Acton Institute Powerblog

Toppling statues tears at the 3 pillars of the West

Were he alive today, what would C.S. Lewis say about the ongoing, violent riots and church desecration being led by “trained Marxists”? As it turns out, we know. The answer lies in a letter that Lewis wrote about UK social protests 80 years ago, which reads as though it were a news dispatch from Portland’s federal courthouse.

Christians should have keen interest in his views on this topic. The current unrest, which kicked off 63 days ago, has expanded its circle of destruction from toppling public statues to church iconoclasm. As I wrote recently at Intellectual Takeout:

Let it never be said that Shaun King of Black Lives Matter has no influence. On June 22, King called for BLM protesters to desecrate all depictions of a European-looking Jesus, essentially inviting the wholescale vandalism of every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox parish in the world. Within 24 hours, misguided activists half a world apart obeyed.

The reality is that the oldest continuous Christian art tradition does not depict Jesus as a “white European,” and the Western art tradition has at times shown itself remarkably inclusive. (Read the details here.)

But since its publication, the profanation campaign has only intensified. Earlier this month, a statue of Christ in Whitefish, Montana, was doused in brown paint and made to hold flags saying, “Rise Up” and “#BLM.” Rioters have increasingly targeted places of worship.

The bad news is that too many faith leaders have been silent about their flocks’ suffering. The good news is that the words of Christian statesmen echo through the ages, shedding light and offering direction for our present crises.

At least three faithful leaders have addressed the mass looting and civil unrest we are facing, as I note in my new article, “C.S. Lewis, Leo XIII, and Clarence Thomas on Riots” at Providence magazine. Pope Leo XIII has clear instructions for leaders about protecting property in Rerum Novarum. Justice Clarence Thomas’ has repented of his own painful history with rioting. But as usual, C.S. Lewis captures the moment best.

In the early days of World War II, young activists had begun decrying the UK’s excesses during the Great War. C.S. Lewis brought his brilliant insights to the issue in a 1940 letter to the editor subsequently published in his book, God in the Dock, under the title, “Dangers of National Repentance.” When people repent of other people’s sins — especially those of the historic past — they are not repenting at all. They are condemning others in a way that makes themselves feel superior. Rather than making the penitents moral, it stimulates pride, which Lewis, following the traditional Christian view, once called “the utmost evil.” As I write at Providence:

This invitation for protesters to rail against those whom they already hate, Lewis writes, “is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment” to honor thy father and mother. “Of these sins I have heard nothing among them.”

Lewis’ words on this and so many other subjects stand the test of time, because they are built on eternal spiritual realities. That same genius animated our Founding Fathers and infused the governing documents they produced.

The ongoing drive to topple statues, public and private, strikes at the three pillars of America’s founding:

1. Faith. The United States was purposefully conceived to propagate the Gospel, and the Founders intended faith to inform future generations of governance. As the recent report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights asked, “Can faith in such rights be sustained without faith in God?” Secular British writer Douglas Murray similarly questioned whether the West’s “structure of rights, laws and institutions” could “exist even without the source that had arguably given them life,” namely the Christian religion. Socialism facilitates atheism, and vice versa. Those consumed with ideological fanaticism now believe they are serving the greater good by desecrating statues of Jesus and vandalizing sanctuaries consecrated to His worship. America’s founding faith is being replaced by a false religion.

2. Property. The greatest disregard for other’s property is to destroy it, which eliminates the possibility of restitution. Protecting property is the first and most fundamental duty of the state. “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution. “[T]hat alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” The mob’s all-but-officially-sanctioned destruction of property undermines the Founders’ view of government in a tangible way.

3. History. George Orwell famously observed in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Both political and religious leaders hear in the current war on history the mild echoes of China’s Cultural Revolution. The American Founders saw themselves as part of the grand history of the West, drawing lessons on governmental structure from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the “Anglo-American heritage of law.” If this history can be rendered toxic, the Constitution it produced must be jettisoned as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

You can read more of C.S. Lewis’ words and Clarence Thomas’ example for rioters here.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.