Why Shouldn’t We Have Beautiful Churches?

I stumbled across a great (and challenging) blogpost the other day. Perhaps you’ve heard someone once say something like “Why not sell all the gold and silver in churches and use the money to feed the poor?” I know I’ve used this argument before because I think we should be in radical fellowship with the poor. However, as this blog points out, there are some problems with that idea. I’d also like to add a few of my own thoughts:

First, by selling all the pretty objects and artwork and giving the money to the poor, are we really being in radical fellowship with those experiencing poverty? Or are we just continuing to treat them as objects?

Second, does throwing money at a “problem” ever solve the problem? As the blogpost points out, what happens when we run out of that money? Unless we attack the root problems that cause poverty, all the money in the world won’t do much long-term good.

Third, I’m a firm believer that the best art is contextual. That is, a great piece of art is created for a certain physical space. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is breathtaking in the Sistine Chapel. It would not be quite so meaningful and breathtaking were it on my bathroom ceiling. As such, I’ve been confronted with the cognitive dissonance that the conflicting ideas of contextual artwork and “sell the art, feed the poor” brings into my head.

Fourth, I have to ask about the actions of those who tend to make these arguments. Have they sold off everything pretty in their house to feed the poor? Do they still have Xboxes, iPads, iPhones, Wii’s, Playstations, flat-screen TVs, artwork, or any other items that are not strictly necessary? I would venture to guess that pretty much everyone who makes the argument of “sell the pretty things, feed the poor” has not done so themselves. I know I haven’t, although I do try to keep my spending to necessities and give as much away as I can.

Finally, I would address the practical concerns about stripping artwork out of churches. Most every church is open, free-of-cost, to the public. Westminster Abbey was free-of-cost last time I was there. While the Berliner Dom and the Hamburg Michel charge a nominal fee for entry, the fee is waived if one attends one of the numerous daily devotions or services. Thus, as far as I’ve experienced, this artwork is available for everyone. Now, let’s assume that churches would sell their artwork to museums (although presumably private collectors could pay more and so the churches should sell to them for higher profit and more money for the poor.) Museums are a mixed bag. Some have free entry (much of the Smithsonian last I was there,) some require payment (the Pergamon in Berlin.) If the museum requires payment, then the artwork is not available to everyone. It becomes only available to those with some disposable income. Thus, those in poverty (while perhaps having a temporarily full belly) are now excluded from beauty. And if the artwork is sold to a private collection, then who does get to see it? Perhaps the artwork is simply locked away in some safe as an “investment.” What a waste of beauty!

The blogpost was a good challenge to my thinking. Those who argue we should strip the churches to feed the poor are ignoring 2.000 years of Christian action to help those in poverty. The “strip the churches” argument continues to treat those in poverty as objects rather than as people we should be in fellowship with. Quite simply, the “strip the churches” argument is engaging in a false dichotomy. It assumes we can either have pretty churches, or we can end poverty. This is blatantly untrue. Stripping the churches is not the silver bullet that will finally end poverty. Only when we listen to the Church and end our culture of exploitation and power domination will we have made a significant impact against poverty.

We can have pretty churches and feed the poor, and we should do both.

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~ by crossingthebosporus on July 8, 2012.

3 Responses to “Why Shouldn’t We Have Beautiful Churches?”

  1. We also need to ask what we mean by ‘feed’? Man does not live by bread alone – we have that on the best Authority. Our spirits need feeding. When men and women have laboured to create something of beauty to God, they have done so in prayer, and they have done it in order that the rest of us may worship God in the beauty of holiness. Sometimes Our Lord wants the precious oinment used to anoint Him.

    • And you know, I’ve been relatively poor (student poor) in the past but I never walked into a church and had the thought of: “I wish this church would sell all this nice stuff so I can pay down my debts.” Actually the churches were usually a beautiful and safe refuge from whatever worries I had in my daily life at the time.

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