So, like many people I watched the news on Monday and tried to wrap my head around what I was seeing. The Notre Dame cathedral, a religious site that had stood in France for 856 years, was burning to the ground. The news ran wall to wall coverage of the event, with constant live look-ins and updates from passersby on the ground.
When the fire was finally out, I found myself studying the reactions we as a culture we undertaking. It seemed a little bit odd to me that our American media, with so much drama going on in our own culture with a special prosecutor and a democratic primary and oh by the way three black churches burning in the south, would focus so much attention on this church in Paris. Old? Yes. Historic? You bet. Worthy of this much attention?
And while all of that was true on day one I was ok with the response, because maybe there just wasn’t anything else going on in the world at all. And yet, even today, a whole two days after the fire, a quick glance at the front pages of the New York Times and CNN see prominent stories about the cathedral. Even while there are threats being made on the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine high school, and those schools find themselves needed to be closed again, this story is given a massive impact.
Now there are some who want to disparage this. Some of my friends (rightly) ask why we are paying so much attention and, more damagingly, giving so much money to a church building in Paris when there are folks in Puerto Rico who still lack the basic needs to survive after a hurricane touched their shores more than a year ago. Priorities are surely off base, and we ought to have that conversation. But I actually think there’s a deeper conversation going on in the American spiritual landscape, and one that we ought to pay attention to.
What exactly did we watch burn on Monday? Was it a building, or was it an idea? Was it a random event, or was it a warning of what’s coming to our shores? What sense of innocence fell at the moment the spire collapsed?
And to be clear, I’m thinking about this from an American perspective. French citizens will I’m sure have their own emotions tied to this. That building has been a part of their life and legacy for 8 centuries, and I don’t want to take that away from them. But what’s going on with us Yankees?
With two days of reflection, and leaving open the possibility of debate, I think we were watching the influence the western church has had on the world go up in flames.
There was a time when the western church ruled the world, where we were the arbiters of what was acceptable in culture, when we were the powerhouse, when we were where folks turned when they needed, well, anything. For a good long time there, we were the literal king-makers, pushing policy and exerting control over governments. And whether you mourn or celebrate this fact, those days are long gone. We are not the center of the cultural universe any more. We are not the king-makers. We are not in control.
For me, those are in fact truths to be celebrated. I don’t think Jesus intended his Bride to be powerful, he intended her to be faithful. He did not intend for us to spend our time making kings and queens, but rather for us to spend our time and our energy and our money with the least of these. Jesus did not want to see his Bride rule the world, he wanted her to confess that he already does. But I also recognize that the shift to this new reality can be hard for some. For some, watching that church burn was a recognition that what they assumed the power structures of the day simply are not. For those who have been harmed and injured in the wake of the church’s power grabs, perhaps watching that church burn was a large and decisive “told you so!” moment. And I think for most, whatever these emotions are, they live beneath the surface of conscious thought, so they go unchecked and unaddressed.
I’ve no problem rebuilding the cathedral. I’m all for it. However I think it’s time for us to recognize the true power in this world. It’s not a church with a building. It’s not a denomination with a power structure. It’s not a religious political party with a base of voters. The power in this universe is Jesus Christ himself, the Son of the God of Love, who reaches out to us daily in the power of the Holy Spirit. And while we mourn for the loss of power disguised as a loss of building, perhaps Jesus is beside us quietly whispering “Could you spare some time to mourn for the poor with your actions?”
Come, Lord Jesus.