I lost my breath last Tuesday. As the first images of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris came across my newsfeed, I was surprised by the depth of my grief. It is not a place that holds deep and abiding memories for me. I have fond memories of the cathedral, to be sure, but not the sort that would seem to evoke what I felt. But seeing a holy space in such peril touched something in me. In the days since, I have been heartened, as we all have, by what has remained. And I have also been heartened by the outpouring of financial support and the commitment to preserve what we have left, and to rebuild. I believe that the world is starved enough for beauty and that whenever we lose something beautiful, the world becomes a little more broken.
I have also been chastened by the reminder that we have lost three African-American churches in Louisiana in recent months to arson, and that the kind of support that has come immediately for Notre Dame has been slow to come for these churches. What transpired in Paris on Tuesday was tragic. What transpired in Louisiana was evil, and yet we seem to have been less compelled to act. It is to be celebrated that the fire of the one church has brought attention to the fires at the three, and that donations to rebuild in Louisiana are now beginning to accrue. It is shameful that it took the burning of Notre Dame for our gaze to finally find its way to the sin in our back yard.
But as I have followed these two stories and their juxtaposition in the last week, I have been disturbed to hear, in some quarters, a note of judgment about the grief people expressed for the burning of Notre Dame and about the support for its rebuilding. The argument, as I understand it, runs this way: we shouldn’t be expending resources on Notre Dame when there are more pressing crises that cry out for our support. The hundreds of thousands of dollars raised already for Notre Dame could have been better used for the work of social justice in Louisiana (or in Flint, or in Puerto Rico, or in…).
That is not the message I would hope that we take away from this tale of four churches. That line of argument would have us believe that we can have either social justice or beauty, that the support for one cancels out support for the other. It assumes a scarcity of resources which is, frankly, a canard. The sin is not that money has been raised quickly for the preservation and rebuilding of a magnificent work of art and of faith. The sin has always been that, collectively, we have lacked the will to do the works of justice that so desperately need doing. We were failing the people of Louisiana, and of Flint, and of Puerto Rico long before Tuesday’s fire. The response to Notre Dame hasn’t made that failure qualitatively different, but it has brought it into sharp relief.
Finally, we need to be committed to creating and preserving beauty in the world AND we need to be committed to the work of social justice in the world. They are not mutually exclusive pursuits, but rather they are often mutually supportive. And it only plays into the hands of those who would have us stay on the sidelines when injustice occurs to buy into the narrative that we have to choose one or the other.
In the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, one of the young women marching to protest the working conditions in the Lawrence, MA mills carried a sign that said “Give us bread, but give us roses too.” May we as Christians respond to that claim on our resources. May we live into the abundance around us. May we work to bring this world closer to the Kin-dom of God, in all its beauty and in all its justice.
Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.