The Burning of Notre Dame and the Symbolism of Faith

From Pixabay

When a fire raged at Notre Dame on the afternoon (well, afternoon in the U.S.) of April 15th, my social media feed was filled with stories, live feeds, and remembrances of friends who had traveled to the grand cathedral.

Construction began in 1163, and a mere 182 years later in 1345, it was finished. It’s hard to imagine anything taking 182 years to build these days. Perhaps that adds to the magnificence of the building. Notre Dame had to be restored during the 1800’s when it fell into disrepair, but it has been one of the premiere landmarks in Paris for quite some time, drawing an estimated 13 million people each year.

Personally, my only interaction with Notre Dame was finding out that it wasn’t in South Bend, Indiana when I was a kid rooting for the Fighting Irish of the namesake university, and then a couple decades later, I spent time exploring Notre Dame virtually thanks to the Assassin’s Creed video game series. Clearly, I have no culture whatsoever. I have never even seen Disney’s movie featuring the cathedral. (Ok, you get it. I’m a hick. Moving on.)

In the aftermath of the fire, people from all over the world have stepped up to pledge money to rebuild Notre Dame. I’m not sure what the latest count is, but it is definitely in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Notre Dame will be rebuilt. And, there’s a good chance that the contractor who was working on it when the flames started will not be allowed to submit a bid. Some people, however, have had a very different take on the amount of money that is going to rebuild this iconic building.

Tweet shared by a friend on Facebook

I can’t blame Mar (if that is her real name… it’s probably not, but you get it). There’s a lot, a LOT, of money in this world. In fact, there’s enough money in the world that everybody in it could live fairly comfortably. Unfortunately, it’s pretty concentrated with nearly half the world’s wealth controlled by the top 1%. In other words, if there is a problem that money could help solve or find a solution, the money is out there; it’s just a matter of getting some people to care more about other people than their 17th vacation home in Bali.

And, of course, you can’t put something like this on Facebook without somebody chiming in with their asinine opinion. This was no different. To quote one of the comments on this post: “They are passionate about keeping our history alive. Not so much when it comes to paying for people or things not willing to pay their own way. It’s a matter of what matters and people that want others to take (or pay) care of them. The most important part is keeping our religious history alive. If we don’t then we are done for.”

I’m not going to lie; I showed remarkable restraint in not replying to this comment. Mostly because I don’t know who the hell “Wanda” is (the person who left the comment), but also because I’m not sure I could respond without sounding like a complete jerk, which I try to avoid as much as possible. But, frankly, her comment annoyed the snot out of me. Here’s why.

First off, she assumed that helping people in need means helping people that are too lazy to do anything for themselves. Frankly, this is not the case.

In a 2018 article from The Atlantic, Busting the Myth of ‘Welfare Makes People Lazy’, author Derek Thompson states:

“Welfare helps people work” may sound like a strange and counterintuitive claim to some. But it is perfectly obvious when the word people in that sentence refers to low-income children in poor households. Poverty and lack of access to health care is a physical, psychological, and vocational burden for children. Poverty is a slow-motion trauma, and impoverished children are more likely than their middle-class peers to suffer from chronic physiological stress and exhibit antisocial behavior. It’s axiomatic that relieving children of an ambient trauma improves their lives and, indeed, relieved of these burdens, children from poorer households are more likely to follow the path from high-school graduation to college and then full-time employment.

Will there be some people who will take advantage of the system? Absolutely. In any system, there are those who seek to exploit it for their own gain — just ask the corporations and ultra-rich how they dodge paying their share of taxes. But does that mean the whole system is corrupt, worthless and needs to be done away with? Absolutely not. You find a way to deal with those who are exploiting it, hold them accountable, and those who actually need the system (and use it properly) will continue to be lifted up.

When I was in school, there were kids who were on a free or reduced lunch program. I paid my $1.40 every day, and got to eat my food. You know what I didn’t do? Complain about how unfair it was that others didn’t have to do it. What kind of world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where children aren’t allowed to eat because their parents can’t find a job that will pay the bills and allow them to eat? Or do we want to live in the kind of world where people are allowed to eat — even if they can’t pay for it. I don’t need the starvation of children on my conscience. Feed them.

Because here’s the bottom line, our taxes are coming out one way or another. Other people are benefiting from the use of our tax money one way or another. Would I prefer my tax money go to paying my already rich senator or go to taking care of the least of these? That seems like an easy choice to make.

The last part of “Wanda’s” comment is what really drew my ire. “The most important part is keeping our religious history alive. If we don’t then we are done for.”

Is it? Is that really the most important part, Wanda? Because here’s the thing that we need to see when it comes to religion in this country: our religion doesn’t mean diddly squat if it isn’t put into practice. If she is really making the case that pouring money into restoring a religious landmark is more important than taking care of the “least of these” (which is a mandate of said religion), then clearly there is a significant disconnect between what she sees as the impact of religion and the real purpose of religion in the first place.

If our faith does not lead us to doing all we can to take care of other people, then it is deficient. If we are more concerned with the temporary things of this world than people, then we have failed to realize what is most important about being a follower of Jesus Christ.

No matter how sacred we think a particular location may be, there will come a time when it will be nothing more than dust. What really matters in this life? It’s not the stuff of this world. It’s the people within it.

[1] Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. [2] But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1–2, ESV)

[37] Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? [38] And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? [39] And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ [40] And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37–40, ESV)

[44] Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ [45] Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:44–45, ESV)

Symbols of our faith are great reminders, but when they become the idols and what they are supposed to remind us becomes second-class, even objects of derision, then it is time to burn it all down. If we aren’t going to live out the most basic tenets of our faith, then let all the cathedrals, basilicas and churches crumble because they are nothing more than a reminder of how broken our faith has become.

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.

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