I teach a class at my church called ‘Spiritual Practices.’ Every week we explore historic Christian worship practices and discuss how we can incorporate them into our lives. This week we’ll be discussing icons.
Icons have been around for literally thousands of years. It’s no coincidence that in a largely illiterate culture images played an important role in relaying the gospel. As time progressed Iconography began to develop its own set of rules. Lighting, color use, facial expression, dimension etc were all laid out.
The rules for icons have allowed them to endure as objects firmly rooted in church tradition. They seem frozen in time and stand outside of other forms of visual art. It’s actually their otherness that makes them powerful for worship. The strangeness of the icon draws the worshipper in.
As I studied icons I couldn’t help but wonder if there are other icons. There’s no doubt, and the endurance of icons testifies to this, that images have power. The prison images from Abu Garabe prison in Iraq shook the world. Images of children burned by napalm in Vietnam, sparked outrage. The pictures of Pope John Paul II forgiving the man that shot him, or images of Martin Luther King Jr. marching have the power to inspire and provoke. Are these images icons?
They don’t share any of the characteristics of the historic orthodox icons, nor do they explicitly say anything “Christian,” but there’s something about them that strikes a chord with everyone who sees them. Wherever one stands on the particular issue being addressed in the picture (religion, politics, forgiveness etc), one does not leave the encounter unchanged. It’s almost as if powerful images carve out a space for the person witnessing them to make a choice.
One of the letters in the New Testament, the letter called ‘James,’ says that anyone that listens to the “word,” (the gospel) and does not do what it says, is like a person that looks in a mirror, but forgets what they look like. I think this is why art is so dangerous. Once you’ve heard something, seen something, witnessed something, or encountered it, you cannot live as though it does not exist. It’s in those moments that we decide what kind of people we are and what kind of people we will become.
This Pulitzer Prize winning photo is an example:
This photo makes me uncomfortable. It challenges the story I tell myself about who I am. This child lives in such horrible conditions that she will likely be vulture food. How can I continue to sit and over consume in light of this image? Will I change and work so that pictures like this do not have to be taken? Or will I forget what I have seen about the world in this photo which is a mirror to the world humanity has created? What will I choose?
I write about this, because one of the most moving encounters that I have had with Jesus came as a result of a photograph.
In China, you cannot Google search “June 4, 1989,” or “May 35th” (code for June 4th), You cannot search Tiananmen Square protest. Why?
One June 4, 1989 a group of people: students, mothers, children, and factory workers poured into the square to protest their government. The square itself is an ironic choice for such a protest. The square was literally built to be so big that it would dwarf anyone standing there. It’s designed to make a person feel small in relation to the state. On June 4th, however, the state shrunk dramatically in proportion to the protests of the Chinese people. As the nonviolent protest proceeded the government sent the military in to break it up. The initial waves of police and military did not deter the crowd and eventually tanks and artillery were called in. Subsequently the crowd of unarmed civilians was fired upon, as were the surrounding housing complexes.
The Chinese state denies that there were many casualties, but those that were there that day say that the body count was very high…
When the shooting ceased a large line of tanks decided to take a victory lap. They proceeded down a main road near the square uniformly asserting their dominance.
At that moment a man, who remains unidentified, stepped in front of them.
Shockingly the tanks stopped.
They tried to move around him, but he blocked them again.
Armed with only his groceries he walked up on one of the tanks and tried to confront the driver.
Eventually he was shooed off the street.
A photographer in a nearby hotel captured this image:
The Chinese government well aware that journalists were in the area systematically went through the hotel to confiscate film. This photographer had to hide the film in the tank of his toilet and later smuggle it out.
This image is very popular, and scholars have discussed its meaning, but there seem to be as many opinions as there are so-called experts.
To me, this picture represents Jesus.
The square has just been violently cleared of protestors. At that moment the scoreboard reads that the state has won.
Just moments later, the fate of every oppressive regime was decided. The “tank man” stepped out and said for the world to hear, “YOU WILL NOT WIN!” “You may look strong and powerful, but your power is a myth…armed with just grocery sacks and a deep conviction that oppression does not have the final word I will show the world your true colors.”
This picture has so many interpretations and so touches so many people because it resonates with something deep inside all of us. The belief that corruption and death, the Judeo-Christian word for this is sin, cannot win!
This man looks a lot like Jesus to me.
The cross is the first century weapon of mass destruction. It’s the state’s trump card.
In response Jesus says, “I see your cross, and you think that the power of the cross is to take my life, but it’s a myth…you’re not taking my life, I’m the good shepherd I know the greatest love and I’m laying down my life.” Jesus exposes the myth of sin and of the power of the Roman state.
Death is their ultimate weapon, so Jesus takes it head on, and in an entirely unexpected and brilliant moment he is resurrected. Declaring for the universe, “DEATH DOES NOT HAVE THE FINAL WORD, GOD DOES!”
Jesus stands in front of the Roman tanks armed only with love and forgiveness and in a moment of total self-sacrifice he shows the world what God’s love is really like.
I believe the world knows the power of Jesus like the Chinese government knows the power of the Tank-man. The powers that lay claim to the world want to divert attention from it. Alternate gospels like the “American Dream” are offered to inoculate the power of Jesus. Wall Street and its corrupt associates do not want the message of Jesus heard, The powerbrokers of the world, the warlords, drug cartels, and corporations want to offer counterfeit good news that is filled to the brim with empty promises specifically designed to spread inertia and keep the world exactly how it is.
But the tank-man and Jesus himself have already delivered the verdict. No matter how hard the powers of darkness try to prevail, they will not win. Their power has been shown to be false. It’s empty. It’s a sham.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection paint a compelling image. Like the tank-man, when someone sees Jesus they have to make a choice. Wherever you stand on the issues: Christianity, religion, the Bible, homosexuality, abortion, American exceptionalism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, the meaning of life etc…
Jesus confronts the viewer. What will I choose? Will I believe that the state has won, or will I believe that there’s a God capable of fixing this world? Will I cave to consumerism and greed, or will I be open to compassion and forgiveness? Will a fear of death drive me, or will I be driven by a love of life? Will I build with oppression and economic superiority, or will I build with mercy, and justice?
The question that the tank-man and Jesus of Nazareth are asking is…
Will I see an image called hope?