The picture showed a statue of Jesus with the head smashed off. “If veneration of an image is directed to the reality depicted,” wrote my friend, “draw the conclusion of what acts against these images mean.” The vandals “represent the dark side,” whether they knew it or not. “Hating the moral law is hatred of Christ. Hatred of neighbor is hatred of Christ.”
I’m not sure they all represent the dark side in the sense my friend meant. They’re attacking Christian symbols, yes. But many of them almost certainly don’t know Jesus except as the symbol of something they hate — “Christianity,” “the Catholic Church,” etc. — and they don’t know that something very well at all. They know not what they do.
One can be an iconoclast without hating the person the icon portrays. A priest drew a helpful parallel with fundamentalist Protestants whose faith in Christ we recognize. They “would gladly smash statues of Jesus,” he said, but don’t do it because they might get caught. “Their conscious motive for smashing a statue of Jesus (if they could) would be their love for Jesus and their desire to deter idol worship.”
This is not to say the vandals don’t do great damage, but only that many don’t do the damage we think they do. If I’m right about this, the difference matters for two reasons.
First, it helps us understand the vandals and have a better idea how to respond to them. Are they avowed, clear-eyed enemies of Jesus, or are they enemies of something with which they wrongly associate Jesus? (Most vandals will probably be a mixture, of course, but close to one pole or the other.)
You can be an iconoclast without hating the person the icon portrays.
If they are closer to the sort envisioned in the latter case, they might well be pursuing a good that we also pursue, however confused they are about it. There is much in Christianity as we see it that we should dislike more than we do. We can only face the first with witness, but with the second we may be able to talk.
Second, American Christians have a long-standing and almost insatiable appetite for feeling persecuted, no matter how safe and comfortable we are. Crying wolf has numbed even other Christians’ ability to see real persecution. We don’t want to encourage people to feel persecuted unless someone’s actually persecuting them, and they can distinguish real persecution from the loss of privileges Christians have long had in this society.
The problem with American feelings of persecution is that it doesn’t drive them into the catacombs. It drives them onto Facebook. Christians don’t start thinking hard about how to live as an marginalized minority, especially how to reconform our corporate life to create a body capable of sustaining its life under oppression and offering effective resistance.
That’s what the Christians around the world who are really persecuted do. The American feeling of persecution just creates yet more anger and self-pity. Those become almost an end in themselves.
We have a revealing precedent. Christians reacted in a similar way to the rise of the “new atheists.” Richard Dawkins and his peers smashed intellectual statues. And despite their great intelligence, without much more sophistication than the people smashing statues of Jesus and His Mother.
Conservative Christians came unglued, or as unglued as people could become before social media. Theologians and apologists wrote many polemical and often ponderous refutations of atheism. The articles and books sold like hotcakes. Christians enjoyed the pleasure of indignation and the pleasure of seeing their enemies routed.
The problem with American feelings of persecution is that it doesn’t drive them into the catacombs. It drives them onto Facebook.
Few asked what the new atheists were on about and if they were telling us something we needed to hear. What God did they hate so much? The shrewder response (which some apologists did make) was often that we don’t believe in that God either. More people responding that way would have helped the Church. But that required not taking the Faith’s enemies at their word that they were in fact the Faith’s enemies.
The whole affair didn’t do much for Christianity. When you’ve answered Richard Dawkins, you’ve … answered Richard Dawkins. A worthy enterprise, but not one that advances our understanding very much or strengthens Christians to deal with real threats.
The question to ask our vandals is the one Jesus asked the Apostles and asks us: Who do you say that I am? Their answer will help us respond to them in ways they might hear, and will tell us something about ourselves we need to hear. Some will know Jesus and hate Him, but many, I think, will know us and think they hate Him. That we need to know.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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