I try to focus more on issues and social dynamics rather than individual politicians, but when one of them–in this case Donald Trump–makes or tries to make a religious statement that directly hurts people, I feel that is fair game.
On Monday of last week, Donald Trump spoke briefly in the Rose Garden of the White House. While this was happening, protests over racially motivated killings were happening Lafayette Square and on Pennsylvania Avenue nearby.
These were peaceful protests and some of the clergy from St. John’s Episcopal Church were there in solidarity with the demonstrators because that church had sustained damage from a small fire set by rioters the night before.
Out of nowhere, without verbal warning, riot police descended on this peaceful gathering. Rubber bullets were shot into the crowd; concussion grenades were launched into this peaceful crowd along with tear gas. They came swinging their shields and batons.
The people in the crowd were not doing anything but milling around, mind you. So why did this happen?
It happened so that the way could be cleared for Donald Trump to cross through that area in order to stand in front of St. John’s church for a photo opportunity with him holding up a bible. He was there for a couple of minutes and then left.
The number of words that come to mind about this are many but “disgraceful” and “provocative” are right up there. This was needless violence against innocent people.
The reaction of the clergy from that church and from that Episcopal Diocese says it all.
Rector Gini Gerbasi, who previously worked at St. John’s on Lafayette Square and now works at the St. John’s in nearby Georgetown, said she was helping the Black Lives Matter organizers, fellow clergy and others hand out water during the peaceful protest when the tear gas and rubber bullets were fired.
“That man turned it into a battle ground first, and a cheap political stunt second,” she said of Trump. “We were literally driven off of the St. John’s Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear.” She said she was ok but “shaken” by the ordeal.
Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., told the Washington Post that she was “not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop.”
She later tweeted that the president “used a bible and a church of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for. To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. The president did not come to pray; he did not lament the death of George Floyd or acknowledge the collective agony of people of color in our nation. He did not attempt to heal or bring calm to our troubled land. The bible teaches us to love God and our neighbor; that all people are beloved children of God; that we are to do justice and love kindness. The president used our sacred text as a symbol of division.”
The pastor of St. John’s also added: “I feel like I’m in some alternative universe in a way.”
Florida bishop Greg Brewer added: “This was blasphemy in real time.”
And that’s what it was. Who would do such a thing in the name of our faith?
It only makes things worse right now because of course some people will say: “Well if that is how you treat peaceful protesters, why should I bother being peaceful?” It incites further violence.
But beyond it making things worse, to use our faith–which I’m convinced he knows nothing about–as an excuse to fire concussion grenades and rubber bullets and to send riot police to violently push back a peaceful crowd is nothing short of blasphemy at the very least.
For me, this one act—as violent as it was—relieves the president of any claim to the label “Christian”.
I stand with the clergy of St. John’s and the protesters who were there that day and pray for their healing.