In the book of Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet shares instructions from God about entering a place of worship.
“Stand at the gate of the house of the Lord and proclaim this message there,” God tells the prophet. “Reform your ways and your deeds so that I may dwell with you in this place.” You can enter, the prophet relays, only “if each of you deals justly with your neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 7: 1-10).
These words came to mind as the shocking photos of Donald Trump standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Bible in hand, flashed across TVs, computers, and phones.
What was the president trying to convey? It certainly was not a call to reform our ways, to deal justly with our neighbor, or welcome the alien, the widow, and the orphan.
Only a short time before the president’s appearance, the full coercive power of the state was unleashed on people peacefully protesting brutal violence against black Americans. They were chased from Lafayette Square in a barrage of teargas and rubber bullets.
Many white Americans were shocked by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. But for black Americans, this was only the most recent incident in a 400-year history of racism. The rallies and marches taking place across the country demonstrate how this deep wound continues to fester.
The president’s response should elicit nothing short of condemnation from followers of Jesus.
In a conference call with governors, the president urged them to “dominate,” arrest, and imprison demonstrators for “ten years.” He chided the governors for not acting with greater force, labeling them “jerks” for not doing so. There was not one word from the president about racism or its long legacy of oppression and exclusion.
There were other reasons Trump’s church photo-op was shameful as well. For one thing, the president stood in front of a church sign that said “All Are Welcome.” The hypocrisy is almost too much to bear.
The Trump administration has effectively closed our borders, consigning many asylum seekers to remain in dangerous Mexican border towns while they wait for their asylum hearings.
Persons from certain countries, which the president has described in vulgar and derogatory terms, are banned from the U.S., and tens of thousands of migrants languish in jails and for-profit detention centers where they face a heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic and recession have fallen heaviest on communities of color. These are situations that should remind us that we are one people, that our health is intimately related to the health of everyone else.
I am a Catholic sister. Our deepest belief as Christians — whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or Evangelical — holds that we are all children of the same loving God and are responsible for one another.
Unfortunately, our president, even though he chose to stand in front of a Christian church with the Scriptures in his hands, does not seem to understand this most basic tenet of our faith.
He ignored the pandemic for weeks, forced the states into destructive bidding wars for supplies, ignored the counsel of public health professionals, and belittled mitigation measures by refusing to wear a mask or practice social distancing.
And now, he’s beaten and tear gassed people peacefully protesting for justice for their neighbors.
The president is using churches and the faith community as a backdrop for his reelection campaign — and nothing more. Rather than posing in front of a church, Trump would be wise to go inside and spend some time reflecting on the message of Jesus.