In recent years, there have been calls throughout North America to remove statues of men from earlier eras. The latest example was the decision of the City Council in Victoria, B.C., to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. (City Council is now considering re-erecting the statue in a different place.) The argument was that the statue was offensive to First Nations people because of Macdonald’s role in setting up the residential school system and that removing the statue would help achieve reconciliation with First Nations people. This has been followed by incidents of vandalism against other statues of Macdonald across the country as well as calls to remove those statues.
The statue in Victoria was set up partly because Macdonald, a Prime Minister from Ontario, chose to run for a parliamentary seat in Victoria, a move that symbolized national unity. Macdonald was also honoured for his role in bringing British Columbia into confederation and making Canada a nation that stretched from sea to sea. Of course, First Nations people are not happy about honouring that development either.
The recent calls to remove various statues have most often come from people on the left of the political spectrum wanting to remove statues of people on the right of the political spectrum. Critics have pointed out that there are statues to men on the left of the political spectrum that are offensive to people on the right. Many of those who want the statues of Macdonald removed are the same people who encouraged the erection of a statue of Louis Riel, who led a rebellion against the extension of Canada across the continent. It is shortsighted to suggest that one side has all right on its side and deserves a monopoly on statues. If statues can be removed because someone objects, pretty soon there may be no statues left standing at all.
Of course, removing statues is not unique to North America. Around the world, statues of former dictators are routinely removed by the revolutionaries who overthrew them.
What is lost in the argument is why we erect statues in the first place and whether we should do it at all.
Statues are usually erected to honour the achievements of certain individuals. Why it is primarily the achievements of politicians and soldiers (usually males) that are so honoured is a question for another time perhaps. But that suggests exactly why there are calls to remove statues. No politician has ever been elected with 100 percent of the vote, and if a politician has supporters, he inevitably also has opponents. The same is true for military men immortalized by statues. They have been honoured for their military victories, but victories mean that there were also losers, and the descendants of those who were defeated are understandably opposed to celebrating that event with a statue. As attitudes evolve, yesterdays’ heroes become today’s villains—and yesterday’s villains become today’s heroes.
Looking back in history, back much farther than Macdonald, originally statues were more often erected to honour gods. (However, it should be noted that in Exodus 20:4 the God of the Bible forbade the practice on the ground that no statue could do justice to the greatness, glory, and ongoing creativity of the living God. Such statues would fall so far short of the reality as to be insulting.) Later on, statues were also erected by political and military rulers who claimed to be gods, including King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Egyptian pharaohs, and many Roman emperors. The practice has been copied by modern dictators, including the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union and North Korea.
So, why do we now erect statues to human beings? To honour their achievements, of course. That is what we say. Or is it to “immortalize” them, make them immortal, worship them? The problem with such statues is that all human beings have flaws, failings, and blind spots. Some have achieved great things in some areas, while failing dismally in others. The statues are usually erected by supporters and followers of great leaders in order to honour their achievements—and perhaps also to deny their failures. But no matter how great the achievements, others can point to the failings and weaknesses.
Every human being has strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, virtues and sins. Maybe the truth is that no human being deserves to be honoured by a statue. None are gods worthy of worship.