On Burning and Rotting
One does not need to be an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church or for the Government of Canada or for the wretched legacy of Indian Residential schools to be alarmed at and deeply troubled by the spate of recent church burnings that have taken place across Canada. I probably should not need to begin a post with a sentence like that—i.e., it should be fairly unremarkable that a person could feel grief and anger toward historical injustices perpetrated by the church and simultaneously be convinced that burning houses of worship to the ground is wrong—but such are the times we live in. We are forever sorting one another into moral categories. It can be a risky thing to risk the wrath of the online mob by expressing the wrong moral sentiment. Or the right moral sentiment directed toward the wrong group. Or the right moral sentiment expressed with the wrong degree of certainty or outrage. Or… well, you’ve presumably been online in the last few years. You get the idea.
The Roman Catholic church is not a particularly popular or sympathetic institution, at present, for reasons that are well (and appropriately) documented. And the response to these burnings from politicians and other public officials has predictably been somewhat muted. There are condemnations, certainly, but often with a tinge of, “Well, yes, but you see it’s understandable given the history here…” If these were Canadian mosques or gurdwaras or Buddhist temples being reduced to ash, one suspects the public narrative would be rather different (it would not be difficult to find historical injustices associated with these institutions and symbols either, even if these do not have the same emotional, geographic, or social proximity as those connected to the churches that are burning). But our history in this nation, for good and for ill, has been profoundly influenced and shaped by the church. This is where we live.
The act of burning carries with it a lot of symbolic freight. It can be a symbol for the white-hot rage that many indigenous people (again, appropriately) feel toward all that they have endured at the hands of the church. “Burn it to the ground” could simply be an attempt to destroy and consign to oblivion. There may be the idea of something like self-immolation at work—offering oneself or one’s institutions up as a sacrifice to atone for sin (this article conveys such sentiments). It can also take on purificatory connotations. The idea of fire as a tool of refining and burning away impurities is found throughout Scripture (e.g., Zech 13:9). In this case, the church itself represents an impurity, a stain on our more morally evolved cultural moment. It must be purged and refined according to present sensibilities if it is to remain.
I suspect that some combination of what’s described in the preceding paragraph is at work in how we as a nation are viewing these church burnings. They’re wrong, yes, but… We have little fondness for the church or the ugly parts of its history. We lament the aesthetic loss, perhaps, but the thought of those children… and all that abuse of wealth and power… and all that naked racism and cultural imperialism. Many Canadians wouldn’t say “Burn it to the ground” publicly (unless they work for the BC Civil Liberties Association, perhaps), but privately we’re more or less ok with editing this chapter out of Canada’s past. Good riddance. Etc.
Speaking of editing the past. I read an article this morning where I encountered a term that was new to me: link rot. In a world where so much information is migrating online and where there is so little regulation, apparently plenty gets lost along the way. Or modified. Or “updated” to reflect current moral sensibilities. Or deleted. Link rot describes the phenomenon of hyperlinks no longer working or pointing to the same external content that they once did. A link to an article that you posted in 2017, for example may or may not still work in 2021. One study found that “50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.” That’s some significant slippage.
Even here on my own little blog, I’ve linked to a lot of content over fourteen years. I did a quick check on a few posts that I wrote over a decade ago. Sure enough, over half of the links in those posts no longer work. Who knows, the links in this very article might not work by the time you read it! I could simply remove the rotten links, but a) that would be tedious and cumbersome work; and b) it would make the post that cited them somewhat confusing. A lot of what I write here references specific content and context. If that content and context is lost or inaccessible? Well, then I guess readers just have to trust me.
I remember in the early years of blogging, I realized that along with the obvious power I had to change past posts whenever I wanted, I could also edit other people’s comments. Say they had made a point that was inconvenient for my argument, or they quoted something I had said that was inaccurate or wrong or reflected poorly on me in some way, or I was just generally finding them an irritating conversation partner. Well, I could just change or delete any comment that didn’t flatter me or my story. As it happens, I think that this is deceitful and immoral. I couldn’t live with myself if I was forever editing what other people said or changing old posts that contained things that I wouldn’t say the same way anymore. But I suspect many people could.
It’s a tricky business, this editing of the past according to what we prefer in the present, whether the tools are an outraged conflagration or sneakily changing the narrative online. There is something rotten about our zeal to “burn it down,” whether literally or digitally. If we cannot access the past truthfully, how will we understand the moral trajectory that has led to our present vantage point? How will we cultivate the capacity to cultivate even a bit of self-critical distance from our imagined righteousness and moral purity? And, at the risk of stating what should be obvious, what gives us such confidence that our current vantage point is so free of moral contaminants? How, I wonder, will future generations evaluate our particular cultural and moral moment? My strong suspicion is that it will get rather mixed reviews.
Earlier I referenced the notion of the “refiners fire” found in Scripture. As I said, I suspect many Canadians privately view these church burnings as a kind of purificatory symbol in light of our nation’s sinful past. The main difference, of course, is that in Scripture it is God doing the purifying and refining, not us. A rather important distinction, it seems to me.