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Life “Under the Hammer”

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This is another essay I couldn’t get published. It has to do with the iconoclastic nature of contemporary society. I hope it gives you some food for thought.

Life “Under the Hammer”

I first became aware of efforts to remove statues of “problematic” historical figures five years ago, when the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, from outside the city courthouse. I noticed it at the time because, even though I had visited that wonderful city many times since I was a child, I never knew such a statue existed. One goes to the Crescent City to visit the French Quarter, not courthouses, after all. But the overweening sense of righteousness of city officials who made the decision struck me as something out of the ordinary, which is why I remembered it.

Little did I realize the wave of destruction that would ensue, planned or otherwise, in the coming years. The urge to wipe the history books and public memorials clean of any trace of “oppression” has become a defining fixation of our ruling classes, in what seems like all areas of public life. In some respects, this is nothing new. As James Simpson noted in his incisive work, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, our modern culture is a product of the Enlightenment, and is basically a form of iconoclasm, in which the past is seen as a series of idolatrous betrayals of rational, egalitarian order, that need to be purified—i.e., destroyed. Ecrasez l’infame! cried Voltaire, “destroy the infamous one,” meaning the Church. Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as subverting a Christian order even as they imitated its tendencies to smash idols. The word “enlightenment” is a good example of this, because until the late seventeenth century it had meant the light of Christ, freeing the world from sin and death. In the hands of Enlightenment iconoclasts it came to mean, as Kant put it, “liberation from superstition,” meaning, in many cases, from Christian faith.

In other respects, however, there is something very different about this latest wave of iconoclasm. Not only statues, physical spaces, but even digital spaces must be cleansed of their connections (real or imagined) to the sins of our collective past. This makes sense, given that our technology now makes it possible to store images virtually forever, so in order to retcon the past one has to alter them. This suits our new “virtual” ruling class just fine. And not just images, but ideas and even words themselves must be smashed and reconstructed—“man,” “woman,”—as if words bore no relation to anything but the will of those who have the power to manipulate their meaning.

But we know that words do have an effect in the real world, and warping them in this manner can produce disastrous effects. So it is in the Church. Take the word “pastoral” for example. The philosopher Sebastian Morello recently related how an order of monks took possession of a London friary that had been “renovated” in the 1960s. When they removed the plaster from the walls, they discovered a stone relief, in which the founders of the Franciscans were depicted, but whose faces had been smashed away with a hammer. One of the monks informed Morello that a friar had attended a course on “pastoral” liturgy in Rome after Vatican II, who “on his return instructed the other friars to correct the church; it was felt that this would be more pastoral.”

How can such a destructive act be pastoral, you ask? It’s not entirely clear, but one can see the outlines of an answer in an audience by Paul VI around time. On the eve of the new mass’s promulgation in 1969, Paul VI gave an address in which he explained why the old mass and its Latin were going away. He admitted that suppressing the old liturgy would entail “a great sacrifice” because of the “sacrality of Latin,” and that in doing so “we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance.” But this was necessary because in the past “the divine Latin language kept us apart from the children, from youth, from the world of labor and of affairs,” and “participation by the people is worth more” than beautiful language, “profound participation by every single one present, and an outpouring of spirit in community charity.” In other words, this was an act of self-sacrifice, atonement for the Church having been too “clericalist,” too “hierarchical” in the past, and now wanting to take the side of “the people.” Hence the removal of the symbols of that past, such as Latin, are a “pastoral” act designed to bring the Church together, make her more unified.

Of course, it is true that some symbols really are the product of historical injustice. That statue of Lee which the city of New Orleans removed was put up in 1884, but other Confederate monuments were erected during the Civil Rights era, to defend the subjugation of black Americans. The French Revolution was one of the more spectacular instances of iconoclastic destruction, but that there was much corruption in eighteenth century France no one would question. The same could be said for the Russian Revolution, or many other historical episodes one can think of—and indeed, in the Church at many points in history.

Still, iconoclasm of one’s own heritage as atonement is a bizarre, unnatural idea. But it is one that appeals to the modern Western of idea of self-criticism, and in its extreme form, can be highly destructive. Eliminating all symbols of perceived “oppression” confuses the wicked with the innocent, informed by dangerous notions of collective guilt. It is this kind of thinking that fueled the destruction of Junipero Serra statues in California not long ago, or more recently, the burning of Catholic churches in Canada for the Church’s alleged crimes against native people. For obvious reasons, such physical destruction is limited to short-lived events. One can only burn or destroy so much at once that way. The new, digital iconoclasm differs by its continuous nature, instantaneous reach, and potential irreversibility, not because it can wipe out all memory in one fell swoop, but because it can create false ones almost without limit. In this situation, there is little separating fake news from fake memory, and thus a fake heritage, curated by government bureaucrats and multinational corporations like Amazon and Apple.

The good news is that the same technology can be used to preserve what others want to destroy. But it presumes one can already tell the difference between the true and the false, the authentic and the ersatz, which is not easy. And yet, despite the unprecedented nature of this situation, the Church in its wide history has plenty of experience of living life “under the hammer.” The Iconoclast Controversy in the Eastern Church is the most notable example, but recent history is replete with instances as well. One only need think of the Ukrainian Catholic Church—under siege along with Ukraine itself, even as I write this—which Stalin attempted to liquidate in 1946. It survived underground until the 1980s, and successfully resisted Soviet efforts to erase its faith and its cultural heritage. American Catholics especially don’t have any experience of this, but given the challenge of the new iconoclasm, they need to start educating themselves in earnest.

A priest I know who celebrates the old Roman liturgy once lamented to his congregation that ordinary Catholics had to become liturgists and historians, just to preserve the heritage that was theirs by right, after the liturgical reforms of the 1960s. His point was that it shouldn’t be necessary, but taking possession of one’s history, one’s heritage, is a necessity where our authorities refuse to defend it, or worse, actively aid in its destruction. We must become “experts” in what we love, and seek out the like-minded in this regard, so that we may learn to live and think independently of corporate media and others who want to pervert our legacy. The only way we can save our heritage from being erased is to become personally and collectively responsible for it ourselves, because one is going to do it for us.

Above all, we must remember that even if our most cherished icons are taken from us, something more elemental underlies all human culture, all human symbols. We are first of all rational creatures, who can distinguish between what is true and false, despite the efforts of iconoclasts. But more importantly, we are also made in the image and likeness of God, whose true icon is Jesus Christ the Son of God. And if we remain faithful to Him, and the law he has written into our souls, there is no hammer powerful enough to erase His image from our hearts.

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