On Monday, April 15, 2019, fire disrupted the evening tranquility of one of the world’s most sacred sites.
Anxieties rose up with the smoke and flames as emergency responders raced to preserve a site more than a thousand years old. Deemed a world treasure by the United Nations, onlookers whispered prayers for the sacred space hoping it would survive the blinding inferno.
You’re probably recalling the blaze that occurred at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. But I would invite you to think again. Notre Dame indeed was almost destroyed by fire that day, but the treasured representation of French Gothic architecture is less than 900 years old. Instead, I’m speaking of sacred space with far more religious history. I’m speaking about the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Al Aqsa Matters
Some 4 centuries older than Notre Dame, this relic is located on what some consider the holiest piece of property in the world. The Al Aqsa Complex (including the Dome of the Rock) sits on Mount Moriah. This is prime real estate in Jerusalem. This is the ancient peak Abraham ascends to offer his son Isaac some 4000 years ago. Later, this same site became the location for Solomon’s Temple. And more than a few believe it to be the place where the Ark of the Covenant actually sat within the Holy of Holies.
Both of these sacred buildings had fires on the very same day. So why didn’t you hear about the Al Aqsa fire on the news as well?
I believe the reason is twofold. First, the Notre Dame fire was bigger – much bigger. In fact, the flames almost destroyed the entire 52,000-square-foot building. The devastation was so extensive that repair costs rose as high as $1 billion! By comparison, the Al Aqsa fire was minor. The damage was confined to a prayer room and a guard house due to the rapid reaction of firefighters. The disparity between the scale of the two fires is indisputable
But I still believe that there’s another reason worthy of our consideration; one regarding priorities.
Fire Reveals Priorities
It may be a sad irony, but a fire tends to reveal your priorities. If you want to know what you value let a fire break out. Your mind will immediately assign value to things as you rush to secure your most “important” items. Whether you reach for your laptop, grab your mobile phone, or search for important documents, a fire will tell you what you value most.
In the case of the fires of April 15, what we learned was that we value sacred spaces in Europe more than we value sacred spaces in the Middle East – especially if that Middle Eastern sacred space happens to bear a Muslim-sounding name.
The world’s media focused on the flames of Notre Dame with an intensity equal to the fire itself. The eyes – and camera lens – of the world locked on to the flaming cathedra. The heartbreak of millions encircled the globe like a contagion on angels’ wings. This was Notre Dame; this was France – and Paris, France at that. The brilliance of the Renaissance and the mystique of French regality were all invoked when those cameras stared unblinkingly as Notre Dame seemed destined for doom.
The Irony of Prejudice
If we’re honest, we have to admit that the Western world maintains a certain romance with French things. Many of us are reluctant Francophiles. We like things with French-sounding names because we perceive that it makes them more desirable. From Cadillac to Au Bon Pain (two American-made products that make the use of French-sounding names) French names have drawn us in, and out attraction to all French things continues. Whether we wish to admit it or not, French things (and by extension, other Eurocentric things) – from fashion to food – get more attention.
This includes Notre Dame.
By contrast, Al Aqsa is clearly Muslim-sounding; and in our Western culture Muslim names tend to be treated prejudicially. It is documented that a Muslim-sounding name on a resume or application will diminish your chances for advancement, and these prejudices probably extend to the wider context of societal considerations.
When Deliverance Discriminates
Accordingly, when the first news stories regarding the fire at Al Aqsa finally surfaced they were met with stunning indifference. The usual prayers were offered. But such is nothing more than detached care in comparison to the global support offered to Notre Dame.
So much money was offered to France that it seemed like millionaires and billionaires were competing to see who could contribute the most. In fact, the world offered its aid and assistance to the cathedral long before a rebuilding effort was even announced. Even (then) President Trump went out of his way to pledge American support to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort. Now, if only he could find federal dollars to aid in the rebuilding of the three historically Black churches in Louisiana. Or maybe the President could even offer support to American citizens in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico?
But all this simply goes to show that fire reveals things. And the fires of April 15th revealed that an unholy degree of prejudice still influences how we assess needs and respond to emergencies.
A Fire That Cleanses
But fire also has the capacity to cleanse. Fire can be very effective in clearing away and allowing for new growth and creativity. What if these fires accomplished this also? What if the fires in two very different holy places are helping us clear away the bigotries and perceptions that cause us to value some people over others; some cultures over others; some religions over others. Perhaps the fires of Al Aqsa and Notre Dame will allow for new growth of equality and fairness. Perhaps these fires will purge us of the discrimination that prevents us from “loving mercy, and doing justice…” If so, instead of threatening to destroy, the fires at Notre Dame and Al Aqsa are aiding us. Maybe these fires can purify our hearts – some of the most important sacred spaces on the Earth.