Thistlethwaite: The Bible is not a prop
Donald Trump just committed sacrilege for a staged photo opportunity of him holding up a bible with a church as a background.
Sacrilege is the violation of things that should be held sacred, as I have taught for so long as a Christian theologian and pastor.
But the sacrilege was not just holding up of a bible in front of a church used as a stage.
A deep sacrilege was the deliberate, physical harm done to Americans exercising their right to peaceful assembly who were hit with tear gas and forcibly moved away to clear the street just so Donald Trump could awkwardly hold a bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal church.
Tear gas hurts. A lot. I don’t know if you have ever been tear-gassed, but I have — a long time ago in demonstrations against the Vietnam war. That was bad enough, but today’s tear gas is worse. Tear gases are chemical compounds that irritate the eyes, skin, lungs, and more, and in turn, make people unable to function, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains.
That’s right. Donald Trump had a gas that affects the lungs blasted at Americans peacefully exercising their right to free assembly in the age of coronavirus, a virus that attacks the lungs. It is beyond despicable.
It is sacrilege to use the bible, a sacred text, as a stunt prop and choose that over the suffering of these human beings.
And to do this in front of one of the great treasures of American Christianity, St. John’s Episcopal Church, brought to my mind the words of Jesus of Nazareth about the “desolating sacrilege” that can happen in the profaning of holy places (Matthew 24:15).
Many American presidents have prayed at St. John’s Episcopal church, but as the Rev. Mariann Budde, whose diocese St. John’s belongs to, said in a statement that she was “outraged” by Trump’s visit and noted that he didn’t pray while stopping by the church.
“He took the symbols sacred to our tradition and stood in front of a house of prayer in full expectation that would be a celebratory moment,” Budde said in an interview after her statement on Trump’s visit was posted to the diocese’s Twitter account.
“There was nothing I could do but speak out against that,” she added, calling for a focus on “the deeper wounds of the country” amid ongoing demonstrations against racial injustice.
Apparently, a priest and a seminarian were forcibly expelled from the church grounds an hour before Trump’s stunt.
But Rev. Budde is right to focus on the “deeper wounds” that Trump’s stunt was attempting to cover with a show of piety.
The marches and demonstrations that have spread around this country in the last week are about the murderous treatment of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police officers and the abject failure of town after town, city after city, state after state and, indeed, this nation to stop it. Many believe, as I do, that the systemic failures to stop these atrocities are by design, to enable the denial of equal civil rights to African Americans.
You could accurately call this “policing by death.” In a recent study, the results showed black men had a 1 in 1,000 chance in being killed by police — just higher than the odds the average American has of dying in a motorcycle crash. Black women and men together are the Americans who are most likely to be killed by police officers. “They are nearly twice as likely to be killed as a Latinx person and nearly three times more likely to be killed than a white person.”
That is the real sacrilege, the killing of African Americans whose lives are sacred, with nearly complete impunity by police.
If Trump ever bothered to actually open a bible and read what is there, he might learn that human beings are made in the image of God as Genesis 1:27 tells us.
And from Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.”
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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