This morning a friend sent me an op-ed from the Washington Post. It was written by Marc Thiessen; in full disclosure I am not a fan of his work. Thiessen, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, wrote a book defending “enhanced interrogation methods.” Most of us would call that torture, and it does not square with Catholic teaching, and Thiessen is Catholic. So that is where I stand on him; needless to say I did not love this column and its distinctly not Catholic gloom and doom outlook.
Today I also read a column by the editor of the Albany Times Union, Rex Smith. It too was about burning churches, but took an entirely different tack. In full disclosure once more, I first met Rex in the Albany airport in 2007, when I walked up to him and introduced myself, much to Mark’s chagrin! And years later I began to post my blog as part of the paper’s blogging platform, something I continue to do. None of that is why I liked his column which was oriented to optimism, hope, and most of all – actions.
Thiessen, at least as I read him, seems to conjure up fear. The burning church as metaphor for the – well, burning church. Did you know that church membership at large in the US is down to 50% today, from 70% in 1999? And that even among those who define as religious, membership has also declined. (A recent Gallup study can be seen here.) This is not really a surprise if you ask me, but interesting to look at. Instead of saying “oh no, the church is on fire!” I have to wonder, what drives these things. One good resource if you want to read about this phenomenon is The Nones are Alright from Orbis Books by Kaya Oakes. As an early reader of this work, I can tell you that it is really well done and worth your time if you wish to learn more about this important topic.
Anyway, there are many reasons that all denominations, in particular my own Roman Catholic church, are facing crises. That’s overall another topic for another day. I can tell you this from personal experience, because remember my day job is as a parish secretary… We continue to grow and where I work at least, I am pretty sure baptisms are neck in neck with funerals, at least for the moment.
Thiessen frames this crisis around some challenges brought forth by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI regarding the dangers of relativism. Relativism does bring problems, in fact I would re-orient Thiessen to that very point as he discusses the value of torture. Choosing such a method as a way of securing our nation creates new norms if you will, and suddenly the very violence he eschews and fears is made manifest in the very torture he upholds. For example, he writes in this column “The exclusion of God paves the way for a culture of death. Christianity teaches that every life has dignity and worth, because we are all created in God’s image.” How does he square his own INCLUSION of God with “enhanced interrogation techniques?” Perhaps he has more to ponder and pray with than simply real or metaphorically burning churches.
Ultimately, I’m sorry, while I have my own concerns about relativism, I do not think that it burned the church down, metaphorically speaking. Played a part, maybe, but burned it? No- I don’t think so.
Rex Smith on the other hand, asks pretty much the same question in his column – what do burning houses of worship mean? He expands the idea from Notre Dame to Sri Lanka to black churches in the South, and the mosques in New Zealand. Not Catholic, Smith is the son of a preacher, a man who grew up churched. Whether he is or not today, I do not know, but he seems to understand the place of religion in public life as far as I can tell.
Smith writes, “Whatever our religious beliefs, or lack of such, we know that the decline of these beloved spaces hurts, whether it’s a result of accident, attack or abandonment.” How true this is! He then goes on to offer some local examples in the area, churches that are now businesses, fraternities, performance spaces, as well as a parking lot in one case, and a supermarket in another. Or perhaps they are empty and part of urban blight, because local people objected to their non-church use. Both tax payer dollars lost and urban esthetics suffer as a result. Not mentioned in the column, but in my memory is Holy Innocents, an Episcopal church in ruin in Albany. Last I recall, a developer was trying to stabilize the empty structure in Arbor Hill. I’m not sure that anything ever came of proposed plans. Regardless, what happens to and how we envision sacred spaces matters whether or not we are people of faith.
Religious or not, in his column, Smith takes a leap into the possible – a leap of faith! What if, he poses, these spaces could remain vital parts of the community, doing good works? Community centers, training hubs, classrooms… So many shoots of new life that poke up through the scorched earth of what “burned” down, ground made fertile by what the fire destroyed.
We who claim Christ are Easter people. Things must die in order to rise. This is not some glib phrase that cuts to the core of people who have suffered serious loss, such as in Sri Lanka or in New Zealand and beyond, but rather the reminder that death comes for all, but the possibility of new life is our hope. We are tested in fire, and we emerge in hope. In Easter we live that hope to the full – or that’s the idea anyway.
When we see the world burning down, do we feel fear or hope? Fear is normal, hope is necessary. Do you see God’s wrath or God’s invitation? What will you see in the fire today? Which path will you choose?