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Presiding Bishop rebukes Trump for using church in a political stunt

02 June 2020


President Trump poses with a Bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church, opposite the White House, on Monday

President Trump poses with a Bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church, opposite the White House, on Monday

THE Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry, has rebuked President Trump for using a church for “partisan political purposes” while riots, sparked by the death of George Floyd, continued to escalate.

On Monday evening, President Trump posed outside St John’s Episcopal Church, opposite the White House, holding a Bible. The basement of the building, which is known as “the church of the presidents”, had been set alight during protests calling for justice for Mr Floyd. He died in the city of Minneapolis last Monday while being detained by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who could be seen in a video kneeling on his neck.

As the protests swelled outside his residence last week, President Trump reportedly took refuge in his underground bunker. He tweeted that if the demonstrators “got too frisky or out of line”, they “would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” of the Secret Service. The tweets were reported as inciting violence.

Police used teargas, rubber bullets, and physical force to clear the streets of protesters before the photoshoot outside the church.

The Rector of St John’s, Georgetown, two miles away from the White House, the Revd Gini Gerbasi, wrote on Facebook on Monday evening that she had been on the patio area outside St John’s, Lafayette Square, opposite the White House, handing out water and snacks to protesters, when police arrived and fired tear gas and concussion grenades at them, and pushed people off the patio.

“By the time I got back to my car, around 7, I was getting texts from people saying that Trump was outside of St. John’s, Lafayette Square,” she wrote. “I literally COULD NOT believe it. WE WERE DRIVEN OFF OF THE PATIO AT ST. JOHN’S — a place of peace and respite and medical care throughout the day — SO THAT MAN COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH!!! PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE!”

PAPolice used teargas, rubber bullets, and physical force to clear the streets of protesters before the photoshoot outside St John’s

She continued: “The patio of St. John’s, Lafayette square had been HOLY GROUND today. A place of respite and laughter and water and granola bars and fruit snacks. But that man turned it into a BATTLE GROUND first, and a cheap political stunt second.”

Bishop Curry said in a statement on Monday: “This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a Bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us. . .

“The Bible the President held up and the church that he stood in front of represent the values of love, of justice, of compassion, and of a way to heal our hurts. We need our President, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values.

“For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all’.”

The Bishop of Washington, the Rt Revd Mariann Budde, went further, tellingThe Washington Post: “I am outraged. I am the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and 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 said of President Trump: “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

She later told CNN: “The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. We align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others. And I just can’t believe what my eyes have seen.”

In a newsletter to congregants of St Clement’s, Cambridge, quoted in the Financial Times on Thursday, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, said: “Objectively this was an act of idolatry standing somewhere else than the truth, using the text that witnesses to God’s disruptive majesty as a prop in a personal drama. In a context where racial privilege itself has long been an idolatry, where long-unchallenged institutional violence has been a routine means for the self-defence of that privilege, the image of the president clinging to the Scriptures as if to an amulet is bizarre even by the standards of recent years.”

In a sermon preached at Washington Cathedral on Pentecost Sunday, Bishop Curry described the situation as another “pandemic, not of the viral kind, but of the spiritual kind. It is a pandemic of the human spirit, when our lives are focused on ourselves, when the self becomes the center of the world and of the universe. And it may be even more destructive than a virus.”

He continued: “I was a teenager when my father warned me when I learned how to drive, that if ever you have encounters with the police, obey, do what they say. Do not talk back and watch how you move your hands. I was told that in the 1960s and we’re still having to say it today.”

In an article in The Washington Post, published on Sunday, Bishop Curry wrote: “Our nation’s heart breaks right now because we have strayed far from the path of love. Because love does not look like one man’s knee on another man’s neck, crushing the God-given life out of him. This is callous disregard for the life of another human being, shown in the willingness to snuff it out brutally as the unarmed victim pleads for mercy.”

He continued: “When I think about what love looks like, I see us channeling our holy rage into concrete, productive and powerful action. In this moment, love looks like voting for leadership at the local, state, and federal level that will help us to make lasting reform. Love looks like calling on officials and demanding they fulfill their duty to protect the dignity of every child of God.”

PAPresident Trump and Melania Trump at the St John Paul II national shrine, Washington, DC, on Tuesday

The article was retweeted on Tuesday by the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Powerful and prophetic words,” he wrote. “We pray for you, we lament with you, we stand alongside you.”

Archbishop Welby later posted a video on social media in which he said: “The terrible events in the States, the power of them, the appalling video we saw, the tragedy of the rage is springing from deep senses of generational injustice. . . The act of reconciliation requires justice, not simply forgetting. It requires transformation of our society.” 

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, was asked about the handling of the protests in an interview broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning.

He said: “People somehow think that because you’ve got the power and the authority, you can abuse that authority. Martin Luther King said that violence only creates more social problems than it solves, and as far as he was concerned, if you return violence for violence, you multiply violence. . .

“The problem is, America has not been listening to the real problems of African Americans and any what they call people of colour. They have not been listening. Every government comes in, tries this a bit, but it actually has not dealt [with] this endemic brutality which some people actually experience with people who are in uniform.”

In the UK, since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he said, “some strides have been made. But it needs to be consistent all the time.” Asked whether he would join the UK protests, he said: “At the moment I’m self-shielding. I certainly would want to join, but the moment that turns into violence I won’t be there, because I don’t believe that violence is the same as going out and protesting.”

In a joint statement posted on Tuesday afternoon, the Archbishops said: “Systemic racism continues to cause incalculable harm across the world. Our hearts weep for the suffering caused. . . Let us be clear: racism is an affront to God. It is born out of ignorance, and must be eradicated.”

Last week, Episcopalian bishops in the US said that Mr Floyd’s death had revealed “deep racial injustices”. Their statements were echoed by religious leaders around the world. Pope Francis said on Wednesday: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “The injustice we have seen is also a UK problem, and, sadly, a Church problem, too. All people are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and justice, whatever the colour of their skin.”

The lead pastor of Resurrection Houston, the Revd Patrick Ngwolo, who had worked with Mr Floyd on housing projects there until a few years ago, told the BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “Big Floyd, as we called him, he knew everybody. He was what the Bible calls a person of peace. He opened doors, he gave us opportunities to meet people, he protected us in the neighbourhood. . .

“To be able to operate as a ministry in a neighbourhood, you need people who believe in what you’re doing and open doors. . . They are respected, known, loved, admired, and appreciated, and in that neighbourhood. . . They have wisdom. . . 

In my community and in the United States, Big Floyd’s death is an inflection point. What I mean by that, is, the words of the scripture, we are either going to have master this sin of racism, or this sin of racism is going to master us.”

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