Marduk was the chief God of the Babylonians. His statue was housed in the Esagila, the city’s main temple. The Babylonians believed that Marduk himself resided in their city through this statue. Thus, the God and the statue were inseparable. This belief was not unique to the Babylonians, in fact it was common throughout the ancient world. In War then, the victor would seek to capture the statue of its enemy as in so doing it captured the enemies God, thus striking a deadly blow to the collective psyche of its foe.
Is it really so surprising to us moderns then, that during this culture War of our times, the pulling down of statues has become such a focus of attention? For statues to this day are still conflated with the Gods. They are conflated with the Gods as they embody in stone a set of ideals that the individual in their lifetime is believed to have embodied in flesh and blood. And what are the Gods other than our highest ideals? Marduk was a God of Wisdom who was believed to have created the world and ordered the heavens. Winston Churchill was a God of War who was believed to have defeated a great evil and saved the nation. Churchill’s ghost lives through his statue today in London’s parliament square the same way that Marduk’s did back in the Esagila of ancient Babylon.
Interestingly Marduk later underwent a transformation from a God into a Demon. Standard practice in the ancient world as one tribes God becomes another tribes Demon. The key question being, who controls the predominant narrative? When Babylon fell to the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, Marduk transformed. He transformed as his story (history) was now told by the enemies of Babylon and chief among these were the the Jewish people who had been held as slaves in the city until their liberation and repatriation to Judea by the Persians. They told their story in the Bible and so today in Judeo-Christian culture Marduk is known as a false God of the evil Kings of Babylon.
Today we see this same dynamic playing out with statutes in many of our cities across the globe. The Gods to some being toppled by others who perceive them to be Demons. A prime example of this most recently being the outrage over the threat to the statute of Winston Churchill in London and the arrival of a mob to protect it from another mob who potentially might pull it down. This is a culture War with different narratives offered by each side in a battle to see who gets to control the predominant narrative moving forward. With emotions running so high on all sides it is difficult to see how we might collectively find an agreed way through it all. Yet find a way we must, for the sake of those living and for the sake of those generations yet to come.
Churchill is indeed a God of War to many British people. For devotees the ideals that his statue embody in stone include an indomitable fighting spirit, victory and a nations pride. Others, however, point to the fact that Churchill was an unashamed racist and that his adoration and hero worship blinds his devotees to the other ideals that his image evokes – white supremacy, disrespect and cruelty. Both perspectives are true.
It is a fools game to judge historical figures based on the cultural values of our time. Just as it is a cultural supremacists game to judge one cultures norms based on the norms of its own. Churchill was a man of his times and it was a deeply racist world into which he was born and from which his personality emerged. What is striking, however, is that until recently the narrative that he was anything other than a national hero got zero air play in public. Indeed, even now as a debate about the nature of his character begins to emerge there are many people feeling incredibly upset and even furious that it is taking place at all. This is what happens when we feel that others are showing disrespect to what we hold most sacred. And yet, if as individuals and society we are unable to punch our Gods in the face then we are opening ourselves up to tyranny as blind devotees to ideals, rituals and institutional structures that no longer serve. Nothing should be beyond mockery, especially the sacred. Otherwise we end up taking ourselves far too seriously and become blind to the possibility that we may be wrong and need a rethink.
So here we are in 2020, one humanity on one planet. Our ancestors shaped this world into which we were born and they continue to shape it as their spirits live on to this day in each of us. This is our cultural conditioning, none can escape it. It is our curse and our blessing. We need to understand it, to respect it by taking a long hard look at it and not turning away from those parts of it we’d rather not see. Know Thyself! And we need the perspective of others to really see and know ourselves. Our light and our dark. For indeed we are ultimately all one. Until we are prepared to truly open ourselves up to this honest examination of who we are and how we came to be in this situation we will not change. For in order to change something you need to first accept it exactly as it is. To see it, clearly and honestly.
As we dare to look, let us be kind to one another understanding the pain that is involved in the letting go of who we thought we were to fully appreciate who we truly are. Let us hold each other accountable to the work and let us hold each other with kindness through the process. To truly see ourselves, we must see and understand each other. We must look back at one another. The word respect comes from a Latin root and means to look back at. So let us do this. Let us respect where we have come from by taking a long hard look back at it. And let us respect each other as equals. Let us get curious about what others see that we don’t, yet. And let us hold to the idea that every perspective is true, partially.
Gods have fallen many times in the past and been replaced by new Gods. As we collectively decide what to destroy and what to preserve, it would also be good to consider what we might co-create together. Personally I’d like to see statutes erected in every city across the globe to a new God, a God of Respect. For it is this that is so sorely lacking in our collective conversations today and indeed was so sorely lacking in our past. And let this statute be not of stone, but, of flesh and blood. Let each of us erect it in the temple of our own bodies so that we look back at ourselves and each other and see who we truly are. Radiant individuals each with our unique perspective on the whole. A whole of which we are all a part. For we are all one.