Byzantine Iconoclasm and American Flag Protests


Recently, I have developed an interest in the Byzantine Empire, which lasted between, approximately, 330 AD and 1453 AD and was a continuation of the more famous Roman Empire during the Late Antiquity and Middle Ages.  My interest probably stems from two sources:  studying Latin for four years in high school and realizing that the Byzantine Empire was rarely discussed during my formal education.  Several aspects of Byzantine history are quite interesting:  the relationship between the emperor and the patriarchs of the historic episcopal sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome; its differing role in the Crusades; and the religious division caused by Iconoclasm.

Byzantine Iconoclasm refers to two periods in Byzantine history:  a sixty-year period in the middle of the 8th century (approximately, 726 AD to 787 AD) and thirty-year period early in the 9th century (approximately, 814 AD to 842 AD).   Generally, icons are Byzantine religious works of art, commonly paintings of Christ, Mary, angels, or other saints, which became important to the Byzantines because, in part, they taught the Bible to the illiterate public and were the reported source of innumerable miracles.  Individuals who venerated icons were known by several names including iconolaters, iconodules, and iconophiles.  However, by the beginning of the 8th century, segments of Byzantine society (primarily the military and some emperors) began to take a strong stance against icons (generally known as Iconoclasm).  Individuals who turned away from icon veneration were known as iconoclasts.


There are several reasons for the rise of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire.  Imperial advisors attribute a volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea to icon veneration.  Additionally, the Byzantine Empire was losing battles to the Bulgars in Balkan Mountains.  Likewise, the Empire was losing ground to Arabs in the east who had a strict prohibition against graven images, like icons (Thus, the thought was that if prohibitions against graven images worked for the Arabs, then it will work for the Byzantines).  Historians have also postulate potential class struggles between the poorer and richer regions of the Empire and between the genders.  While it is impossible to conversely articulate the arguments of both Iconoclasts and iconophiles, iconophiles thought physical images help people in spiritual contemplation (much as Christ assumed a physical form).  Meanwhile, Iconoclasts thought icons are common materials that will never be sacred and that icons violated the Second Commandment (or, in some religious traditions, the First Commandment) found in Exodus 20:4 – 6 and Deuteronomy 5:8 – 10.


As I read about Byzantine Iconoclasm, I am struck by the legitimate arguments each side had in the debate, the unwillingness of each side to listen to the other and acknowledge the legitimate points, and the devolution in demagoguery.  Additionally, I am struck by some of the similarities of 8th and 9th Century Byzantine Iconoclasm with recent issues concerning the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner.  Since the summer, several professional athletes have decided to kneel for the national anthem.  Likewise, since the election of Donald Trump, some individuals have decided to demonstrate through the burning of the American flag during protests.  History seems to repeat itself twelve soldier_with_kids_600centuries after Byzantine Iconoclasm.  21st century American iconophiles hold symbols of American ideals, like the flag and national anthem, in high esteem, sometimes to the detriment of the actual ideal itself.  21st century American iconoclast, on the other hand, hold individual American ideals, like Freedom of Speech, in high esteem, sometimes to the detriment of understanding the importance the flag and national anthem to fellow Americans.  In a sense, both sides are right…and both sides are wrong for the same issues during the Byzantine iconoclasm debates of the 8th and 9th century, which were mentioned earlier.

While both 21stcentury American iconophiles and iconoclasts can passionately disagree, including Christians, we must continually abide by what Scripture tells us:  “consider[ing] how to stir up one another to love and good works” while seeking and praying for His kingdom to come.


Photo attributions:
*Byzantine Christ – The most famous of the surviving Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – the image of Christ Pantocrator on the walls of the upper southern gallery. Photo via Wikimedia.
*Christ washes apostles feet (Montreale)
*2016 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, photo by Glenn Riegel
*Soldier with children and dog by @Skeeze


Ian IrvinIan is a former Modern Standard Arabic linguist with the U.S. Air Force and youth pastor before returning to finish his education back home in Pennsylvania.  After graduating, Ian married his best friend, Alaina, and the two moved to the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia (DMV) where Ian is an attorney with the federal government. Ian enjoys Penn State football, reading in his and Alaina’s library, and pampering their two cats:  Nittany and Pride. Ian hopes to remain sensitive to God’s calling and helping others develop a closer relationship with Christ.

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