Two cathedrals: Notre Dame is just a building

“The West Wing” is a great show. If you want to like America, to believe in it again, watch a few episodes. The show won several Emmy awards throughout its run and has a wealth of episodes worth both watching and talking about. “In Excelsis Deo” remains one of the most powerful Christmas episodes ever made for television, contending with issues surrounding homeless veterans.

“Isaac and Ishmael,” referencing the Biblical account of the split between the Jewish and Arabic peoples, was written and aired shortly after 9/11 in an attempt to explore the causes of terrorism and radicalization in a way that didn’t call for blood in a time in which people were clamoring for it.

All of these and more are great episodes but ask anyone who has seen the finale of season 2 and they will tell you that “Two Cathedrals” stands as one of the greatest spectacles in television history. The speech by the president in the Washington National Cathedral is legendary, and I won’t spoil the context—I encourage all who read this to watch it on Netflix.

The famous Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame was recently heavily damaged by a fire that broke out during a restoration. The cathedral that has stood for 850 years still stands, but it will take many years before it’s repaired to the state it was in before the fire broke out. An interesting result of the fire has been the response by the rich community in France.

Within a few days of the fire, over 600 million U.S. Dollars was raised, and the majority of that money came from a small group of rich people rather than average citizens. The fact that the Notre Dame restoration was able to amass so much money in such a short amount of time has left certain groups dumbfounded—specifically and most vocally, the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vest movement.

The Yellow Vests have existed in France for a few years now, and operate as a group protesting wealth disparity and disproportionate taxes that the average French citizen has to shoulder to accommodate the high cost of living in France. Their symbol is, naturally, the yellow vest that we in America associate with construction workers.

The Yellow Vests are upset due to the fact that the money raised so quickly could have been put to use in other causes that are more important than the restoration of an old building. There have been marches in the street to bring attention to this fact, with one of the most poignant signs held by a Yellow Vest reading: “We are all cathedrals.” The thing is, I think I agree.
Notre Dame was damaged in a fire, and it’s sad—nobody would deny that fact—but Notre Dame is a building, not a person. French charity Secours Catholique claims that within France alone an estimated 8.8 million people are living below the poverty line.

As Pamela Anderson, who was at a charity dinner for children in Marseille where the focus turned to Notre Dame, put it so succinctly: “Surely the children suffering in Marseille could have used the 100,000€ more than the church that has already received over a billion in donations by billionaires.”

The Yellow Vests and Pamela Anderson point out a wider problem within the world: that of income disparity and the perceived ability of the wealthy to fix the world’s problems. The United Nations estimates that it would cost around 30 billion dollars a year to eradicate world hunger.

That isn’t hunger confined to France, America, or even an entire continent—it’s the whole world. Between 195 sovereign nations and a world population of over 2,000 billionaires, it’s frankly shameful that the issue hasn’t been fixed yet. Don’t mistake my thoughts for blind idealism, the problem of hunger is far more complex and requires a more holistic solution than simply throwing money at it will provide.

That being said, throwing money at a problem usually doesn’t make it worse. Our humble institution was saved numerous times due to the help of wealthy benefactors, just look at Thaw and Carnegie Halls for proof of how money, when put forward to a good purpose, can change lives for the better.

From a religious standpoint, many Christians are saddened by the state of Notre Dame, but one need only remember what Jesus said on the matter, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” A church is never a building, it’s people—just ask the millions of Christians who meet in homes because they have nowhere else to gather. Cathedrals and church buildings are nice, but ultimately unneeded.

Finally, if you’re saddened by Notre Dame, remember that beauty exists all around you. Look to the mountains, look to the rivers, and most importantly look to your left and to your right in your classes and I can promise you you’ll find beauty within people that far outclasses anything Notre Dame could come up with.

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