Christianity and Iconoclasm

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The parishioners of St. Jacob’s Catholic church, Enugu, were shocked beyond words in January 2019 when a woman went to their Marian grotto on a Sunday morning, doused their statue with fuel and set it ablaze.

Conversely, in several parts of Southern Nigeria, it’s not uncommon for mobs of zealous Christians to seek out pagan shrines, burn them to the ground and destroy their idols.

The same trend is reported in other countries where Christians vandalize Buddhist or Hindu temples, decapitating their images and spray-painting words like “Jesus is the only true God” on their walls.

Many of these Christians fondly see themselves as warriors defending the faith, and would identify themselves as iconoclasts.

The term iconoclasm comes from the word icon (from the Greek eikon, “to resemble”), signifying a religious picture or image, and klan (Gk., meaning “to break”). Hence, an iconoclast was one who advocated the destruction of images.

From history, the use and adoration of images in the church began toward the end of the third century. This was a common practice in the Eastern branch of the church due to the influence of heathen worship (E. H. Klotsche, The History of Christian Doctrine, Grand Rapids, 1979, p. 118).

This trend spread to the West and continued until 726 A.D. when Emperor Leo III issued an edict forbidding the use of images in the church and commanding them to be destroyed. This resulted in the Byzantine iconoclastic movement provoking riots, persecution and destruction of entire monasteries.

Even though some Catholics were also opposed to image worship, the practice began to gain impetus at the Second Council of Nicea of 784.

During the 16th century Reformation, Calvinists led waves of iconoclasm which swept through many Protestant cities and territories in Europe:

“The destruction was radical, but orderly. It was effected by the co-operation of the preachers and the civil magistracy, with the consent of the people. It began at Pentecost, and was completed June 1524 … the churches of the city were purged of pictures, relics, crucifixes, altars, candles, and all ornaments … The Swiss iconoclasm passed into the Reformed Churches of France, Holland, Scotland, and North America” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, VIII ch. 3, S. 19).

This, of course provoked riots from the people, including Lutherans, who favoured such religious arts in their churches and homes.

Other instances of iconoclasm also occurred in several parts of Africa and Polynesia during the colonial era, between the 19th-20th century. Though, the extent of aggression or cooperation involved in these movements is quite debatable.

Those in the West where religions enjoy legal protection, would find it puzzling that someone would have such fanatical zeal to destroy the objects of worship of marginal religions.

But for many of us raised in cultures that were steeped in paganism, the constant tension between indigenous religions and a more civilized religion/faith is an extant reality.

On the one hand, the Christian seeks to eschew idolatry and on the other, in his fervour to please God, he feels the need to obliterate what is detestable in His sight.

How one can balance both levers without falling into the ditch on either side needs to be vigorously discussed in the church, otherwise, we can negate our message with certain actions and stir up bitter hostility where there ought to be none.

Here’s the lingering question: is it biblically and logically right for a Christian today to carry out mass destruction of physical images and structures of other religions?

1. The motive behind every iconoclasm should be weighed. To be sure, iconoclasm has also been (even more) executed by non-Christian religions.

(a) In ancient Egypt, Akhenaten instituted a state monolatristic tradition focused on the god Aten, the solar disk. So he sent his officials to destroy temples and monuments and chisel out every reference to Amun and the names of other deities besides Aten on tombs, temples and cartouches.

(b) When Muhammad and his armies captured Mecca, they destroyed the physical images of all the deities in the Kaaba, though retaining some of their rituals.

Later in the 8th century, the Edict of Yazid ordered the destruction of crosses and Christian images within the caliphate. Islamic conquests also executed iconoclastic agenda against Hinduism, Buddhism, Egyptian religions and the Shi’ite sect. Up till today, historic sites and minority religious structures are being destroyed in Islamic climes.

(c) During the French Revolution, numerous monuments, religious works and other historically significant pieces were destroyed in an attempt to wipe out the memories of the Old Regime.

(d) During the Chinese Tang dynasty and Xinhai Revolution, there was widespread destruction of Buddhist temples, images as well as historical artwork – whether secular or religious. The same occurred during the Northern Expedition in Guangxi in 1926 and the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong.

Iconoclasm in these instances was about power – one side with dominant political power seeking to establish itself by eradicating others. Iconoclasm can have purely political, expansionist and triumphalist motives.

2. Granted, God commanded the Jews to “destroy their altars … break down their sacred pillars… cut down their wooden images” (Dt. 7:5), “burn the carved images of their gods” (Dt. 7:25).

However, these were directed at the pagan nations inhabiting the Promised Land which God had given to the Israelites. They only carried out iconoclasm on specific pagan nations as God directly commanded them.

These iconoclastic commands have not been given to any other nation since then, and it can’t be properly applied to the Church – since it’s worldwide and doesn’t have an earthly Promised Land. Thus, those passages have limited application.

3. When Israel became an identifiable nation with God-chosen Judges, Kings and Prophets, national repentance was often signified by collective destruction of pagan artefacts, altars and shrines and renunciation of pagan worship (e.g 2 Kgs. 10:27-28; 2 Chr. 17:5-6).

These were purgings initiated by converted hearts, even if mediated by monarchial or prophetic orders. An analogy can be drawn from these today when a community forsakes their idols and turn to the Living God.

This is by far the most legitimate expression of iconoclasm. This occurred during the 20th century revivals held by Apostle Joseph Babalola in the South West.

4. Christian iconoclasm, however, can have a boomerang effect if it’s ignited by legalistic and totalitarian objectives. It can have both good and bad outcomes.

Let’s take the Protestant Reformation as an example. Though Calvin himself did not support iconoclastic violence, many of his associates and followers did.

In Switzerland, in the Rhenish and Netherlandish territories, and in England, 16th century Calvinists defaced, destroyed, and confiscated a great many works of art, paintings, sculpure, stained-glass windows, ecclesiastical furnishings and whole buildings.

Libraries were burned, pianos were removed, tapestry and other ornaments were sold or given away. Though their intentions were to purify Christendom, their methods were extreme and severe. Eventually, it didn’t fare too well.

When iconoclasm is animated by legalistic impulses, what qualifies as “sacred” and “abominable” is often subject to the view of the iconoclast.

For instance, some Christians believe jewelleries, hair extensions, make-up, body ornaments and even statues or paintings of animals like frogs, fishes and fishes are demonic and detestable before God. If they should carry out a mass purging of a city they deem to be ungodly, all these materials will fall under their destruction category.

Such a move may be touted as a discontinuity with the past, but it can actually revive a need for continuity with the old trends. This is a consequence of imposing true worship with the arm of the flesh.

5. In addressing iconoclasm, we also need to understand that idolatry is nuanced and complex. It is more than just physical images. It has spiritual, mental and psychological hold on people.

Spiritual, in the sense that whenever people make an idol – whether with wood, clay, bronze or gold – and gather to worship it, some evil spirits are assigned by Satan there to hover around the shrine and influence the lives of those worshippers. They can also speak through the priests and priestesses to the adherents and from there, rites of worship develop.

Mental, in the sense that an idol is often a representation of a god or gods conceived by the mind of man. So an idol may not necessarily be a physical image or representation. A person can have an imagination or false conception of God (or a god) and direct his worship toward that false god. It’s still idolatry, but a mental one.

Psychologically, most idolaters make physical images from the archetypes embedded within their psyche. No Catholic has seen the actual Mary before. No Hindu has seen Vishnu either. But they attach that name to whatever image has been made with human hands and infuse it with certain features and attributes which they desire in themselves or seek to banish.

Therefore, merely destroying physical images of idols or pagan deities doesn’t solve the problem. The worshipper can simply pick up the same idol in another form.

This is obviously why God didn’t command Christians to go from house to house destroying people’s physical idols in the New Testament like it was done in the OT.

The reason is simple: it would be a useless exercise if the spirits behind those idols are still influencing the people and those image archetypes still exist in their minds.

6. Indeed, some Christians have shared genuine experiences where they were led by the Holy Spirit to engage in spiritual warfare prayers and some pagan idols or altars were supernaturally destroyed.

While I do not discredit such experiences, I will say that these are exceptional cases.

I know that many Christians involved in “spiritual mapping” and territorial warfare prayers visit shrines or temples and pray against the idols there, with the intent that the ruling demon would lose its hold and the worshippers will be saved.

Some Christians even proceed to deface and wreck religious artefacts, like the examples given at the outset, drawing on the example of Gideon in the OT.

My take is, unless God specifically directs you to go on such an assignment, you are skating on thin ice. One, because you can’t successfully fight a battle that our Captain (Jesus) hasn’t authorized you to fight.

Two, you can’t expel an evil spirit from its residence unless its legal right to rule has been revoked. As long as its altars, images, emblems and the shrines are there, the demon still has the right to reign there.

Three, having studied the book of Acts over and over, I can’t find a place where the apostles or early Christians (who lived in pagan cultures) were praying against the spirits of Zeus, Mars, Artemis, or Castor and Pollux or destroying their images and temples so that pagans would massively come to Christ.

Instead, they went about preaching the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit and many were saved. That’s the power of God’s Word. When the people were truly converted by the Holy Spirit, they gathered their own occult books and burnt them in public (Acts 19: 19).

7. The Bible says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)

In other words, our battle is not really against physical structures or images and it shouldn’t be fought with physical weapons.

Therefore, as true Christian iconoclasts, we are to demolish arguments and imaginations that fuel false worship and bring down false ideas, philosophies and imagery that enslave people to them.

When those freed now decide to physically destroy their objects of false worship, we know the victory won in the spirit has been sealed in the physical.

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