A response to the actions of the President in front of St. John’s Church

On Monday, June 1, President Trump walked from the White House to a cleared Lafayette Square where he posed for pictures for the media at St. John’s Episcapal Church while holding a bible. This happened moments after he announced his intentions to mobilize the military into cities across our country in response to protests and riots that have resulted from the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.  

While details continue to emerge regarding the clearing of Lafayette Square, which ultimately resulted in a clear pathway for the president, the reports of the Square’s clearing trouble me.  

Especially troubling to me is the testimony of Reverend Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John’s Episcapal Church in Georgetown (she admits how confusing it is for both churches to have the same name).  Rev. Gerbasi claims that she and other clergy were offering pastoral presence to protesters and neighbors at St. John’s on Lafayette Square when they were forcibly removed from the church grounds.  Her story states that this occurred about 30 minutes before the city-wide curfew went into effect.

Whether or not the White House was fully aware of the actions and tactics of police that evening, and whether or not the actions of police are believed to be justified by some (I find them deeply concerning), the backdrop of these reports makes the image of the president holding up a bible in front of a boarded up church deeply upsetting to me, and I condemn this action by the president.

The bible, church buildings and clergy serve critical functions in the Christian faith.  They also serve as powerful symbols of Jesus Christ, his mission and the witness of his church.  Especially at a time when our streets call out for justice to end police brutality and root out systemic racism, the way these symbols are used matter.  Jesus concerned himself with how the religious symbols of his day were being used, and he spoke out boldly in order to protect their sanctity (for example, Sabbath, table fellowship, Temple).  

The bible, the church, and pastoral presence are matters that I have dedicated my life to.  I do not always get them right.  I practice at these sacred things with fervency every day.  They are a call on my life.  So I was angered to see the most powerful man in our country hold up our sacred text in front of a church, while sirens blared in the background, immediately after speaking for military force, and after the forceful removal of pastors and protesters, many of them peaceful.  It is obvious to me that this image set within the context of our time and the context of that evening lends to the idea that Christian Scripture and the Christian Church support the power structures of this world where people strive to have power over others, and lord it over them.

Jesus taught the opposite.  He taught values of self-sacrifice, setting free the oppressed, and the imperative that the greatest among us must be the servant of all.  It is undeniable that there are threads in the bible that elevate war and conquest. But many Christian traditions, including my own, filter these through the grid of Jesus’ life, a man of peace and protest.  

Jesus stood squarely and unflinchingly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. My mind turns to passages such as Amos 5, Isaiah 58, Ezekiel 22.  Jesus drank deeply from these wells, and quoted them often, including his most notable act of protest clearing the Temple and overturning tables, and then shouting the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, “My Temple is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” 

The tradition of the prophets speaks against injustice, it advocates the cause of the oppressed, and it elevates righteousness – the fair and proper treatment of all people – as the true act of worship.  This is what the bible stands for.

The image of the president holding up a bible in front of a church after calls for “domination” in our streets, after voices for justice were forcibly removed, and pastoral presence was tear-gassed, is an image that is antithetical to the teaching found within the very book the president held over his head. 

Furthermore, as a pastor who serves a Baptist congregation, I am an advocate for the separation of church and state both in dictation and patronage, but also in symbol.  The separation of church and state is as identifiable to the Baptist tradition as our baptism practices themselves. The bible, church buildings, and pastoral presence are the realm of the church as commissioned by our Lord Jesus.  It doesn’t sit well with me when state officials take up these sacred Christian symbols for photo ops, especially after rhetoric of state force.

Let me be clear, I support any civic leader who wishes to practice their faith (whatever their faith is), and honor the sanctity of sacred symbols.  But a Christian church is a place of prayer.  During the president’s visit, no prayer was spoken.  A Christian church is a place for hearing the Word of God.  During the visit, no Scripture was read.  A Christian church is a place of healing and pastoral presence.  Yet, before the visit, clergy were removed with the use of pain-causing gas cans.  A Christian Church is a place to testify to the goodness and the greatness of God.  The president testified only to the greatness of the country.  Watching the video again this morning, the entire episode appears to be strictly a photo opportunity.  It plagues me.

Yes, I support the genuine practice of faith of our civic servants.  What I cannot support is a photo op at a Christian Church, without permission, of a state official holding up the sacred text immediately after giving a speech glorifying state power that has literally pushed aside cries for justice for centuries on an evening when the servants of Jesus Christ were removed from a church where they were comforting those who mourn.  

During my time of prayer for the nation on Thursday night, which included prayers for the family of George Floyd as well as the president, God’s Spirit spoke to me, “Abraham, how will you be a force for change?”  I know that God’s claim on me will call me to that question again and again.  Right now God is pushing me to own my ignorance.  I will make efforts to listen and learn.  God is pushing me to take responsibility for my prejudice.  I can no longer pretend that I am not playing a part.   God is pushing me to speak against systemic racism in ways that I have been silent.  By God’s grace I will learn to live out true repentance with resolve, knowing that I will make mistakes, and then repent again when I do.  By His tender mercy.

-Pastor Abraham Johnson