By Paul Castelli
I was not even two years old when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated as the 41st President of the United States. I am not as familiar with his presidency, the deeds and misdeeds of his administration, and even the scrutiny of his personal life that inevitably arose amid the indignity that is public life in our nation. The only real memory I have of his presidency is less mine than a story my family told me repeatedly through the years about the childhood naiveté that escaped my young lips on the eve of the Gulf War.
There was a boy my brother’s age the next block over whose family had emigrated from Iraq. Not really comprehending the difference between war and a football game, I once lightheartedly asked, “So, if the U.S. and Iraq go to war, who are you going to root for?” I assure you, the story also includes that my three-year-old faux pas was handled with immaculate grace and charity by my brother’s friend. I tell you this simply to disqualify myself as one who can speak knowledgably about his presidency.
I can, however, speak knowledgably as a Christian and a priest in the Episcopal Church (President Bush’s lifelong home) about the realities of death and what our faith has to say about it, and what we do when it happens.
When I opened the Facebook app on my phone on December 1 and saw the news that our former president had died, I stopped and did what I thought any reasonable Christian ought to do: I prayed. With the words from the commendation prayer in our burial rite firmly in my heart after burying more people than I care to count, I prayed that God would look with mercy upon a fellow sinner who had breathed his last. I prayed that George H.W. Bush would rest in peace and rise in glory. As has become rather commonplace in response to the death of a person of note in our society, I posted this prayer in brief on Facebook and went about my day in preparation for a wedding that evening.
What I saw when I later returned to Facebook didn’t shock me, because I’ve seen it before, but it did turn my stomach: public expressions of outrage by Christians, including clergy, who were trashing a man on the day of his death.
I was disgusted. It was distressing to think to myself, “This is the leadership of our Church.” So, to my fellow priests who have seen fit to dehumanize, even demonize, Mr. Bush on the day of his death and his funeral, I say this: A man is dead. Be a Christian — and, what’s more, a priest. Pray for God’s mercy and the repose of the dead. Pretend for a moment that you actually believe in repentance and reconciliation, and that you are a sinner in need of, and saved by, God’s redeeming love. Pray for those who mourn. I will also pray that when we die, other people will show more grace toward us in their words than I have witnessed from you about our former president.
Of course, I did share these words on Facebook in the heat of the moment. In response, I was told that if I had lost friends or family to AIDS because of this president’s actions and negligence, perhaps I would have more compassion for those who cannot tolerate the veneration of the man thought to be the cause of their suffering. It was interesting that a call to pray for the dead was likened to veneration. I was told I should understand the anger that people have because it was World AIDS Day on which President Bush was being eulogized — as if he timed his demise with some sort of malicious intent. I would remind my brother and sister priests that our role, first and foremost, is to pray and to call God’s people to prayer.
Clergy are to be an example of grace, not of vengeance, wrath, or condemnation. St. Paul admonishes presbyters: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, NRSV). Vitriolic public comment from clergy about the dead, online or offline, is indefensible. It is entirely possible that you consider George H.W. Bush a sinner. Truthfully, he was just as much a sinner in need of a Savior as you and I are. In fact, the degree to which you think he deserves judgment, wrath, or condemnation for those things that he had done or left undone should directly affect the fervor for which you, as a Christian and as a cleric, should be praying for God’s mercy upon him. To believe otherwise is bad enough; to speak otherwise from your position of authority is to risk imperiling your audience.
Those who look to us for spiritual guidance may start to ask themselves, “If priests say such things about this person, what might they say about me and my sinfulness?” Or, “If this is what clergy do, what will God do to me because of my sin? Can anyone really be saved?” Ministers of the gospel have the critical task of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to sinners who need to know that their redeemer lives and intercedes for them. I urge you, do not abandon this monumental responsibility to satisfy whatever unedifying itch you might scratch.
When I die, I hope that people remember I am a sinner saved by grace alone and pray for me, not shame me in death for the sins of my past. I am disturbed that any Christian — lay or ordained — would demonize a newly departed Christian soul. All that I can do in response to the death of President Bush is pray for a fellow sinner who has been washed in the blood of our crucified and risen Lord and Savior:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant George Herbert Walker Bush. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. (1979 BCP, p. 499).
Paul Castelli serves as priest-in-charge at St George’s Episcopal Church in Milford, Michican, and is a professed brother in the Anamchara Fellowship.