Historically, I’ve not been one to put much store in icons of saints. Coming from a Protestant background, visual images of “holy people” seem more like an idolatrous waste of time – and why bother with the saints anyway when we have Jesus? The other week though, my breath was caught by an icon of Paul. He was holding his letters, on which was a small image of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a Huia bird sat on his shoulder. In that moment, my heart ached like I had just discovered a happy photograph of a much beloved grandparent who had passed away years ago.
My reaction was no doubt informed by the fact that I’d recently read an essay that discussed how people can relate to historical figures by seeking to embody that person’s values. Given how much Paul has been in my thinking in recent months, and how much I have grown to admire him, it meant something to me to see a face that was his face. I now had more than just letters; I had an image.
Over the last week my social media feed has been inundated with images and sounds surrounding the separation of migrant children from their parents in the US. It strikes me that these children are giving form to a deplorable culture and ethic, one that neither begins nor ends with the Trump administration, but seems to be actively encouraged by it.
The children are embodying what happens when there is no compassion.
Of course, their parents are also embodying this, as are dreamers, people of colour, trans people, people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. But it’s the young children who have ended up in the spotlight; their images, their cries have made the current injustices relatable in the public perception, with a level of resonance not previously seen.
I remember my husband talking about Disney’s Frozen and how it had achieved an astonishing level of cultural penetration. “Let it go” is well known, parodies are littered all over YouTube, card shops are incomplete without either Queen Elsa or Princess Ana smiling somewhere. Hey, even a colleague once brought in his little daughter and she was dressed as Elsa. Everywhere you go, you are never far from traces of Frozen.
The kingdom of heaven should be like that. There should be little pockets of it wherever you look; places where people are working, speaking, listening, studying, advocating, all with the aim of making the world a more peaceable, more merciful, more just place. And I’m sorry, but I suspect the public protests around these children don’t in any way go far enough. There has been an uproar and that has captured everyone’s attention for a short time. But for sustained impact, no, this is not enough. Any Disney film has a flurry of media attention when it launches a film – but that doesn’t put it on a par with Frozen.
When I saw the image of Paul, Paul was not new to me; but the experience of seeing his image was. What the US is seeing and hearing in these migrant children is not new; however, the experience of seeing mercilessness embodied in such a viscerally relatable way is new for many people (not everyone, but many). The challenge now is what culture and values we will embody as we go about our everyday lives? How will we tangibly, meaningfully and authentically embody them? And how will we persist, to make manifestations of these values as unavoidable as the images of Elsa and Ana?
Church of Christ – if you are the body, this is your mission.
What methods or resources do you know that talking about effecting meaningful, sustained, wholesale change?
For those curious, the artist behind the icon I saw writes here about it: The Huia became extinct in the early part of the 20th century. As well as its plumage, the Huia’s call was very beautiful. The Huia that sits on Saint Paul’s shoulder, reminds us that even though its song has been silenced, we are all still called to listen for the inspired beauty of God’s song found in creation and Holy Scripture.