On Statues and Idols


The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.

In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.

I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”

Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.

When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”

Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.

It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.

In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.

Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.

Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?

Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?

This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.

These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.

“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.

And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.

5 thoughts on “On Statues and Idols

  1. How about keeping the confederate statues, but literally off their pedestals and face down in the dirt?

  2. Just read ur article out loud in the V.A. waiting room in Syracuse NY…nothing but silence now….it’s made everyone pause & think….just looked at ur neighbor to see the face of God….so simple…so outlandishly true….thank you…thank you

  3. Yeah – and as I like to point out to people, the South LOST the civil war. They should never have been allowed to build those statues in the first place. But then I remember from history, the North reconstructed the South. We should have let them just wallow in destruction in my opinion.

  4. Mr. Barnhart-
    With all due respect, I believe many of your words on this post seek to cause further division by assuming too much about those who support keeping certain statues up. It seems as if you assume to speak for those who are of color or of other minority statuses without what appears to be nuanced reflection on the issue at hand.

    Let’s start with the fact that graven images & idolatry are different from statues people erect to honor heroes or others who have been or are influential. People don’t go up to a Custer statue & pray to it or seek its guidance or blessing. They go to remember his legacy & what the zeitgeist of the time was.

    Next you attempt to make an argument on what you clearly state is “some fuzziness” regarding how non-Egyptians felt about the statues of their day. Neither you or I can definitively know if your comparisons are correct. Therefore you waste the readers time with conjecture that serves only to strike an emotional response, rather than encourage nuance & reason.

    Just who are these “white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers” that you speak of and do you conflate all those who support keeping certain statues with white supremacy? Is it possible that media has directed our attention to assume things about certain people that isn’t real? Is it possible that some actual POC are not only ok with the pieces but believe they are helpful teachers for a myriad of reasons? Is it possible we don’t hear from those who don’t fit the “neo-nazi” narrative because they cause cognitive dissonance (i.e. conservative blacks, gays, immigrants) and essentially assert that we all don’t think alike?

    You say “This is not about history. This is about power” but I’m not clear what the “this” is your talking about. If we are talking about power & supremacy who are the powerful supremacists? Are they the ones who put up a Joan of Arc statue or a Lincoln statue or a statue of Mary & baby Jesus, which are now being taken down or defaced as well? What about the Georgia Guidestones, or the Lenin statue in Seattle or the monument to combating the “global war on terrorism”? Where is the concern over those pieces that highlight depopulation by elites, communist murder of millions, and the power hungry that propose continual war on a concept of terrorism that we are not privy to? Who put those up & why doesn’t anyone care? Why don’t you? If you say it’s because you haven’t heard of them, may I ask, why do you think that is?

    Sir I don’t know if your a white straight heterosexual man or not, but I am the daughter of a Southern black man whose mom died cleaning a white woman’s home. A post like yours does nothing for a man like my father. It does nothing for me either. To help heal the scars of the past; assumptions, politically correct judgementalism, and crying white supremacy without actually getting down to name the real signs of sinister power – does not help black people or nurture cohesion. Instead words like yours serves to cut people like me out of the conversation. People who are brown but don’t go along with the idea (made up mostly by white liberals) that everything about the confederacy, or Jefferson, or Joan of Arc (?), is about sheer evil perpetrated by white men. In my opinion your words demonstrate poor research, assumption, and emotionalism. Quite frankly POC deserve better than that.

    How about this, when you’ve taken the time & energy to stop the black genocide of the unborn (black abortions are 5x more than whites), have funded some black colleges, volunteered to help those with sickle cell anemia, and have spent some posts examining how white elite socialists have used the black community for their own ends (hello George Soros) then I’ll give more credence to your assertions. Until then I’ll continue to remember who the real enemy of us all is, and how he uses the power of the air to do his dirty work.

    I wish you well brother on the narrow road.

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