Off With Their Heads!

Among some enemies of the Church, tolerance has in itself become intolerable.

Jean Michel Ruyten (1813-1881), “The Iconoclasts”
Jean Michel Ruyten (1813-1881), “The Iconoclasts” (photo: Public Domain)

When ISIS was expanding its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it was standard procedure for them to enter Christian churches and behead the statues of Jesus, Mary and the other saints. I’m beginning to think ISIS has opened a branch office in California.       

A couple of weeks before Christmas, the priest and parishioners of the Church of St. Bede in Hayward, California, woke up to find that during the night someone or some people had desecrated a shrine on the church lawn.

For 60 years, give or take, worshippers and visitors to St. Bede, as well folks just driving or walking by, have seen a shrine on the church grounds dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. The other night, vandals chopped off Mary’s hands and beheaded the statues of the children. And for good measure he/she cut off the head of the statue of a sheep, too. Sad to say, this shrine has been mutilated before. The police have never found the perpetrator, nor has anyone been able to decipher why the shrine at St. Bede is a recurring target. It might be a latter-day Puritan who doesn’t like sacred images. Or it could be someone who objects to the Catholic Church’s definition of marriage as a life-long covenant between one man and one woman and the church’s ongoing opposition to abortion. The shrine manglers don’t leave notes that explain their motives.

The trouble at St. Bede reminded me of another beheading that occurred a few months ago. Again, in the middle of the night, someone entered the grounds of the historic and beautiful Mission of Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California, doused with red paint a statue of St. Junípero Serra—the Spanish Franciscan missionary who founded the mission—and then chopped off the statue’s head.

Father Serra was a target because in the 1770s, he thought it would be a good idea if the native tribes of California learned about Christianity, were taught modern methods of agriculture, and moved into the mission compound where they could be protected from soldiers and settlers who routinely abused and exploited the Indians. In some quarters these days, those are intolerable ideas, so has been open season on images of Father Serra (his statues have been targeted at other California missions, too).

And now this: last week in Rome, Georgia, someone entered a cemetery and knocked down a statue of a Confederate soldier, chopped off its hands, and battered the face with a hammer. The manager of the cemetery estimates restoration could cost as much as $200,000.

What has given the vandals the idea that they have a right to deface images their neighbors consider sacred? I have a hunch. Among some of our friends, there is a frame of mind that says, “This does not relate to me, it offends me, and therefore it must go. And I have the right to tear it down.” This is the fraternal twin of a related notion that goes something along these lines, “On this subject there is only one correct opinion, which is my opinion, and you’re not permitted to disagree with me, nor express your contrary opinion, nor expect me to listen to you in a civil and respectful manner.”

Among these people, the concept that tolerance, a term which means, “I put up with your opinions which I don’t agree with, and you put up with mine which don’t agree with,” has in itself become intolerable.

And have you noticed these assaults happen in the middle of the night? If these individuals really had courage in addition to self-righteous anger, they’d go out in broad daylight to trash Confederate graves, or deface statues of saints. But of course, that would get the attention of the police and that would lead to handcuffs and bail and a lawyer and court appearances and maybe a little jail time. It’s much easier to get up the next day and brag to your friends about the tremendous courage you demonstrated by skulking around a graveyard, or into a church garden.