Racism as Iconoclasm

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear" (Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas).

Earlier this afternoon while at Reconciliation Services I was speaking with a young man whom I have known now for about a year and a half. He is very bright but admittedly troubled and he is working through the issues that aren’t so uncommon for most young men of his age. On this particular day, he was commenting on a book about the history of Christianity in Africa which I had given him the week prior. He had just finished the section that was speaking about the repopulation of the earth by the sons of Noah; Shem, Ham and Japheth. After having a relatively simple (as much as that is possible) and quick discussion on allegory and genetic possibilities, my friend gave me a side-eyed glance and said to me, “so if Noah was given the job of repopulating the earth, then that means we (human beings) are all related, right?” To this, my best answer in the moment was to quote Jimi Hendrix, from his song Machine Gun where he assumes the character of a lamenting soldier, who in midst of the carnage and murder of combat, observes: “evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you, even though we're only families apart!”

The Apostle John taught that if you hate your brother you are guilty of murder (1 John 3:15). These are the strongest of words, especially for us here in the United States where we are seemingly in an unending cycle of racial tension. For many of us, the best we can do is to throw up our hands in resignation, and to do our best to “mind our own business.” I admit that this type of resignation in the face of such deeply entrenched attitudes and issues, seems like the wise choice; however, as the old adage states: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. For me, the hard fight for understanding of the theology of the Icon by the ancient Church has been the greatest antidote against the atrophying doom of ignorance.

The iconoclast period was a period in the history of the ancient Christian Church, that lasted roughly 90 years (730-787CE and 813-843CE) where the controversy over the use of the Icon in Christian worship violently erupted. In short, the iconoclasts saw the Icon as idolatry; where as the Orthodox saw the Icon as the proclamation of the incarnation of God in the flesh. The final triumph of the Icon and the reasons behind it are explained best by the hymnography sung by all Orthodox Christians on the first Sunday of Great Lent. This hymn says: 

“No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos (Mother of God), He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.”

If I were to boil this down to an essential statement, I believe it would simply say that the Icon explains what words alone cannot. It reveals to mankind that God loves His creation. That God would humble Himself and become a man like us, is too great of a mystery to simply be pronounced with words. How is it then, that racism is the new Iconoclasm? Racism not only blinds our ability to see those who simply look different than us as being made in the image of God, it can go as far as to distort our vision of them into horrific caricature. We all have family members that we struggle to get along with; accordingly, most have also had the experience of having a friend that is closer than a brother. This phenomenon is the proof, that relation is something deeper than biology. It’s about relating.

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The ancient Christian church affirmed the veneration of Icons because she discerned that the Icon could not be properly seen with just fleshly eyes, that ultimately there was something hidden behind the wood and paint. Therefore, the destruction of the Icon had little to do with the simple vandalism of a painting; rather, it was a flat out assault against the great mystery of God becoming man, to affirm his love for man. How much more of an affront is it, when we see the assault upon our brothers and sisters who are living icons, because of their outward appearance, because of biological facets like skin color and hair type? Like the Iconoclast of old, is it not because we are blind to what lies beneath? Is it not Christ who is the very archetype of every man? Panayiotis Nellas, a Greek theologian wrote:

“…It thus becomes clear that the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends… As the truth of an icon lies in the person it represents, so the truth of man lies in his archetype (Christ).” (Deification in Christ, p33)

In looking back to ancient history, I have found that the answer to the racial strife that lies in the hearts of so many in this country isn’t an easy fix, but it is a simple one. History can be a very tricky course to navigate, but sometimes the most complex concepts are best explained simply, and in regard to understanding the Iconoclastic tone of racism, I think I’ve heard it best summed up by an abbess of a monastery in California who recently said, “God doesn’t make junk.”

Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services