Iconoclasm without the sledgehammer

Peter
Peter Jackson
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When my wife and I were in the Netherlands in 2000, we made a special point of visiting Utrecht with a Dutch friend who lived in the nearby town of Bilthoven.

There are many fascinating things to do and see in Utrecht, but the central attraction, both physically and historically, is the famous Dom Tower and nearby Dom (St. Martin's) Church. The tower and church share a history, since the two structures used to be one when they were built in the 14th century. But the poorly constructed nave collapsed in a storm and was never rebuilt. Today, the floor plan of the nave is illustrated on the pavement that runs between the remaining structures.

When my wife and I were in the Netherlands in 2000, we made a special point of visiting Utrecht with a Dutch friend who lived in the nearby town of Bilthoven.

There are many fascinating things to do and see in Utrecht, but the central attraction, both physically and historically, is the famous Dom Tower and nearby Dom (St. Martin's) Church. The tower and church share a history, since the two structures used to be one when they were built in the 14th century. But the poorly constructed nave collapsed in a storm and was never rebuilt. Today, the floor plan of the nave is illustrated on the pavement that runs between the remaining structures.

From the top of the tower, the tallest in Holland, you can see steeples as far away as Amsterdam. In the church, you can see the centuries-old tombs. Throughout both structures, inside and out, you'll see wonderful carvings and sculptures.

Along one wall inside the church, however, there's a curious sight: beautifully carved statues of saints that have literally been defaced. This was not the work of modern-day vandals, but rather a wave of Calvinist reformers who marauded throughout Europe in the late 16th century, destroying what they considered to be idolatrous images.

It was odd to see such destruction in the name of Christian purity. Christian art and music have always undergone various eras of church-imposed censorship, but this seemed to be nothing more than a mindless trashing.

This sort of thing goes on today, where religious extremists ban certain forms of artistic expression, sometimes violently. But there's a more civilized form of iconoclasm going on, too. It's called upholding human rights.

In the human-rights game (and I'm not talking about real issues like torture, unfair imprisonment, etc.), the "one" is always greater than the "whole." An entire culture may have grown up with certain customs and beliefs, but that heritage must be suppressed because one person, or maybe a handful, feels threatened by its symbols.

Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ban on crucifixes in Italian classrooms. The complaint that spurred the ruling came from a parent, a Finnish-born woman who complained that her children are exposed to crucifixes in every room of their school.

Italians, predictably, are outraged at this threat to such a prevalent icon in their society. Eighty-four per cent said in a poll they wanted the crucifixes to stay. That includes two-thirds of those who admitted they weren't even practising Catholics.

Now, the debate over religious symbols is not new. The U.S. has famously imposed a separation of church and state.

Debate surfaces every now and then when, for example, creationists attempt to slip religious dogma into the curriculum under the guise of science.

God sent Moses back down the mount with Ten Commandments, one of which warned against worshipping false idols. But it is human nature for us to adorn the world with symbols of our values and beliefs. The ancients built huge monuments to their gods. In the godless Soviet regime, artists paid tribute to the noble worker labouring in the factory or atop a plow. In much of the western world, we worship celebrities.

And in Canada, we worship hockey.

In fact, I resent that everything from my morning coffee to my evening news is awash with hockey. I even feel pressured and intimidated into going with the flow. And I've certainly been persecuted for slagging hockey in the past.

Indeed, if I was one of those zealots, the kind who succeed in expunging nativity scenes from schools, I'd probably have a strong human-rights case.

This, of course, is ridiculous, and it's true that religions carry with them the weighty baggage of wars and oppression. But when Voltaire cried, "Ecrase l'infame!" (Erase the infamy), it was not likely religious imagery he was concerned about. It was the legacy of superstition and persecution under the ancient, church-run regime.

The swastika is one icon few would suggest deserves any place in a public venue. But last week, Germany and France proved they could move beyond other stigma from their war-torn past. German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid an unprecedented visit to Paris on Armistice Day, where French citizens mourning the war dead listened to a playing of the German national anthem.

Tolerance must be a two-way street. Attempts to sterilize our society by purging it of longstanding iconography suggests we are not yet enlightened enough to view them with perspective. That is alarming. Erasing the past in this way puts us at risk of becoming bereft of values, bereft of culture, and open to the kinds of dangerous ideology that emerge in a vacuum of historical context.

When these modern iconoclastic sprees occur, all they do is leave us with the same question we had before.

What will we put on the walls now?

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. Contact him by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: European Court of Human Rights

Geographic location: Utrecht, Netherlands, Bilthoven Holland Amsterdam Europe U.S. Canada Germany France Paris

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