As a lifelong Catholic, statues have been a part of my faith experience from the beginning. I have worshipped in spaces with statues, watched them paraded on feast days, and seen them adorned with flowers. I have stood in front of dozens of Mary statues and prayed to Our Mother, holding hands of stone and placing my loved ones in her care. I have wept in front of statues of Jesus and Mary, pondered and prayed in front of statues of St. Joseph and other saints, and lit candles in front of statues while gazing at their stony faces. The presence of statues have helped me pray many, many times.
In the wake of the destruction, beheading, desecration, and even burning of religious statues in our country, many Catholics are finding a call to arms, rising in defense of the faith that they characterize as ‘under attack’ from forces liberal and demonic. I by no means support the acts of vandalism against these statues, but I’m finding the responses to these acts in some cases more troubling than the acts themselves.
To find an appropriate Christian response to violence against our faith, we need look no further than Jesus who, from the cross, prayed for his murderers and said, “They know not what they do.” I think it’s a fair statement to say that most people who are desecrating religious statues are doing so out of a place of ignorance and misdirected anger. But if we feel attacked as Catholics, maybe it’s helpful to look back on the early church’s response to violence against the flesh-and-blood people whose statues we venerate today. Did they rise and fight back when Saint John the Baptist was beheaded? When Saint Joan of Arc was burned at the stake? How did the early church react when every disciple save one was martyred by crucifixion, clubbing, burning, or stabbing? Did they defend themselves? Appeal to the government for protection? Use military-style language to stoke and set up a narrative of war? Organize and take up weapons?
No. They continued to speak their truth and they prayed for those who persecuted them and in doing so, they opened up a well of opportunity for the Holy Spirit to move and grow something completely new from the humblest beginnings and tiniest of seeds in one small corner of the globe to the world wide church it is today. And over the centuries, any well-meaning attempt that humans have taken to ‘defend’ this church over the broken society in which it existed have gone horrifically wrong, from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, to the clericalism and secrecy that fueled the priest sex abuse crisis, to the politically motivated power grab we see among some of the highest ranking members of our church today. So, in this chaotic time, in response to this wave of vandalism, we have to ask ourselves: What would Jesus do, really?
Even as He was being arrested in the garden, the first step which He knew would lead to His crucifixion, Jesus chastised Peter for fighting back. And then He healed the soldier whose ear Peter had cut off. I often think of that soldier, what his life looked like after that time, after having experienced firsthand the mercy of Jesus and being given ears to hear a brand new gospel. What witness did he then make of his life? To how many people did he tell the story of what happened that day? How would that witness have materialized had he not been shown mercy? Had he not found healing in the midst of chaos?
I fear that American Catholic Christians, tied as we are to the populist government, have forgotten that we are a counter-cultural faith. We’re a non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek, pray-for-your-enemies kind of faith from the start. You wouldn’t know that by our militant language today, but it’s the example of Jesus and we’d be wise to remember it now. Instead we feel and loudly speak our offense and we post fear-soaked warnings on social media about the persecuted church which will DEFINITELY END IN OUR LIFETIMES unless we vote in a particular way, as though God who created the world is that small. We make today’s multifaceted and challenging landscape into one binary choice, a fight of good against evil along American political lines, as though God belongs to a party or is American. As appealing and comforting as it may be to choose up sides and defend our ground with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, this is not reflective of the faith that Jesus taught. Fear, exclusion and retaliation are so far from the gospel as to be their opposite.
And I wonder, as each Mary statue was recently desecrated or defaced, what do you imagine was the response of actual Mary in those moments? I imagine her on the scene, present in each dark night, unhurt, steady and prayerful for each misguided son and daughter involved in each incident. Maybe they felt her there in some way, felt some guilt or movement in their spirit that they couldn’t quite shake. Maybe that moment when she put her hand on their shoulder will be the part of the story that changes everything for each lost soul who participated in these acts. Shouldn’t we leave room for that transformation in our prayer, sorrow and response? If we responded to these painful acts of vandalism out of love and not fear, how would our witness be received in this world that so desperately needs God? How much room could we give the Holy Spirit to move in this time by our steady example of mercy and peace?
As a practicing and cradle Catholic, I love and find meaning in the ‘stuff’ of my faith but I know my faith can’t be found in my rosary beads or incense or a statue or a building or even Notre Dame or the Vatican. These, like all man-made things, can be repaired and will eventually pass. One thing’s for sure, though. We who turn from the actual peaceful, loving, counter-cultural teachings of Jesus do far more damage to our church than any vandal ever could.