“They broke down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and the incense altars which were above them he cut down; and the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images he broke in pieces, and made dust of them and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them.” (2 Chron. 34:4 NKJV)
The country of Mali (one of Niger’s neighbors), has undergone a lot of turmoil in recent months. They have had both a rebellion and a coup d’etat, and many have fled the country as the fighting and instability continues. Amidst it all, the BBC reported this week, that one of the groups involved in the rebellion has destroyed the tomb of a local Muslim saint. According to the report, this was done by the Islamic fundamentalist group Ansar Dine (which has been linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), because the tomb was a shrine where people worshipped. They said that it is a sin to pray to a saint instead of praying to God, and so it was destroyed.
This attack made the news because it took place in the city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is reminiscent of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. In both cases, objects of veneration were destroyed because they were deemed “pagan” or “idolatrous.” With the statues in Bamiyam, it is somewhat understandable; the Taliban was destroying ancient and priceless works of art that are a part of our collective (human) cultural heritage, but at least they were non-Muslim. In Mali, the situation is different. This is the destruction of Muslim sites that are ancient and culturally important by Muslims themselves! It makes no sense at all.
It makes no sense, that is, for about 2 seconds. But then we realize that this type of iconoclastic behavior has been common throughout history. Christians have often done the exact same thing. Ever heard of the Bonfire of the Vanities? What about the Beeldenstorm? During the English Revolution, the anti-Catholic forces took power, and started getting rid of all kinds of religious relics that had fallen out of theological favor. They destroyed paintings and icons, stained glass windows, and even outlawed Christmas, deeming it a pagan holiday. Crosses and crucifixes were removed from churches and burned. And of course, they also destroyed the ultimate, living icon, the supposed image of God on earth: King Charles I.
In most cases, this type of destruction is done by people with good intentions. Of course, there are exceptions, people who seek destruction opportunistically or for the sake of seeing fire burn. But usually it is true believers. Pious and serious people. People who are trying to root out what is evil, and make their world a better place. People who want to make a difference. Yes, they are somber and statue-faced, and they have good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions – they are perfect for paving the road to hell. Once you start down this road, soon momentum takes over. It is very difficult to stop smashing things once you have started. The longer you live in the world of symbols, the more inevitable it becomes that one day you will make the jump into the world of flesh. People begin by burning an effigy, an image or an icon, and soon they are burning other people
Of course this doesn’t mean that we should passively accept things that are evil. It is not good enough to cynically claim that nothing will help. We can make a difference. We can stand against evil. And we should. We should root it out, and fight against it to the last nail and tooth. But we should probably start by looking at ourselves. How are we contributing to evil, injustice or suffering? What are the idols in our own lives?
If we are honest with ourselves (even if we managed to fool everyone else), we can make some headway and start to know ourselves. That alone is a big challenge. But when it comes to understanding others, to passing a value judgement on how others worship God, we are faced with an impossible task. There is an African proverb that says, “The heart of another is a wilderness.” That sounds about right. We don’t know what is going on in the heart of another person. We don’t know and we cannot know. It is always easier to destroy what we don’t understand, but if our goal is to love others, and to show them God’s love, that cannot be our response. Our response has to be sensitivity, tolerance and above all, love.