Inequality in Grief

Last Monday, April 15, 2019, I was shocked to turn on the news and hear that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Not only is it an especially beautiful structure, it is also my favorite cathedral, despite not having visited it. I have even built a cathedral in Minecraft based on it. All day long, I felt sick whenever I thought about it and the fire that was consuming it.

However, this puts me in a conflicted situation. Objectively, I believe that a person’s value is greater than that of a building. People have eternal souls but any physical thing is necessarily going to be destroyed eventually. Yet here I am mourning the loss of a building when people suffer and die all the time and I don’t feel the same sense of loss.

Let me say right now that I am not saying we should not mourn the damage done to Notre Dame. I felt the same way when Namdaemun, the Great South Gate of Seoul burned down in 2008. It is nonsensical to say that we should not grieve because there are possibly worse things happening in the world. That would be like never celebrating good things because there might be something better that could happen.

One problem is that human suffering is so common, it is easy to get inured to it. I’m sure if cathedrals burned down every week, we’d soon get used to it, unfortunately. Still, I find it disturbing that I don’t have the same amount of feeling for the tens of thousands of people who die every year from gun violence or opioid overdose. It’s true that I don’t know those people, but then again, I’ve never been to the Notre Dame cathedral either. Part of it is how much media coverage something gets, but that doesn’t seem like a good excuse either.

I’m also not saying that we need compelled to take the entirety of the world’s suffering on our shoulders. No one has the strength to do that and I don’t think it would be productive to do so. Still, there should be a way to better reconcile one’s beliefs with one actions.

The obvious solution is to do what we can in our own sphere of influence, but in today’s increasingly global world, what is that sphere and how much is enough? Yes, I should help the people in my community, but what about victims of the civil war in Syria or Yemen or kids stuck in the sex trade in southeast Asia or many other tragedies I could discover with a quick Internet search? It’s true that merely empathizing with people or feeling bad for their situation doesn’t always translate into action, but there is often something we can do.

The problem is that something covers the whole spectrum from nothing to everything. For some people, the problems of the world seem so big that they collapse into apathy. On the other extreme is what I call the Schindler Paradox: the more you do, the more you worry there was more you could have done. At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, after the title character has saved many Jews from destruction, he looks around and wonders how many more people he could have saved. As long as he still has any possessions left, then he could have done more.

So is there any hope in this situation? How can I reconcile my belief in the primacy of human beings with not empathizing more with those who are suffering and then, acting proportionately?

What do you think?

The Window of Words

I love words. They are like small windows that open up onto huge realities. Even grammatical words can hold large truths in them. There are times when our language is simply not capable of expressing what we need it to, but many times words contain a great deal more than we ever think about. This is especially true with the Bible, where a lot of meaning can be packed into only a few words. I feel sometimes that if we could fully understand a single verse of the Bible fully, we would be wiser than any person in the world.

Take Psalm 23 for example. It’s probably the most famous chapter in the Old Testament. Many people have it memorized (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”) especially in the King James Version. The problem is that the more we know something, the less we think about it. Do you actually think about what every word means when you sing the national anthem or Happy Birthday? Probably not. Those don’t matter much, but when it comes to the Bible, there can be a lot of truth hidden in every syllable. Let’s look at the first verse of Psalm 23 in closer detail:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 (KJV)

The — This means something that is unique and definitive. This excludes any others from the same plane, letting it stand alone in our minds as we invoke it.

Lord — A king and a ruler. The monarchical term is a metaphor for God’s relationship not only with us, but with all of creation. He is above all, ruling and overseeing everything. (Here, of course, we see a limitation in human language: the English word Lord indicates male even though God is neither male nor female.)

Is — Even though it’s small, this is one of the most significant word in the whole language, a statement that something exists. It is in the present tense, which indicates not only existence in the present moment, but for an unspecified amount of time, stretching into the past and on into the future.

My — This shows there is a personal relationship on some kind, a connection to myself. We are not talking abstracts here: this is something that affects each and every one of us intimately.

Shepherd — This is a metaphor that shows the nature of the relationship. There is a lot packed into these two syllables. It contains the image of a flock of sheep ranging around the countryside, seemingly on their own, but always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. When they wander away, he finds them. When they get stuck in a bush or fall down a hole, the shepherd gets them out. A sheep has nothing to be boastful of. It is constantly and totally dependent upon the shepherd for safety, food and water.

I — Like “my”, this makes it personal. However, “I” is the subject, the one who must do something. The first sentence was a statement of fact. This is where we come in to do our part.

Shall — This word isn’t used much anymore, but is similar to “will”. “Shall” is a word of definiteness. If words like “might” and “maybe” are sand, “shall” is a granite boulder, something that can be depended on. We can rest in peace within the promise of this future certainty.

Not — This word is a solid wall that divides the existent and non-existent. “Not” nullifies of what comes after it. We can have faith that God will keep us always on the right side of “not”.

Want — In this situation, this mean being insufficient, or lacking in some way. It brings up the image of hunger, loneliness, parched throats and empty spirits. In God, we will not lack for what we need, because God does not know insufficiency. He is completeness itself and joined with him, no part of us can remain incomplete, any more than a submerged cup can remain empty.

 

And that is just one verse. Behind all words, especially ones that hold such great truths, there is a whole universe waiting.

 

This piece is an updated version of one I posted on Facebook in 2011.

Welcome to the Green-Walled Chapel

Welcome. Come on in and sit down and let me tell you where you’ve found yourself.

This is the Green-Walled Chapel, called such because it is a recently built annex to the Green-Walled Tower, my other blog. Let me tell you why it is here.

I have been wanting to start this blog for some time, but until recently I didn’t have much time to run two blogs at the same time. Usually when asked to tell a bit about myself, I mention that I am a Christian and a writer. The Green-Walled Tower is my (mostly) fiction blog, but because of this I never felt it was a good place to share a lot about my faith. So that is why this is here.

First of all, here is what the Green-Walled Chapel is not. It is not a cathedral, a place where one person proclaims and many listen. It is not a place of preaching. It is not a place of condemnation. It is also not a place for bad logic or personal attacks.

One of the reasons I chose a chapel is that a chapel is smaller and more personal (also, it matches the word “tower” in syllable and stress pattern). The Green-Walled Chapel is:

1. A place where everyone is welcome, from all denominations, faiths and religions, or no religion at all. We might not agree on everything, but I want to create a constructive, open environment.

2. A place to wrestle with the big questions of faith, religion, and philosophy

3. A place to speculate

4. A place of honesty and logical arguments

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copyright David Stewart

5. A place of respect, no matter what. I welcome different points of view, even if we can’t agree, but always with respect.

Finally, this blog, as well as my beliefs, are based on the idea of objective truth, that reality is a certain way whether we agree with it or can every know what it is. That is what I am interested in searching for.

I hope to post every week, on Monday morning to give you something to start your week with. I would post more, but for the moment, that is all I can do. If you find something you find intriguing, infuriating, or commendable, please comment and share with others.

So again, welcome. Make yourself at home.