Flawed statues: The need for artwork or more heart work?
As thousands of Ryerson University students and others in Toronto call for the removal of Egerton Ryerson’s statue, our guest columnist, D.W. McIntosh, writes about the spiritual ramifications of statues from the past in our present.
In 2018, a plaque was placed with the university representatives and Indigenous leaders contextualizing Egerton Ryerson’s role in residential schools; but that was considered by some to be a band-aid solution. Many students and area residents now want the statue removed all together. Change.org is gathering petitions http://www.change.org to take down Canadian statues of colonial legacy.
In this column, D.W. McIntosh writes about the George Washington statue in the U.S., and Egerton Ryerson’s in Toronto.
By D.W. McIntosh
The voices of the marginalized such as Black and Indigenous people have, for a long time, questioned in silence the heroism of cultural paragons of whiteness that have been immortalized as statues of gold, bronze, copper and alloy. These statues are larger than life, towering over the sea of the public consciousness, which symbolizes their strength of character and power.
But digging up and uncovering the skeletons of lost and repressed history, these statues, extending to the heavens, might be better served to be covered by aerial droppings of birds and other heavenly creatures.
The marginalized recognize that each decorative dropping symbolizes the flaws of these deified characters of whiteness whom the public now “sees.”
On that basis, it begs the first question: How should we esteem heroes of flawed character in our public spaces?
Secondly, more for Christians, what should a Christian’s attitude be to those things which give offence their fellow Christians?
To answer the first question we must consider some assumptions for the public space, which are comprised by the “company of strangers” as sociologist and thinker, Parker Palmer would name this pervasive reality. To build on Parker’s thinking, these are spaces that are shared by every stranger or citizen, including the marginalized, to enjoy.
That is, people who the State recognizes as one of their own.
Secondly, these are spaces that have a common ground of righteousness or right relations with each other. That is a social contract of common beliefs, values, and practices to promote the public good and an orderly life.
Finally, these are spaces that democracy is given final authority (ideally). That is the will of the majority, under the will of its nation’s constitution, to effect public change for the good.
Considering those assumptions that are tacitly agreed upon, we’re reasonably compelled to reexamine these objects and symbols of historical pain in public spaces, which detract from the public good.
Statues not only embody values of the public to uphold but also reminds the public of its shame to dispose.
We see statutes like Egerton Ryerson, which stands proudly yet ashamedly on the campus of Ryerson University, being argued for its removal due to Ryerson’s atrocious role in the residential schools against our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Similarly, we see this issue with statues in the U.S. like with George Washington in his deplorable role in slavery.
Are these flawed (White) men deserving of a statue?
Back then – yes. Today – no.
It is how we define the public space and for whom.
Each White citizen of that past time, which excluded Black and Indigenous strangers, enjoyed this shared space. Each citizen shared a social contract. Each citizen acted as majority to approve the culture and it symbols.
To contrast it with today, the answer is no. For today not every citizen enjoys this shared space with these statues. Not every citizen shares the same social contract toward these statues.
Lastly, the majority, non-White citizens and woke White citizens, have asked for a culture change within the legal bounds to remove these statues despite tradition. This means—as an act of fairness—public statues like Ryerson should be demoted to the semi-public realm (i.e. museums or clubs) at worst in the private realm (i.e. homes) at best.
It is democracy, the company of strangers, that create a public space, which enables discourse and allows for changes to seemingly, timeless values, beliefs and practices—whether Christian or not.
This segues to our second question: What should a Christian’s attitude be to those things that give an offense to a fellow Christian. I will suggest this should be an easier question to answer. The reason is that democracy, the mind of the Public is not the goal of the Church, but the mind of the Pneuma, the Holy Spirit of Jesus is instead.
Having the mind of the Spirit dictates to us how to assess our motives for honouring people when it necessitates erecting statues. Knowing over time, it likely spirals downward into idolatry for each succeeding generation. This is possibly the reason for no statues of Moses, David, or Solomon that is recorded in Scripture. Moreover, there are no Scriptures commanding us to building as such.
So, when White Christians argue the need for statues as part of their spiritual heritage, we must ask on what basis is this heritage is rooted in? Our faith is based on hearing the Spirit – not seeing a statue.
Statue making will never be a sacrament.
Granted Christian communities over time have always found ways to express their faith in a myriad of ways that have no explicit Scripture command apart from the freedom of the Spirit (i.e. early Christians gathering at catacombs for communion.)
However, the New Testament teaching of the law of love (Rom 13:10, 1 Cor 9:19-23) and freedom (Rom 14:7-13, 1 Cor 8:9-13) requires us to consider other believers better than ourselves.
If our freedom offends our brothers and sisters of the Faith, we should let go of our freedom for the sake of their consciences and our care for the collective good.
In other words, if what we do as Christians create stumbling blocks for other Christians, the marginalized, to live out their faith, we must be open to change/repent, let go and submit to one another. (Eph 5:21) Failure to do so shows not the ones offended (i.e. racially marginalized) as immature in the Faith, but truly the offenders (i.e. White traditionalists) who follow their power and pride over the law of love.
When we as Christians remember to follow the law of love, the image of Christ is displayed glowingly and erected humbly in each of us.
These – and only these – are the statues that God truly cares about in the end.
Denley W. McIntosh, PMP, B.Eng
 Palmer, Parker J. The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981.