Within hours of Notre Dame’s eight hundred year old spire descending in flames the world began to groan, casting ballots on culture care and cause. On a “God” Facebook feed, bestselling romance novelist Kristan Higgins’ tweet was shared, “Speaking as a Catholic here…please don’t donate to help Notre Dame. The Church is worth $30 billion. Donate to help Puerto Rico recover. Donate to get the people of Flint clean water. Donate to get kids out of cages. Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about humans.” Almost 100,000 people shared her sentiments on their own Facebook pages. Days later, people began to add another layer to the juxtaposition as attention was directed toward three historically black churches that had been recently burned in hate crimes. In response, over two million dollars was raised for the Louisiana faith communities impacted.
One month earlier, a similar conversation was held around the $2.5 million renovation of a historic Methodist church in my hometown of Paris, Texas. Many in the community began to beg the question, “shouldn’t that money go to the needy?” Most accusations were made with a broad and unknowing brush of the church’s deep financial and volunteer investment locally in ministries to those in poverty and a recent partnership with the city to build a public park on church land.
On a theological level, it could be argued that it is precisely because God cares about humans that He cares about stained glass, romance novels, Hobbit movies and the cultural artifacts that either expand or diminish our affirmation of what it is to be fully human. My first memory of encountering my humanity through art in the way Tolstoy describes as “infected by the feelings of another and thus experiencing them” was in the above-mentioned Methodist church. As a young child, I stood in the balcony of the church, lit candle in hand within the Christmas dressing of the sanctuary as a formal choir sang the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. My lungs filled, my heart quivered and I repressed tears feeling shaken and rattled by something incomprehensible to my young body. 18th century poet Alexander Pope describes this kind of art experience,
“Let me for one presume to instruct the times,
To know the poet from the man of rhymes:
‘Tis he, who gives my breast a thousand pains,
Can make me feel each passion that he feigns;
Enrage, compose, with more than magic art,
With pity and with terror tear my heart;
And snatch me o’er the earth through the air,
To Thebes, to Athens, when he will, and where.”
Pragmatically, one could look at the robust economic engine that is the physical Church. Notre Dame receives twelve to fourteen million visitors per year, translating into an average of 30,000 tourists per day. Historic places of worship are often also temples of culture and architecture driving tourism income for the communities that host them. Conversely, these sites predominately exist in historic city centers and if allowed to deteriorate cost insurmountable figures to restore yet politically impossible to deconstruct due to their historical significance.
In 2017 The Catholic Herald published an article that stated that the Catholic Church alone “operates more than 140,000 schools, 10,000 orphanages, 5,000 hospitals and some 16,000 other health clinics. Caritas, the umbrella organization for Catholic aid agencies, estimates that spending by its affiliates totals between £2 billion and £4 billion, making it one of the biggest aid agencies in the world.” On the high end, that is $5,263,040,000.00 in American dollars. Without considering the impact of evangelical, orthodox, or mainline protestant giving; it is evident that the Church is a key player in terms of economic impact and aid to the most vulnerable.
As good as this seems to be, the irony is that only 5% of professing American Christians tithe (giving 10% of their annual income or more to/through the local church) and Americans in general only give away 2% of their income to charitable causes. Those who make less than $20,000 annually are eight times as likely to give as someone making a median middle class income near $75,000. (Nonprofit Source 2018). Translated, the IRS reported in 2016 an American household making between 50K-99K gave an average of $3,296 charitably. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the following year that an average household spends similar amounts eating out ($3,365), entertaining themselves ($3203), and about $3000 combined on clothes, personal care, alcohol and tobacco. In terms of “tithing”, families who have kids involved in youth sports tend to spend as much as 10% annually with an average of $2292 invested and countless hours of practice, travel and ballgames. (Time 2017) If anything, these statistics suggest that America’s giving does little to impact its discretionary lifestyle. Further, it begins to hint at what aspects of culture grab our time and wallets.
In an age that trumpets “self-care” it seems we are making valiant attempts yet somehow fall short and are burned out. Most folks I know feel overworked, busy and stretched by work emails that never turns off, care-taking, childrearing or demands that they feel are out of their control. We perceive no margin in our lives yet studies show that we average 11 hours per day staring at screens (4 hours a day on television alone). (Neilson 2018) We are stuffed full with no savings.
This kind of scarcity mentality leads us to believe we are in constant crisis and must only choose what is critical for survival. It leads us to abstractly calculate that if we invest in historic buildings or beauty we are inherently robbing the poor. In thinking it is most critical to tend to the physical body we neglect to nurture the soul. In tandem, we spent nearly $400 million in 2017 on Instant Pots alone.
Passively swept up in drama politics, we rely more and more on our government to defend our values, dole out benefits and represent our personal beliefs. We shake our fist at our screens in the chaos of Washington yet the statistics indicate we invest relatively little personally or civically to cultivate the world for which we wish.
Recently, I was struck by the rapid repentance of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Luke 19. A Jew working for Rome, considered a traitor encountered Christ and immediately made costly financial choices.
“Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
For God’s people, so often we find ourselves as traitors like Zacchaus. We have benefitted from the culture where we live and we consume it with our time, talents and resources. Consuming and consumed, we fail to intentionally steward our wealth and rather find ourselves strapped by credit card debt, mortgage and car payments, and swamped by student loans. In light of our circumstances, we excuse ourselves from the ongoing needs of the poor and the culture care of our world.
It is a curious thing that we easily and quickly justify self-care spending (a quick trip through the drive-thru at the day’s end or excessive gifting to our children at a holiday). However, do we not become quite tight-fisted, theologically heavy and financially cautious at the panhandler, neighbor in need or an arts or mission organization requesting funding? Perhaps I am alone in the dichotomy?
In light of all this I pray:
Let me and my generation not allow another day to pass to repent and consider our ways. Our life may be required of us today or tomorrow. Whenever our turn ends, let us have lived with intention and leaving a legacy that builds up this world to look more like the kingdom of God. Let us give abundantly to that which creates and preserves the true, good, and beautiful. Let us sow generously into the lives of the poor. Let us live modest lives with enough margin to hear the Spirit of God and share joyfully when prompted. Forgive us for our selfish consumption so often done in oblivion. Be merciful to help us as we climb out of debt. Grant us wisdom and intention with all that you have entrusted to us. Where we know to do good, let us do good. Amen.