Sri Lanka and Notre-Dame

Ray Porter reflects on the fire of Notre-Dame and the murder of people in Sri Lankan churches on Easter Sunday, and asks where our prayer and support will go.

A French nun stood in front of the burning cathedral and said that it was only a building; the church of God is people. In Sri Lanka a few days later, over 200 of those people died. As words came from politicians that Notre-Dame must be restored, millionaires rushed forward with offers of large sums of money. No millionaires rushed forward to support the suffering families of Sri Lankans or to rebuild their churches. From Sri Lanka there were only pictures of coffins being carried to graves and even the number of the dead was uncertain.

The Western press had pictures and stories of tourists who had died, but the Sri Lanka Christians remained anonymous. Notre-Dame survived the fire. No lives were lost. Sentiment was high that this symbol of France, the testament to a nation’s lost faith, must be a continuing part of Paris life. In Sri Lanka perpetrators were pursued, security chiefs resigned, churches were closed and tourists warned away. Paris resumed normal life and the causes of the accident were sought. The Sri Lanka victims are still dead.

The juxtaposition of these two events raises questions for all and maybe especially for evangelical Christians. What is our attitude to places like Notre-Dame? When we hear of the efforts made to remove relics like the Crown of Thorns, every Protestant bone wants to cry out at Romish superstition. But then we see the picture of the burnt interior and there is the shining empty cross, and our heart is warmed that that symbol of our Saviour is so prominent.

We put on one side French national pride and remember that this building was put up before the Reformation by people who desired that central to the city should be God’s house. Misused at times down the centuries, it survived the pagan revolution of the 18th century. If we have any feeling for architecture, we see that there is a beauty in the structure that points to God’s glory, and we long to see it as a gospel centre with spiritual life like that depicted in the picture of an imaginary cathedral by Hendrick van Steenwijck. Bringing together the aesthetic delight of structure with gospel vitality would be the best of all possible worlds, but we may not welcome its repair bills without a few millionaires around! Meanwhile, we pray for France and ask that somehow as people ask about their attitude to the cathedral they also think about their relationship with God.

Is all this far removed from the Christian church in Sri Lanka? There we are also dealing primarily with Roman Catholic people, and we may wonder how central the scriptures have been to their faith and what understanding they had of the cross of Christ. And yet here are people who had come together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and who met with death because they had identified with Christ. But it was not only Catholics who were killed. The attack on the churches was a deliberate attempt to kill Christians because they were Christians, whether they were Roman Catholics or Protestants. Terrorists do not do courses in church history or theology. We need to honour all those who die because of the name of Christ.

This event should also make us even more concerned to support and pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. The Western church has not historically been kind to the country, especially when Heber produced what is perhaps the most racially prejudiced stanza in British hymnary:

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone

Sri Lankan Christians have suffered much both in their testimony to the gospel and as citizens of their island. In the years of conflict between Tamils and the majority Singhalese, they sought to give a testimony of unity in Jesus. They have lived through natural disasters such as the tsunami in 2004, political instability, increasing Buddhist militancy, and being a minority in a hostile environment. Their suffering has brought blessing to the world church.

Out of the present tragedy there is the testimony of the Pastor of Zion Baptist Church that speaks of forgiveness for the perpetrators. From a previous generation we may recall DT Niles’ description of Christianity being one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. They are a challenge to all patronising or superior attitudes that have so often characterised the West.

Who has not benefitted from the writings and preaching of men such as Ajith Fernando and Vinoth Ramachandra? Here are two men who have received many invitations to take up positions elsewhere in the world, but who have deliberately remained in their home country because they believe it is there that they must serve God. And both have ministered to the world out of that experience. They have two very different ministries. Vinoth is challenging us to try to think like a majority world Christian who has suffered from poverty, physical suffering, and Western colonialism (to name just a few issues). The challenge of Ajith is different. It is the spiritual challenge to a real following of Jesus.

Here is the real contrast between Notre-Dame and Sri Lankan churches. The one speaks of the era of Christendom, the power of French monarchs and the Roman Catholic Church. It speaks of Western triumph and national pride. It is a world with which millionaires want to be identified. And Sri Lanka shows poor and suffering believers; a reproduction of the bruised body of Christ; evangelical believers seeking to live out the gospel in deed and word.

The spire of Notre-Dame will rise again, but dying believers will have a more glorious resurrection. Which do we want to be identified with? Which will be the subject of our prayer and ongoing support?

Ray Porter

Photos by TVNZ and manhhai