On 1st June 2020, Donald Trump walked out of the White House accompanied by his entire entourage, including the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He took a short walk across Lafayette Square, and posed outside the episcopal church of St John with a Bible in his hand. It was an unmistakable appropriation of Christian tradition and divine authority for his own political agenda.
Trump’s action took place against the backdrop of national rage about the disposability of black bodies, amounting to systematic and normalised racism; rage which has been met with often brutal force with the direct authorisation of the president. Particularly disturbing was the instrumentalization of the military, by the involvement of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although he later distanced himself from the action. Trump’s walk took place just 30 minutes after a quasi-military police action using teargas and physical force against legal and largely peaceful demonstrators. The visual backdrop of the church and the use of the Bible aligned this powerful display of state-sponsored force, and the suppression of lawful protest, with the sacred. It was a clear and unambiguous co-option of the Bible to the service of the presidential office and its current occupant. Trump’s actions are similar to those of a number of other populist leaders across the world (Hungary’s Victor Orbán would be a notable example) who use the symbols of the Christian faith to promote their cause, but without any visible adherence to its principles.
What Trump did, in both symbolic and literal terms, was seize control of a church, turning it entirely to his own ends for a few moments.
This leads me to recall a different moment where a charismatic leader strode into a place of worship and took direct action there, seizing control of it and disrupting its activity for a few minutes.
I am referring, of course, to what is known as the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, one of the few instances recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16). I’ll allow Matthew’s gospel to speak for itself:
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. (NIV)
Both actions – Trump’s and Jesus’ – were deeply symbolic. But they could not be more different. In fact, their superficial similarities serve to highlight the absolute incomparability of the two actions.
First, Jesus’ actions were in criticism of the temple because of its deep corruption and complicity with illegitimate structures of power. He was being disruptive towards an abusive status quo, not seeking to stabilise it. As such, he was functioning like an Old Testament prophet – using words and action to speak truth to power, not attempting to co-opt truth to prop up abusive power. Second, his actions were motivated by concern for the honour of God’s name and place, not the vainglorious actions of a man stung by personal criticism. Third, his actions were not preceded by the violent suppression of lawful protestors, but were followed by tender attention to the weak and the marginalised. Fourth, Jesus’ actions were not precipitated as a face-saving stunt to counter accusations of cowardice and disengagement, but were embedded within a life of incarnational self-involvement with the concerns of the lowest and the least.
Another symbolic action took place in the context of a Black Lives Matter demonstration, less than a week later, about three miles from where I am writing. This one was not highly orchestrated, was conducted by a crowd rather than an individual, and involved no use of sacred space. Nonetheless, the tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue has more in common with Jesus’ actions than Trump’s photo-op ever could.
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a wealthy merchant based in Bristol (England). Much of his wealth came from slavery, and he is believed to have been directly responsible for the transportation of 84,000 people and the death of 19,000 black lives. He was the manager of the Royal African Company, an organisation established in 1660 to exploit the rich potential of Africa, which branded its logo onto the chests of the slaves it transported.
Colston was also a generous donor to the city of Bristol, establishing alms houses, schools and hospitals. In the Victorian era he became the focus of a mythology which portrayed him as the father of the city (although by 1884, Colston charities were contributing just 1.5% of local charitable giving) and resulted in the erection of a statue in his honour – 170 years after his death, and decades after the slave trade had been abolished.
Attempts to have the statue removed took place through legal and peaceful channels on several occasions but were always stonewalled, sometimes through the influence of the Merchant Venturers, a powerful group still within the city, and one with an interest in maintaining Colston’s legacy. Likewise, attempts to have the original plaque – which described Colson as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of the city of Bristol – replaced by one with more appropriate wording, were also blocked and resulted in stalemate.
On 7th June a crowd of Black Lives Matter protestors took matters into their own hands. They lassoed the statue – resulting in it looking poignantly like the lynching of one of the descendants of Colston’s slaves – pulled it down, and rolled it into the harbour.
This is the harbour where ships would discharge their slave-generated cargo of rum and sugar, before heading to the coast of Africa to stock up with more slaves for the West Indian colonies. Even more poignantly, this took place just beside Pero’s bridge, erected in 1999 and named for Pero Jones, a slave brought to Bristol in 1783 and never freed.
The actions of the protestors that day were reported around the world, and have been both lauded and fiercely contested. The Prime Minister said that the demonstrations had been ‘subverted by thuggery’, and the Home Secretary described it as a disgraceful act of public disorder and vandalism.
Such criticisms, of course, could also have been levelled at Jesus after his act of prophetic condemnation of the temple. John’s gospel (2:15) tells us that he made ‘a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables’ (NIV). Disorderly, subversive vandalism, one might say.
And like the actions of Jesus, the BLM protest was against an abusive status quo, was in favour of the cause of those being crushed by illegitimate power structures, and was a powerful symbolic, prophetic action. Like the actions of Jesus, it spoke truth to power.
Those who try to co-opt God to their cause had better learn how God views the abuse of power. Those who wish to claim that God is on their side had better make sure they are on the side of the weak and abused. Those who wave the Bible might do better to study it.
Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence,