was still operating, so they were hired to merely replace the female face of Mary with the male face of Christ. With that minimal change, the Assumption of Mary was elegantly transformed into the Ascension of Jesus.

The chapel also came adorned with a series of exquisite Italian carvings of the Stations of the Cross, which the sisters had not taken to their new home because they are integrated into the marble columns so that removal is nearly impossible. Although Stations of the Cross are not typically found in Lutheran churches, they were retained and reinterpreted in a Lutheran manner. It even became customary for a series of chapel sermons to be preached on them during Lent, and they have actually been highlighted recently with new lighting.

This Is a Good Rule of Thumb More Generally

How can these “conservative,” anti-iconoclast principles of Luther be applied to today’s controversy about public statues and other images? On the one hand, it is indisputable that many of the works in question were erected during the “Jim Crow” era as statements of continued white domination over the black populace in spite of the South losing the Civil War. It is unreasonable and unstainable to have a city such as New Orleans, now with a 60 percent African-American population, remain peppered with such monuments. There is no principle that once installed sculptures and other public monuments must be forever retained and never altered, moved, or removed, and surely it is the current populace that determines such public ornamentation of their own community.

On the other hand, Luther notes that violent iconoclasm generally backfires: “[Y]ou rush, create an uproar, break down altars, and overthrow images! Do you really believe you can abolish the altars in this way? No, you will only set them up more firmly” (American Edition, Vol. 51, p. 83). We see this phenomenon in statues that everyone largely ignored for decades suddenly morphing into rallying points for fringe elements of society.

Many of the solutions proposed for dealing with these monuments are in line with Luther’s principles. Rather than wanton destruction, where possible retain the images but reinterpret them in a less offensive way, perhaps by adding context with additional images or historical information. Or move the images to less controversial locations or more appropriate settings, such as museums or cemeteries.

If originally donated by some private group, which was often the case, give them back if the group is still in existence and let them decide what to do with them. Or, simply put them in semi‑permanent storage, to be displayed when and if appropriate. After all, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of all museum collections worldwide are not on display but in storage, so not every sculpture merits permanent public display.

There’s a Controversy Because We Don’t Have a Consensus

The controversy has arisen not so much because of these proposed solutions but their ham-handed implementation. As Luther scolded the Wittenbergers upon his return from exile, “The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won” (American Edition, Vol. 51, p. 72).

No serious effort was ever really made to create a general public consensus that would outweigh and overwhelm those extremist voices.

There have been suggestions for decades that these images should be removed. Yet, though he now supports their removal, in an MSNBC interview as little as two years ago Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe strongly rejected such calls: “[N]ot statues. I mean, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, these are all parts of our heritage. . . leave the statues and those things alone.” Such comments are exactly in line with the fringe elements now making the removal of these monuments their cause célèbre.

Admittedly there is an extreme element that could never be persuaded. However, no serious effort was ever really made to create a general public consensus that would outweigh and overwhelm those extremist voices. Instead, many of the politicians in question continued to make equivocal statements like McAuliffe’s, right up until the uproar broke out. The reasons for this are at best inexplicable, at worst self-serving by these politicians and catering to the misconceptions of the very people in need of persuasion.

It is the failure of these state and local political leaders, over a period of many years, to create a positive public consensus for reasonable action that has led to the explosive situation in which we find ourselves—not anything the president in office for only eight months has or hasn’t said or done. Trying to shift the blame to him is simply more self-serving evasion by the same politicians.

Rogue Action Is Not the Answer

Although it is late, perhaps it is not too late for them to finally fulfill the responsibilities of their offices and take helpful action instead. Since those governing the areas where this controversy has erupted are for the most part from the same party, they should develop a united strategy to create, through reason and public discourse, a general consensus for solutions such as those outlined above.

They need to express their displeasure not by rogue action against statues and other memorials but at the ballot box.

Far from being rife with inveterate racism, most Americans have a spirit of goodwill toward their fellow citizens of all races. They could be led to understand the inappropriateness of some monuments, and the offense they cause some of their compatriots.

In his first sermon back in Wittenberg, Luther advised, “We also need patience.” The citizens of these communities who have long advocated for certain monuments to be removed could respond that they have already been patient for a long time—and it got them nowhere. Their impatience is understandable, but misdirected. They need to express it not by rogue action against statues and other memorials but at the ballot box, against the political leaders who for so long have patronized them and ignored their legitimate concerns. In the meantime, though it is asking a lot of them, their role in maintaining peace would be to show even more patience while public consensus is built for solutions like those above—something their political leaders should have been doing all along.

It was Luther’s wise leadership that largely prevented in Lutheran lands the widespread iconoclasm that led to many treasures being lost in other Protestant countries. In contrast, those who are supposed to be leading the communities and states where our own iconoclastic controversy has broken out often seem more interested in reaping petty partisan advantage by stirring up destructive forces. Again, we must learn a lesson from Luther and his treatment of the toxic Karlstadt. The only way to restore civic peace is for voters to likewise exile from public life politicians who have demonstrated in this matter that they are either very ineffective or very irresponsible.