The Smashers Are Back – Lord Have Mercy

Prophet-Younus-Grave-DestroyedThe Smashers are back.

The news is carrying photos of the wanton destruction being wrought in the Middle East by ISIS. Churches, Mosques, and human beings are being subjected to a new round of destruction at the hands of one of the most iconoclastic groups to have risen in the past century. One of their leaders has even vowed to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca if they succeed in conquering Saudi Arabia. There is nothing new in any of this other than the current success it enjoys in its region.

The smashing of images is demonic at its heart. For our adversary hates beauty, hates humanity in particular and thus hates the image of God par excellence. It is ironic that this smashing is frequently empowered by the thought that it is being done in the name of God. Only the invocation of an ultimate value has the energy to drive such destruction. But it is vortex of evil that would ultimately draw all beauty into its maw. The following thoughts have been published before – but they remain so apropos that reflecting on them again is worth the trouble. May God have mercy on us and protect his children from the clutches of the image smashers.

We have toĀ renounceĀ iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth isĀ eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern manā€™s imagination.

There is a strange spirit ofĀ iconoclasmĀ (the Greek for “icon smashing”) and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

The icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.

In Christian history the first recorded outbreak of iconoclasm was the period that gave the phenomenon the name – during the mid-Byzantine Empire. Like later incarnations of this spirit of destruction, the icons themselves were only one thing to be destroyed – those who sought to explain and defend them became objects of destruction as well. Thus we have the martyrs of the Iconoclast Heresy.

During the Protestant Reformation iconoclasm was a frequent traveler with the general theological reform itself. Thus statues, relics, furniture – all became objects of destruction (as well as people). Some of this was state sponsored (as was the original iconoclastic period). The logic of iconoclasm, however, cannot always be confined. Thus in the Reformation the logic of reform moved from destruction of images to destruction of the state (which was itself an icon of sorts). In Germany the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, which became so dangerous to the powers that be that even Martin Luther had to denounce it and bless the state’s bloody intervention.

In England the Reform that was first put in place by the state remained unsteady for over a hundred years. Eventually, the Puritan Reform (that only took the logic of Reform to its next step) began to smash images, behead kings, outlaw bishops, outlaw holidays, outlaw dancing (they were a fun lot). For ten years England was ruled by a bloody dictatorship that was as ruthless in its iconoclasm as any regime in history.

One of the difficulties of iconoclasm is its appeal to the idea of God. Images are smashed because they are considered an affront to God. And not just images, but certain ideas are smashed (burn the books and those who wrote them). There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.

I do not write about iconoclasm entirely from the outside. I’ve been there – done that. The verse of Scripture that seemed most “iconoclastic” to me was in 2 Cor. (10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfareĀ areĀ not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

Of course, the verse is referring to sinful thoughts and uses (as is not unusual in St. Paul) martial imagery. That same imagery applied to the governing of a state (or a Church) can be quite dangerous. It is useful in the spiritual life, provided it is well-directed by a mature and generous guide.

The plain truth of the matter is that God is anĀ icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The same God who gave the commandment to make no graven images, also commanded the making of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the images of angels woven in the curtain of the Tabernacle. He commanded the making of the image of the serpent, lifted on a staff, that brought healing to all who looked on it (an Old Testament prefigurement of the crucified Christ).

In the better than 16 years or more thatĀ I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my retired Archbishop), I have heard him warn repeatedly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

There is a restraint that is inherently involved in offering honor. Orthodox Christian living requires that we know how to worship God with what is due to Him alone, but at the same time to know how to honor those things that are honorable without giving them what belong to God alone. It is easy to say “give honor to God alone,” but this is contrary to the Scriptures in which we are told to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7 and also see Romans 12:10). We cannot honor God by destroying the very images He has created (and here I include the saints who could not be what they are but by God’s grace).

There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger. Without them destruction would not be so easy. But it is also the case that such spirits are not of God – though they are easily attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance. Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction. It is easy to declare that all days are the same and that no days should be considered holier than others. It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors – as did every last human being. If the Church has blessed a day and made it to be a day on which an action of Christ or an event in His life, or a saint of the Church is to be honored and remembered, then it is acting well within the Divine authority given it in Scripture (Matt. 18:18).

More importantly, we will grow more surely into the image of Christ by imitating his actions and learning to build up rather than to smash. Giving place to anger and the spirit of iconoclasm, in all its various guises, has never produced saints – but only destruction that has to eventually give way to something more sane. It is interesting that the Puritan reign in New England (as a matter of historical fact) was, by its third generation, weakening and looking for something different. The “Great Revivals” that swept through those places did not leave a lasting religious legacy other than the cults that sprang out of the “burnt-over district” in Upstate New York, and a growing secularization that sought freedom from the iconoclastic regime of its ancestors. Our modern American world is an inheritor of that secularization.

The only image that needs to be discarded is the one we have of ourselves as God. We are not Him. Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due.


  1. Thank you for this post! ISIS claims to follow God, but in reality they ignore God by disrespecting His creation. As someone who studies Islam, and as a Christian currently exploring Orthodoxy, I respect the way in which many Orthodox leaders are critiquing these extremists without denigrating Islam as a whole. The persecution of Christians in the Mideast is a serious issue and there are many Muslims living there that are our allies. We must reach out to them in order to defeat these vile forces.

  2. When I homeschooled, the text books we used lauded the iconoclasts as heroes (they were either produced by A Beka or Bob Jones University). It wasn’t until a few years ago that I unlearned that lie. But it serves as a good reminder that iconoclasts are not our enemies, the evil one is. Most iconoclasts are simply misinformed, and sometimes with a bit of compassionate discussion, will come around to the truth.

  3. We have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity.

    Islam is purposely, intentionally and fundamentally iconoclastic. While some will allow images of Jesus and Mary, no others are allowed.

    A discernment must be made and kept in the heart between the teachings of the faith and the people to be sure. God’s grace is everywhere and there are those who find it in the most vile of places (as I find it in my darkened heart).

    Still, one needs to become familiar with the work and mission of Father Zakaria Botros and Egyptian Coptic priest who has been so successful in bring Muslim’s to Christ, he has a multi-million dollar price on his head. The Islamic powers that be want to smash his face too. For his part, he minces no words concerning the nature of Islam and its prophet.

    Since Christianity is anything but iconoclastic, those who proclaim iconoclasm while saying they are Christian are partaking of an heretical belief. If they can be brought to the truth with gentle persuasion that is a wonderful thing. You don’t ‘root out heresy’ by condemning each person who holds some form of heretical views. There would be few, if any left.

    However to just say that it is the devil that is our enemy is too vague IMO. Each heresy is a unique and deadly poison. Each must be named and identified and explained. Repentance requires specificity. Jesus Christ and His life in the Church is the antidote but we often have to have the correct specific antidote.

    I know because before the Church, I was indoctrinated in many heresy’s (may God forgive all). By reading about the heretical tenants and comparing them to the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church while repenting, healing began. God is merciful.

  4. Fr. Stephen
    I heard yesterday that ISIS or its allies took sledge hammers to the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. They have also destroyed a dozen Shia mosques and shrines in Mosul. Lord have mercy on us all!

  5. Excellent article Father. Ironic also is this destruction comes at least partly funded and trained of the secular US Govt, CIA and State Dept. In their lust for their own World Hegemony (utopia?) they despise the True Christian Faith with a vengeance — the Orthodox Church. Do not offer up you sons to kill and destroy for them. Lord have mercy.

  6. Just to clarify, Islam does indeed have certain strong strains of iconoclasm, yet there is still a rich, rich tradition, especially in Shi’ism, of portraying Muhammad and other Muslim figures. I know several Muslims personally who proudly display a portrait of Muhammad in their homes. And of course, one cannot discount the beautiful tradition of miniatures found in the Ottoman empire. Art has always had a place in Muslim society.

  7. Fr. Stephen, your discussion of iconoclasm in non-Christian contexts (like China’s cultural revolution) makes me wonder about Christian destruction of non-Christian holy places, images, books etc. at various points in history. Could we understand (and condemn) this as a kind of iconoclasm too?

  8. BL
    I was thinking about this earlier today. There is, of course, the Deuteronomic Reforms of Josiah in the OT that did a fair amount of smashing. And there are certainly a number of occasions under Byzantium when pagan shrines were destroyed. It’s a legitimate question to ask.

    I think it’s always difficult when we read the present into the past – but I think Orthodox awareness, not only of icons, but of all images and art was slow to be articulated. And there are saints associated with the smashing of some pagan shrines. I cannot judge a saint. That is in the hands of God.

    But I would stand put on what I have written regarding the smashing of images, and would probably defend a statue of Buddha as quickly as I would any icon. If only because smashing yours endangers mine. St. John Chrysostom said that conversion by force was a very terrible sin. I would put the smashing of others people’s images in the same category.

    There is a matter of discernment here as well. We are right to ask what is up with ISIS’s iconoclasm. They smash human beings as easily as they do images. They are the most dangerous kind of iconoclasts – and as I noted – by no means the first. They are a danger within Islam itself. I am no friend of Islam and find it to have rarely if ever been a friend of Christians. But I’m willing to take a slow road on all those questions. For the time being, I would certainly like to see this group stopped, by whomever.

    There are many forms of iconoclasm. Our culture frequently uses the term “iconoclast” in a positive way – as a sort of synonym for “avant garde”. The smashers of culture have a story about themselves that they have been in the vanguard of human liberation. I think they are leading themselves into slavery repeatedly and will eventually destroy us all.

  9. Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for the reply. My thoughts were also connecting these questions to your post from the other day about Lewis, Tolkien, and myth. If pagan myths can have some element of truth in them — even if not the fulness of the truth found in Orthodoxy — perhaps non-Christian images can be seen similarly?

    I’m a graduate student in a classics department focusing mostly on the study of ancient religion, and I was enrolled as a catechumen fairly recently. As things have gone, I’ve been finding my academic and church worlds increasingly — and sometimes rather entertainingly — intersecting.

    So one of the questions I’ve been thinking a lot about lately (and have basically managed to make one of my candidacy fields) is the early Christian / Orthodox reaction to and, in many cases, integration of classical (pagan) literature, religious practice, and culture — which, at least in my mind, is a related question. And your comment that “It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors ā€“ as did every last human being,” ties into this as well.

    In thinking about how all these things fit together, I keep coming back to the thought that, from an Orthodox perspective, it seems to me that the lens through looking at these questions must ultimately be that of the Incarnation, and its sanctification of matter, humanity, etc.

    Which, perhaps, means that though I have a long ways to go, I am learning…

  10. Having studied missiology both before and during my time as a missionary, we came across story after story of God preparing a people through pagan rites to finally arrive at the understanding that Jesus is the God they were looking for all along. God doesn’t waste anything and he builds on what has existed as man searches for God.

    The Christian Church was built upon the foundations of Judaism. Paul’s conversion was built upon his passion for defending the Truth as he saw it. Paul arrives in Athens and sees an altar dedicated to an unknown god, and tells the people that this makes him realize that they are a religious people. He then begins to tell them about a known God.

    God takes us where we are and leads us to something better.
    He is a true economist.

  11. I don’t think one can revere icons on the one hand and condone their destruction on the other. I would think that if your brand of icons are what you claim, then the power of competing icon brands would be less, making their destruction a moot point.
    Let’s be frank. The real issue here is the church acting like any secular worldly empire, imposing its will by force. And that is what it did, being a key part of the secular Roman Empire.
    I pray to God that Christianity, East and West, has moved beyond that. Yet, at times I wonder.

  12. Being a bit of a contrarian let say that at least some of the early Christian smashing of pagan idols was due to the perception that the pagan icons were connected to demons. Icons of evil as it were. In the “Lives of the Apostles” I have read such activity is frequent. A bit like the virtuous sheriff shooting down the evil gun-slinger in Western stories. Still…..

    If matter can be made holy by the grace of the Holy Spirit can it be contaminated by the activity of demons and so associated with them that it is nearly impossible to break that tie?

    Isn’t the first task of a bishop upon encountering a weeping icon to rebuke satan and the demons to see if the weeping stops? I do wonder what would happen next if the weeping suddenly stopped.

    My own very limited experience has taught me that there are some artifacts (if not icons) that it is better to destroy as their link to evil/delusion is too strong. However, I also realize that the demons can latch on to the impulse to destroy and turn it in their direction quite easily. That is, after all, their purpose–to destroy. Because of that, I came to the conclusion that the act of destruction, should it occur, needs to be done in a very limited, controlled way with sorrow and repentance, not righteous indignation and triumph.

  13. Dallas,
    I think I agreed that condoning the smashing of others’ images was wrong. I think your take on “secular” Roman empire and Church history is a bit too facile and simplistic. It is anachronistic to describe the Roman Empire as “secular” – it never was – the state was an inherently religious institution. The secular state is a thoroughly modern invention and a thoroughly modern concept.

    If you are going to comment on someone else’s culture (Christians of the Byzantine period) then you have to at least grant them the respect due to having a different cultural concept. We would do as much for any non-Christian civilization.

    But, it is worth noting, that not a single jot or tittle of pagan thought or learning – whether poetry, history, science, philosophy, religion, etc. from the period pre-dating the Church – would exist today had it not been copied by hand repeatedly by Christian monks. All of it. Christians treated all of that as a great treasure and spent their lives, labor and fortune to preserve it.

    The same goes for those extant examples of pagan statuary, etc., most of which would still be intact had they not been smashed by invading Muslims. There are also vast libraries of material that no longer exist because they were destroyed in some of the initial and most radical incursions of the Islamic onslaught.

    Christians died to preserve all that we still know about pagan civilization. All of it. It is worth meditating on.

  14. “But that which is made with hands [idols} is cursed, as well as he that made it: he, because he made it; and it, because, being corruptible, it was called god. For the ungodly and his ungodliness are both alike hateful unto God.
    For that which is made shall be punished together with him that made it. Therefore even upon the idols of the Gentiles shall there be a visitation: because in the creature of God they are become an abomination, and stumblingblocks to the souls of men, and a snare to the feet of the unwise. For the devising of idols was the beginning of spiritual fornication, and the invention of them the corruption of life.”

    -Wisdom of Solomon

    This passage, it would seem, speaks to intimate interpenetration of the material and spiritual realms. I wouldn’t have an idol within my sphere of influence (my home, office, etc.), even as an interesting historical artifact; but neither is it my task, generally speaking, to accomplish the “visitation.”

    When our parish purchased the building of an EXTREMELY heretical sect, the ‘icons’ (idols) that they left behind were thoroughly destroyed with some degree of relish – and probably rightly so since, as part of the creation, the building was in the process of being re-oriented to the truth of its existence as the creation of God. But in general Michael is correct in my opinion. It should be done in a spirit of repentance. I’m not sure I have the ability to phrase this appropriately, but part of repentence is helping creation itself, as its priests, to be what it is, what it was created to be.

  15. You’re right, Fr., it was too facile and simplistic a comment. You’re also correct that Rome was a polytheistic empire, at least until 380.

    Meditate I will.


  16. It has occurred to me that a subtler but arguably just as damaging iconoclasm has been going on in the US for some time (and well before the advent of the current administration, which some seem to blame exclusively for every evil development). I refer to the efforts of secular feminism and the homosexual rights movement, with the encouragement of the corporate culture, to destroy the icons of male and female sexual differentiation, marriage and the traditional family, the latter being an indispensable icon of the Kingdom of God.

  17. Joe, its been going on since the iconoclast 60’s. Look at Michael Jackson. It is said his face started out as a black man’s and ended up a white woman’s. Plus his blending of adult and child.

    You are right.

  18. Joe, I think you are taking the imputation of iconoclasm way too far: male and female differentiation are not icons, that smacks of fertility rites, not Christianity. Orthodoxy believes the divine image resides whole in both man and woman. It is furthermore celibacy, not ‘the traditional family life’ that our Lord and his apostles extolled as a sign of his coming Kingdom. Dislike gay people and feminists all you want, I’ll even honour your belief that gay sex is sin, but try to back your assertion that the ‘traditional family is an indispensable icon of the Kingdom of God’ from the Gospels or the Fathers, at least.

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