Following recent events in Washington, CSBV director Helen Paynter and atheist biblical scholar Katie Edwards decided to put out a joint statement on President Trump’s use of the Bible. An abbreviated version of our article appeared in the Independent online on 3rd June, but the fuller version that we wrote is reproduced here.
On Monday, after vowing violent state action against protestors across the US, Donald Trump took time out for a photo opportunity. Did he talk to people of colour, heartbroken, enraged and exhausted by police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by officers of the state? Did he listen to the black mothers terrified that the next time they see their son leave the house will be the last time?
Police launched smoke grenades and shot rubber bullets at protestors to pave the way for Trump’s publicity stunt outside the St John’s Episcopal church.
The US President posed in front of the church, brandishing a Bible – invoking its legacy as the sacred text of slave owners and colonisers.
As two biblical scholars working from different perspectives on faith, we are in agreement that such use of sacred text is reprehensible and offer these reflections.
Katie Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, writes:
Despite Trump’s outspoken views on biblical literacy, it’s apparent that he hasn’t read much, if any, of his ‘favourite book’.
When asked in an interview with Bloomberg about his favourite biblical passages, he responded “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
Then again, the US President doesn’t need to get into specifics. Not when he’s using the Christian sacred text as visual shorthand for the justification of white structural violence.
Some Christian leaders, including the Right Rev Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, and James Martin, a Jesuit priest and consultant to the Vatican’s communications department, have condemned Trump’s photo opp. On Twitter, Martin declared ‘the Bible is not a prop … religion is not a political tool’.
The sentiment is understandable but the statement is less convincing.
The Bible has been used as a prop to scaffold racism for centuries, from the Ku Klux Klan, to the Nazis, to apartheid. Whether we like it or not, some of the most abhorrent ideologies have been legitimised using Biblical texts. The weaponisation of the Christian sacred text against People of Colour is so integral to our colonial history that the gasps of shock ringing out on social media seem disingenuous. For Trump’s purposes, the Bible signifies white Christian supremacy – and there’s an audience for it, no matter how many white people Tweet their dismay at the killing of George Floyd or use the Black Lives Matter hashtag.
While atheists can be far too eager to dismiss the Bible as nothing to do with them and Christians too quick to distance themselves from the violent legacy of their holy book, the fact remains that the Bible has been used by white people to justify and perpetuate atrocities against people of colour. As such, its use and misuse is part of our cultural legacy. When the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world wields the Bible as a weapon of racial hatred, we have a responsibility to recognise our complicity in this uncomfortable truth.
Helen Paynter, Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, Bristol Baptist College, writes:
The use of the sacred to prop up centralised power is as old as monarchy itself. In nations with a strong Judeo-Christian heritage, this has therefore, naturally, been framed through reference to the Bible. For example, the Black Christian biblical scholar Willie Jennings has recently explored the toxic interaction between the Bible and the colonial project in his groundbreaking work The Christian Imagination.
More specifically, as Katie has outlined above, the Bible has long been used as a prop to endorse racism and white supremacy, among many other types of structural violence. It is the shame of the Church that we have far too often been silent, complicit, or actively collaborated with such uses. This calls for public repentance.
While the semiotics are reasonably clear, it is hard to know exactly what Trump was attempting by his stunt yesterday. It is a reasonable presupposition that he was trying to invoke Romans 13 verse 1, which has been used more than once by his administration. For example, it was used by Jeff Sessions in 2018 as an attempt to coerce compliance with abusive immigration practice. Such a use is not sustained by a careful reading of the text. In fact, if Trump knew much at all about the Bible he was waving, he might not be so keen to invoke its authority. It contains many examples of the sharp rebuke of abusive leadership, for example. And it has many strongly-worded criticisms of those who perpetrate social injustice of every type. He has picked up a brand that will burn him.
Of course, the Bible is a public book, and everyone is entitled to interpret it for themselves. I suspect that Katie and I would interpret it quite differently. But neither of us would seek to shut down the other. Control of the interpretation of the sacred text is yet another way in which power has been wielded to great harm.
But the interpretation of a text as powerfully resonant in both cultural and religious terms as the Bible must be exercised with caution, with integrity, and with an enormous sense of the responsibility that the task imposes. For the confessional reader this means reading with a commitment to the great storyline of peace, reconciliation and human dignity; for readers both with and without faith, responsible interpretation requires a commitment to interpret it for human welfare and to publicly and implacably resist interpretations that promote or endorse violence and injustice.