On Monday, June 1, in front of a national audience, Donald Trump tried once again to loot the symbols of my faith to use as props in his re-election campaign. Deploying the National Guard to beat, tear gas, launch flash bangs, and shoot pepper balls at journalists and peaceful protesters, Trump marched triumphantly to St. John’s Episcopal’s Church across Lafayette Square from the White House and then hoisted a Bible up in the air as though planting a flag.* It was a cynical photo op for an unrepentant man. In order to take his picture in front of the church––a campaign ploy which St. John’s has explicitly condemned––Trump tear gassed at least one priest and one seminarian from the diocese. It was disgusting, dangerous, and un-Christian.

Since becoming president, Trump has increasingly relied upon cultural Christians to fortify his position. When it looked likely that due to his willful ignorance many tens of thousands of Americans would die from coronavirus unnecessarily, Donald Trump called a national day of prayer to quickly shore up his support among caucasian evangelicals. (Caucasian evangelicals, who constituted just 64% of American evangelicals in 2016, overwhelmingly lean Republican. Evangelicals of every other ethnicity, on the other hand, overwhelmingly lean Democratic.) When the Trump administration was separating refugee families at the border and cramming children into cages, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted from Romans 13––literally adopting the exact same rhetoric and incorrect exegesis of slave plantation owners, apartheid apologists, and Nazis––to claim God approved.

As is overwhelmingly obvious, Trump is an odd choice for Caucasian evangelical champion. On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump suggested threatening the Pope. Trump has repeatedly declared that he doesn’t feel the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, a cornerstone of even the most elementary Christian faith. One wonders what Trump sees in Scripture.

When confronted with the President’s incessant bullying and dehumanization, conservative Christian leaders such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, have shielded Trump by characterizing him as a “baby Christian.” However, seeking Christ by no means allows one to continue on sinning without consequence. In fact, Scripture is unequivocally clear on this matter: the oppressor must ask forgiveness for his or her sins and pay reparations back to the oppressed. After Judah committed the great crime of selling his youngest brother into slavery, he could only redeem himself when he later offered up his own life to protect one of his brothers (Genesis 44:1-34). When the tax collector Zacchaeus encountered Christ, his spiritual rebirth was only complete once Zacchaeus promised to pay back anyone he had cheated with four times the amount of money he extorted (Luke 19:1-10). When the children of Israel fled after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, God put the fear of the Lord into the Egyptians so that they gave away their silver, gold, and jewelry as reparations to their emancipated slaves (Exodus 12:35-36). The modern parallel of another community which was first enslaved 400 years ago and remains brutally oppressed in America is self-evident. All decent humans–-let alone those who profess to follow the example of Christ––should be expected to apologize to those they’ve hurt and stop bullying the marginalized.

As I watched Trump toy around with the Bible, which he himself said was not his own, but a prop he picked up on the way, I was reminded of Scripture’s admonitions against men with bloody hands entering the house of the Lord. God forbid the warrior-king David from completing the Temple of Jerusalem: “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood” (1 Chronicles 28:3, ESV). When the warrior-king Saul violated a sacred rule by presenting offerings at the Lord’s altar with his bloody hands, he lost the favor of God (1 Samuel 13:8-14). 

To be clear, Trump is by no means a violent man in the same way David and Saul were. However, the larger lesson we take away from these verses is that we are to do right by each other before we enter the house of God. In Isaiah, God commands us to purify our hearts before approaching Him: “When you spread out your hands, / I will hide my eyes from you; / even though you make many prayers, / I will not listen; / your hands are full of blood. / Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; / remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; / cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / seek justice, / correct oppression; / bring justice to the fatherless, / plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:15-18, ESV). Scripture does not condone beating a bloody path to the Lord’s house, like Trump did on Monday afternoon. Our Savior Jesus reminded us that how we treat each other is an extension of how we approach God, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24, ESV). Trump did not hesitate to beat aside peaceful protesters, the priests who were there to support them, or the journalists who were there to cover the event. But Trump didn’t come to praise the Lord; he came to use our Almighty God as a campaign prop.

Our public officials have a duty to keep us safe, but the protest in Lafayette Square on Monday was an example of peaceful, civic engagement which threatened no one. Even if he were dealing with destruction of property, Trump might have learned a lesson in leadership by taking after the example of the African-American, female mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Addressing a city in crisis, Mayor Bottoms observed that “more than 50 percent of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners––if you care about this city, then go home.” Mayor Bottoms, at once compassionate and commanding, reminded us that “a protest has purpose.” Destruction of property helps no one and may simply take even more away from those who already have little, who have been marginalized by the same system under protest. Trump might have learned from President Obama, who directed the righteous anger of those mourning George Floyd toward actionable items. President Trump had plenty of examples of leadership to which to turn, but he instead chose to march on a church at the rear of a small army.

One of the most oft-quoted stories in Scripture is Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, a gang of thieves ambushes a lone traveler on the highway and leaves him half dead. A priest sees the dying man and walks on by. A Levite, one of Israel’s religious custodians, sees the dying man and walks on by. In the end, a foreigner from a hostile nation comes by, takes pity on the dying man, brings him into town, and pays an innkeeper to nurse him back to health.

On Monday night, Donald Trump was not the victim. He created victims. Donald Trump was not the Good Samaritan. That would have been the 20 clergy members who spent the day ministering to the protesters, offering them food and water and hygienic supplies in order to protect them against the coronavirus. Some of those clergy were among the victims that Trump’s vanguard beat, tear gassed, and shot at with pepper balls. Donald Trump was neither the priest nor the Levite; he didn’t simply ignore suffering but actively caused it. No, Trump behaved like one of the robbers, ordering the National Guard and riot police to beat and shove aside innocent, peaceful protesters in order to sate his own selfish desires. And when he got to the church, Trump looted the moral authority of our God and Scripture to use as a campaign prop.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the National Guard shot rubber bullets at protesters. After this article had been submitted and just as it was being posted on the afternoon of June 3, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany clarified that the Guard and riot police did not shoot rubber bullets, but “pepper balls” instead. While the White House insists the Guard and riot police used no tear gas, canisters of “Skat Shell OC”––which is commonly considered a mild form of tear gas––were found, launched into the crowd of protesters.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *