Clash of Symbols

SJF • Epiphany 7b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
Over the last weeks you can’t have helped but to hear of the violent reactions to political cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper, and since widely reprinted. The violence in response to these cartoons has led to considerable property damage and even the loss of several lives. Some American and European critics — including many Muslims — have noted that the rioters are only ratifying the accusation of one of the cartoons, the one showing the Prophet’s head as if it were a bomb.

But before we Christians in American become too comfortable upon our high horses, clucking our tongues at what many see as the over-reactions of religious extremists, we would do well first to recall how we behave when our own cherished symbols are abused or defamed.

It is no secret that Americans react strongly to the burning of the American flag, and some support legal restrictions to defend this symbol as if it were more than fabric — as if it were the fabric of our country itself.

Or you may recall the to-do not so many years ago when a figure of a crucified woman was exhibited in the Cathedral as part of the UN Decade of the Woman — not as a religious symbol but as a metaphor for the depth of suffering women have endured down through the ages. This sculpture — which was not in a chapel but in an art exhibit — was denounced by some as blasphemous and monstrous.

New Yorkers don’t have to go very far to find something blasphemous if they want to — you may recall the offensive photograph of a crucifix in jar of human waste that was put on display in a deliberately provocative exhibit in lower Manhattan, or the painting of the Madonna daubed with elephant dung that hung in the Brooklyn Museum, and the outrage and protests that followed — not as violent as those against the Danish embassies, but just as angry.

Symbols are powerful, even if their power derives only from our own desire to honor them, or be disturbed at their dishonor. But when we give them this power, and react in this way, do we not come perilously close to violating the purpose for which the law against such images and symbols was given? When God spoke from Sinai and said that we were not to make graven images, it was to the end that they not become the objects of worship. God said, “You shall not make graven images; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.”

So when the Muslim rages at the insult to an image of the Prophet, when the patriot protests the burning of the flag, when the Christian seethes at the sight of a sacred symbol defaced or defamed, have these things not become, to some extent, idols?


As you know, I am an iconographer, in my spare time — which I don’t have much of these days! I find it a helpful devotion to “write” icons in the time-honored technique of tempered pigment on a wood and plaster base, and we have a number of them here in the church. In our day we tend to take such sacred images for granted. But in the eighth century, there was a protest against such icons, in which the “iconoclasts” (as they were called) argued that such images were idols. The defenders of the icons said that they were reminders of the truly holy — and that the honor paid to them was not intended for the wood and pigment, but for the one who was represented by these physical means. Any honor given to the icon was transferred to the person portrayed in it.

And therein lies the connection: the symbol is the transmitter of honor to the thing symbolized. And so it is the same with dishonor. This is part of the reason so many are so upset about the abuse of such images of the Prophet, the nation, or of God, for the insult to the thing of paper, wood or cloth is somehow transferred to the sacred reality which cannot be portrayed.

But might it not be even worse? When anger steps up to rage, when disagreement flares to violence — is this telling us that there is more at work? Is it a dangerous overstepping into a twisted form worship — have these physical representations themselves become so sacred that we dare not offer them an insult, or tolerate anyone else doing so? Have they indeed become idols?


In his novel, Silence, the Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo describes the terrible era of religious persecution in feudal Japan. The Shogun had invited Christians into the country, but as this new religion began to take hold, he began to be see it asapolitical threat, and instituted a vicious crackdown, including the torture and crucifixion of many Christians. In the novel, a Portuguese priest is forced to make a terrible decision. In order to prevent further torture and execution of the converts in his flock, the magistrate demands that the priest, the leader of that congregation, publicly defame an image of Christ. A bronze plaque is nailed to a piece of wood, expressly designed and created for this purpose — to show one has abandoned the faith by trampling upon it. If the priest does this, it will destroy his authority in the community. But if he does this, the magistrate tells him, the flock will go free, and those who have been tortured will be given medicine for their wounds. If not, they will continue to be tortured and crucified.

As the priest gazes on this image of Christ lying at his feet, he weighs the matter in his heart and mind. Should he do this to save their lives? He looks into the eyes of the bronze image. It is not beautiful as conventional beauty goes: it is the ugly and tortured face of the crucified Christ, the one who bears the sins of the world. He regards it in all of its vulnerability, until finally he chooses to save the flock at the cost of his own position as a leader, even as a Christian. As Endo puts it:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Who is our God? What is our nation? Who are our prophets? If they cannot bear an insult — or if we cannot bear the insults given to their shadows, their images in paper, wood, and paint — are they what they seem to be, and are we? Have they become idols and we idolaters indeed?

God in Christ bears the shame heaped upon him by those who know not what they do; God in Christ bears the pain inflicted upon all of his images — not just the ones of wood and bronze, of pigment and plaster and paint, but the truly important ones, the true likenesses, the ones of flesh and blood: the brothers and sisters demeaned and defamed day by day in this fallen world of idols. As we do it to the least of them, we do it to the one whose image they bear.

For we have not worshiped him as we ought to have — giving thanks for all he gives, the flowing springs and the food in due season, which we humans are too self-obsessed, to caught up in our own idolatries, to appreciate. We have not brought him our offerings, but rather continue to burden him with our sins, wearying him with our iniquities. When we see healing and forgiveness come from an unlikely quarter to someone we might think not worthy, we cry out, “It is blasphemy!” as readily as we do when things don’t go our way, or when our cherished idols are insulted.

Yet he bears it all — he who has the power to forgive all of our sins because he bears all of our sins. He blots out our transgressions for his own sake, and no longer remembers our sins any more. He bears it all, saying to us, “Trample — for this is what I came to do, to bear the sins of humankind, who know not what they do.”

Such is the sacrifice and love of God, that he allows us to tread and trample in our ignorance and in our folly. He will bear with us when we err, and forgive us when we sin, and free us from the paralysis that binds us.


He has done this, and he will do it. His capacity to forgive far exceeds our capacity to sin. But need we put him to this test? How much better, dear sisters and brothers, how much better to live as he would have us live, to give our God some rest from the need constantly to suffer, some respite from the sins that make him mourn: to respect and reverence one another — to hold dear the precious images of God who surround us everywhere we turn, the men and women and children who are the members of God’s family, and treat them as God would have us do. How much better to respect one another’s traditions and beliefs — to challenge them if we must, but with humility and in the knowledge that we too make mistakes.

As it took four strong friends to carry that paralyzed man and let him down through the roof, we too need each other to find the way to the healing that is offered, to free us from the paralysis that binds us to our dearest idols. Let us work together, friends, ripping off the roof if need be, to do God’s will in this as in all else. May God help us to turn from wrong and insult, from clinging to idols towards mutual respect for God’s true likeness in each other, in forbearance and righteousness. When in the power of Godthis healing comes, all will rejoice and glorify God, and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”