Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Statues and Heroes

Statues and Heroes

Why do our heroes always let us down?

Hello again. 

It’s Tony’s turn to be sick this week, so you’ll have to put up with just me speaking to you—about the subject of statues and heroes. 

I look forward to reading your comments and questions (and to having Tony back next week). 


Why do we have statues? Have you ever pondered it? 

Statues honour great people, or at least somebody thinks that they were great people. Sometimes, just because they're very wealthy, people have a statue made of themselves.

We have statues in parks and in public places to remember and memorialize the contribution certain people have made—kings and rulers and governors, but also sponsors or initiators of great movements or achievements. 

When you see a statue, it brings this person of history back into the present. Sometimes it introduces you to somebody or what they've done. Somebody showed me, for example, the statue of Francis Ormond, which  stands before the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He was its founder, and also a fine Christian man; a Presbyterian who did many great things in life. I’d heard of Ormond College, but knew nothing of Francis Ormond. 

Or the statue of La Trobe in Melbourne. He was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria and again a keen Christian man. La Trobe got two statues–one in a traditional style, characteristic in his uniform, but in the other one he's actually upside down. It was not necessarily disrespectful to La Trobe himself, but rather a shot at the whole concept of putting statues of famous men on pedestals in parks.

We tend to make these statues larger than life. They are usually standing proud and victorious, godlike. It's like the statues of gods that are used by people for worship. The statues are usually heroic in style, although sometimes their subjects were just rich, and some from ill-gotten gains. But these statues are also of people who have made a big impact in society, the heroes of our culture and civilization. 

But then that raises my second question: what is a hero? Is it somebody we admire for courage, or for certain achievements, or for notable qualities? 

Some of our sporting heroes aren’t really heroes; so many footballers seem to be disreputable, and anything but noble in character. We've had a terrible case here in the courts of Australia recently concerning a man who was awarded our highest military honour (the Victoria Cross) because of his action of great bravery war, but who has now been credibly accused of doing very bad things in the war, such that some people would even say that he is a war criminal. Can the brave actions that deserve a medal establish the person as a hero, when other actions undermine the character of the person?

Can you be a hero with a very flawed character? Is a hero someone who acts heroically, or is it also about character and integrity? The hero status, of course, is challenged when we remove statues, for our history moves on, and how we value people moves on. Soldiers, statesmen, and slave owners have all had their statues pulled down around the world in different places. In their own generation they were thought of as great heroes for whom statues were made, but now, as we find out more about them, and as our value systems change, people no longer want to see their statues and no longer want them to be honored in society.

It’s complicated. Take the history of eugenics and racism, for example. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was a matter of great importance in the academic world (that is, the study of how to manage and manipulate human reproduction so as to produce more desirable characteristics in the population). But the racism that was inherent in eugenics and its subsequent adoption by the Nazis has now made it really totally unacceptable as a field study. Professor Richard Berry was an anatomist and a racist eugenicist. A building was named after him at the University of Melbourne, because he worked there in the middle of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. But the building has now been renamed. We don't want to honour him, and so we’ve removed the reference to him. But is that what we should do? By removing this reference to him, are we actually forgetting or censoring our history? Will Melbourne University (and its anatomy department) be able to go on as if it was never used for eugenics research? 

Or take the great statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum in London. It's in a dominant place halfway up the staircase. The Natural History Museum was built by a man called Richard Owen, who disagreed with Darwin, and the statue of Darwin was placed there after the museum was opened in 1885. But after Owen died (not many years later), the statue of Darwin was removed and a statue of Owen put in its place. And there it remained until 2009, when the statue of Darwin was put back, and the statue of Owen removed. It's got to do with politics, and the ideology of whom we think is the more important person to be profiled and honoured. 

However, according to Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker by AN Wilson, Darwin was a racist, and in his grudging acceptance of eugenics gave the green light to Galton and others who pushed further into eugenics—for it was out of Darwinian ideas and theory that eugenics was developed. Darwin’s own racism was clear. As you read his own books, for example, The Descent of Man, it’s astonishing to see how freely he called Australian aborigines (amongst other people) savages–a word that we would never think of using today. Was Darwin right? Were the Australian aborigines savages? If so, our attempts to acknowledge the bad things that we have done to them over the last 200 years will need some rethinking. Or if they weren’t and aren’t savages, we need to seriously reassess Darwin and his terribly racists ideas. 

We could say the same about the heroes of the sexual revolution. James Franklin has written a very interesting book, Corrupting the youth: A history of philosophy in Australia, in which he exposes many of the philosophers as being people who did corrupt the youth of Sydney. He writes about the famous Professor John Anderson of the University of Sydney—someone whom I've disagreed with as a great leader of atheism, but whom I always respected as intellectual. However, Anderson is shown in the book to be a man whose own personal life in relation to one of his students, Ruth Walker, was very questionable. If those things happened in a university context today, he would be immediately dismissed.

And of course, the crowd that followed Anderson—‘the Push’, as they were called in Sydney—contained many cultural heroes of the past 50 years (Clive James, Richard Neville, Germaine Greer, and so on). Yet now we know that many of their lives were anything but honourable. Richard Neville boasted of his sex with an underage girl, and created a program advocating “man-boy love” on the ABC—and the ABC defended him for doing it. 

The same could be said of the great French intellectual Michel Foucault, who defended (and possibly practised) pedophilia. Or take the dreadful case of Dorothy Hewitt, who was awarded the Order of Australia for her contribution as a playwright. It has now emerged that the way she raised her daughters exposed them to terrible and exploitative sexual harm.

This sort of degeneracy would lead us to remove these people—their statues, their awards, their fame, their reputation. And yet, it's only certain people that seem to get ‘cancelled’. Hypocrisy is a dreadful and evil thing. But hypocrisy is not as bad as degeneracy. The hypocrite can be called to account because the hypocrite still has a moral universe. He is just preaching one thing and practising another. But the degenerate doesn't have a moral universe and can never be called to account. Yes, within Christianity, there have been terrible hypocrites. But within atheism, there's no hypocrisy, for all immorality is done away with and so there is nothing to call people to account for. 

The problem really comes from the category of hero. What is it that we really want from our heroes? 

The Bible has a much clearer understanding of human nature than our hero worship and our statues—because the Bible sees all. It knows and sees what wise people everywhere have seen, that there are no heroes without flaws. That's why it's so difficult to write a story about a hero or heroine who is always only good. It doesn’t seem real. Heroes and heroines have to have flaws to be believable, because in real life, all heroes have flaws.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that very famous, quotable quote: “… the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” 

That is such a biblical, such a Christian understanding. The problem of evil is your problem and my problem, not God's problem. It's our problem that we all are tainted by sinfulness. The hypocrite judges others and has a log in his own eye, as Jesus would put it, but he's trying to remove the speck from his brother's eye. In that passage that people love so much, John 8, where Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin, throw the first stone”, we know that none of us could throw a stone at the other without hypocrisy. But our job is not to judge others; our job is to love others. And so when we see our brother in sin, it's not for us to judge. It's not for us to condemn. “If anyone is caught in a transgression, you who are spiritual, should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” This is what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6. We must bear each other's burdens, not criticize each other; we must seek to help each other, not seek to put each other down.

A right understanding of humanity and sin would possibly lead us not to put any statues up at all, since we know all heroes are sinful and flawed. Or it might lead us not to pull statues down when we discover the sinfulness of the person, because we know that all of us are sinners. 

And of course, it would lead us to lionize and honour and exalt the one hero without flaws—the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrections means that any and every sin is forgivable when we turn to him.

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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