The President’s Photo-Op and Our Need for Repentance
One of the strangest images of this strange time will undoubtedly be that of the president of the United States standing in front of a boarded and burned Episcopal church (St. John’s, Lafayette Square), awkwardly clutching a Bible for a staged photo-op. As the story behind the picture has emerged, the photo appears even stranger.
First, the White House did not seek or receive permission from the parish or the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for the photo-shoot. Rather, the use of the church’s grounds was denounced in stinging tones as an act of anti-gospel appropriation by the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington.
Worse, though, in order to gain access to the front of the church, police fired a chemical spray at the peaceful protesters, forcing them to disperse. These protesters included an Episcopal priest from a neighboring parish. The irony was compounded by the fact that this photo-op followed the president’s speech in the Rose Garden in which he promised to deploy military forces to replace local action in states which are “not under control.”
In Jeremiah 7, God tells the prophet to go and stand in the gate of the Lord’s House and call out to the passers-by, warning all who enter: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (7:3). He describes what true amendment requires: rejection of the sins of murder, idolatry, adultery, and robbery in favor of the actions which the Lord loves, namely, “if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt” (7:5-6).
In contrast, those who do not repent, who fail to hear the prophet’s true message, fall into the trap of trusting “in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (7:4). Despite their evil actions, they believe that they are safe because they enter the Temple of God and call upon his name — not knowing that the Lord sees and marks all of what they do and rejects them because of their actions, despite their performance of false piety (7:11).
In the photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, President Trump positioned himself in the place of the prophet Jeremiah — at the gates of the House of the Lord. However, the message to which he called us was the very message that the Prophet Jeremiah declared the Lord condemned. Behind a façade of piety, the president promises a false safety through his military threats against protesters and his consistent attempts to drum up support from Christian grievances regarding lost social capital and cultural influence. Like those entering the temple and closing their ears to Jeremiah’s indictment, his crude use of the visible signs of the Christian faith encouraged those who prefer to say, “This is the house of the Lord” rather than listen to what the Lord actually says.
In this image the Church has been presented in stark terms with a choice. Do we seek to protect our own influence by siding with those in power, even though they view Christians and Christianity as a means to their own ends? Or do we side with those who seek justice, and pay the price of unjust users of power: the protesters fleeing the public square in response to the sudden deployment of chemical irritants? The answer, for anybody with a superficial knowledge of the scriptures the president was holding, seems obvious: we serve a God who “opposes the proud” while he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
However, while it is easy to condemn the violation of the message of the gospel that the photo-op represents, it is important for the Church to remember that the reason the President chose to appear in this way is simple and utilitarian: this type of appropriation of the Church has worked in the past and he thought it would work now. As abhorrent as his actions are, they only worked because in the past we, as the Church, have failed to rebuke and challenge exactly this type of appropriation and have not made it clear that we choose justice and love over safety and power.
White Christians are responsible because we have let the president and other Americans believe that the Church was the building, rather than people of God on the move with those in the square. There are many ways that the Church in America needs to repent, change, and grow, many of which the protests across our country are making plain. The president’s shameful demonstration throws into bold relief another area of needed repentance. We have allowed the powerful to believe that not only can the things of God be co-opted to promote injustice, but that this is what we want. We must ensure that this never happens again, by making clearer than ever before whose servants we are and which way we follow.
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
Editor’s note: This essay has been updated to refer to a chemical spray, rather than tear gas, being used against the protesters.