The significance of statues

(Photo: Unsplash/Donovan Reeves)

Statues of dead people have again become the targets of those expressing their anger against what they stood for in life.

We could have saved ourselves a lot of bother if the rest of the country was more like South Cumbria - just not having many statues in the first place. The non-conformist Christian tradition of the Lakes meant that the iconography, pride and boastfulness associated with statues was something our ancestors eschewed.

How wise they were!

I'm not comfortable honouring those whose wealth and worth were tied up in the misery and humiliation of others. I'm also not comfortable with crowds of people taking matters into their own hands to take down those statues they're not comfortable with.

Why do we seek to immortalise those we approve of, and why do we still feel the need to honour people in metal or stone on public plinths in the 21st century.

In the ancient world, statues were often built to represent power. Roman emperors ordered (often idealized versions of) their likenesses to be displayed in far flung corners of the empire to show the locals who was in charge. Similarly, Queen Victoria's statues were erected across India as a proxy for her royal presence, which never physically ventured there during her long reign.

Today town squares and public spaces in the UK are still full of statues of men (and it is almost always men) of influence from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; often colonial heroes; always the winners of their day. But nobody remembers most of these men. They gaze down at us with nothing but a name to commemorate them; no historical plaque or background information. And when we find out a bit about them, it is inevitable that we may dislike what they believed or the way in which they treated others in their time.

And although we have many other ways to publicly honour people, we still choose to immortalise them in statuary today, presumably in the knowledge that they will in their turn be torn down by future generations.

What is it that makes us seek immortality? In today's culture where we only believe in this one life, we are keen to feel that we have done worthwhile things that others will want to remember. If we do not leave a legacy of our worth, what has been the point of our existence?

To be honest, I don't tend to notice most of the statues I walk past. However, there are a few that always bring a smile to my face. Jack Walker at Ewood Park, the late owner of Blackburn Rovers; the potter Josiah Wedgwood outside the railway station in Stoke-on-Trent, who was a relative of mine; and – perhaps my favourite – the comic genius Frank Sidebottom in Timperley. I hope nobody will be tearing them down soon as they all bring me a little bit of joy.

But quite frankly, most of us are not going to be remembered with a statue. Even someone who has reached the dizzy heights of Leader of the Liberal Democrats doesn't really expect to be memorialised for eternity in this way. Our days are fleeting, the Psalmist reminds us, and so are the memories of our deeds: "The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more". (Psalm 103: 15-16)

As pastor Tim Keller points out, most of us can't even name our own great great grandparents. And if we don't remember our own direct ancestors, who else is going to? Indeed, it doesn't always need someone to be long dead to be forgotten! I remember when I was first elected to Parliament in 2005, I took a group of young students from my constituency on a tour of the Palace of Westminster. At one point I was distracted by the (real life) appearance of Geoffrey Howe. One of the girls in the group asked me who he was, and I told her, adding: "He brought down Margaret Thatcher!" She turned to me and asked, "who's Margaret Thatcher?"

And what about those who were never honoured for the good they did? History generally only ever records the deeds of the prominent and the powerful. What of the wives and servants of those great men, who took charge of their homes and their children and allowed them the time and space to achieve public acclaim? What of the school teachers and health workers and church ministers who diligently tended to the needs of those in their care? Does it make someone less worthy if their years of quiet service in their community is never brought to the notice of those on the local statue committee?

The spirit of our age means that we are defined today almost entirely by what we do, and Christians can easily be caught up in the idea that our worth is given to us by what we achieve in the world's eyes. If we lose our job – as many people have during this awful time of coronavirus – or feel that we have failed at something, it can seriously affect our self esteem and our perception of our own value.

But as Christians we need to remember that there is One who knows all that we do. We do not need to prove our value to Him. He has bestowed upon us the highest worth: by making us in His image and adopting us as His children. We can be secure in who we are in His eyes, and know that He sees our attitudes and treatment of others and the depths of our hearts, without anyone needing to put us on a plinth; or to knock us off.

Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Views and opinions published in Christian Today are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.