The devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral has generated unexpected headlines following the revelation that $600m has been pledged by Philanthropists to rebuild the cathedral within 24 hours of the fire breaking out.
As this article on Civil Society has noted, social media was quick to highlight the disparity in response from the wealthy between the famous Parisian landmark, and the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017. One popular tweet read:
“Some French billionaires have pledged 600+ million euros for Notre Dame in less than 12 hours. Shows how easily billionaires could end world hunger, poverty, lack of access to healthcare/clean water/education but don’t. 600+ million in twelve hours from just 3 people.”
This tweet is the most succinct version of the argument for left-wing politics I have come across, and by far the best explanation of why socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn are being heard by ordinary people. Their logical argument runs:
(1) money can solve the grave issues facing the world
(2) the richest individuals clearly have money that they do not need, if they can finance something like refurbishing a cathedral, therefore
(3) they will not voluntarily share their wealth to help the poor, therefore
(4) they must be compelled to share their wealth through taxation.
It is a superficially attractive argument, appealing to our sense that we have a duty to help the marginalised locally and globally, and to our sense of outrage that those who have the means to do something about it are refusing to do so. Because, let’s face it, it’s a lot more comfortable to be outraged at someone else, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, this comfortable view misses a point. There has been another outpouring of emotion on social media about Notre Dame – grief of a different kind. Grief for the artistic treasures that have been forever lost due to the fire; grief for the history that has been destroyed. And that grief has motivated even those without wealth to action to regenerate Notre Dame, and to recover and rescue as much of the cathedral as possible.
And that poses a much more awkward question: why are people, regardless of their wealth, so much more moved and motivated by the loss of beautiful art, than by the anguish of the impoverished?
Lest the reader protest, let me be clear that I am absolutely convinced that those blessed with great advantages, whether in wealth, influence, connections or opportunity, are also charged with a responsibility to use those advantages for the benefit of all. What I am about to say does not excuse those wealthy individuals and groups who are capable of using their wealth or influence for great good, and refuse to do so.
But it is also true that while it is easy to declaim wealthy philanthropists who would rebuild Notre Dame, it is less easy to ask if you are using your own advantages, however great or small, to make a difference where you are. It is not a comfortable thought that the problem might not be unique to those with great wealth, but in fact may lie instead with a human heart that is selfish by nature, despite its capacity for good and compassion. The human heart responds willingly to what it loves and desires. A selfish human heart loves that which brings it pleasure far more than doing good that benefits others.
We must not shy from addressing this thought however. It is one matter to ask ‘how might we compel people to live the right way?’ – a dangerously totalitarian way of viewing governance. It is quite another to ask how one might live out the instruction written to Hebrews in the early church – to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’ I am persuaded that more good comes where everyone is persuaded to live an abundant and generous life, than where superficial philanthropy is coerced.