Trump Invades Church with Military Force. Christians Must Speak Out!
At first, I thought this was just a reaction to people calling him weak for spending the night in a bunker. When Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. on June 1 to hold a Bible standing in front of the church sign, I presumed this was an attempt at a pitiful show of strength. I wrote in my previous piece that this was merely a photo op for propaganda. But I have reassessed this situation and need to amend my analysis.
Trump’s take-over of St. John’s Episcopal Church was more than just a photo op for the purposes of propaganda.
Let’s be very clear about this. The President of the United States marched across Lafayette Park with a military escort to commandeer a church property for political purposes. He had armed law enforcement officers clear the church steps of clergy and volunteers who were caring for peaceful protesters. The officers shot tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed persons who were exercising their Constitutional rights. The people were engaged in public lamentation for the deaths of countless unarmed people of color executed by uniformed officers. They were protesting systemic racism and militarized violence that is turning our country into a police state.
Trump could have chosen any number of places to stage his show of strength. But he chose a church. It was intentional.
Make no mistake – this stunt was intended to send a message to the church and all houses of worship. That message from Trump is this.
I have the power to invade your church. And now I have done it. I will desecrate your holy book and your holy spaces. I will use you for my political purposes. If you try to stand in my way, I will unleash my forces upon you just like I did with those peaceful protesters.
Like the Babylonians and then the Romans desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem. Like Hitler sending his troops to unfurl swastika flags in the German churches, Trump has defiled a holy place. He has done it once. He will do it again.
Are you okay with this?
Regardless of your political affiliation, what Trump has done should open your eyes to where we are right now. We are on the brink of an authoritarian dictatorship and martial law.
Let’s also be clear that Trump was not invited to this church. He did not ask to visit. He just took over with his military strongmen in tow.
The Bishop of the Diocese said that she learned about it while watching the event on television, just like everyone else. Bishop Mariann Budde told HuffPost that she was “outraged” about Trump’s appearance. “I am going to do everything in my power to disassociate our church from what the president did tonight,” she said.
Christians and other people of faith must join her in this disassociation. This is not the time to remain silent. This is the time to speak out in prophetic protest about what is happening.
I realize how difficult this will be for pastors who are in red-blue congregations.
My research with mainline Protestant clergy and congregations has revealed just how risky it is to take a prophetic stance. This is especially true for female clergy, clergy of color, and early career pastors. Taking a prophetic stance is also difficult for pastors in small congregations with limited budgets who fear the loss of members, financial giving, and even their jobs.
Even still, I am issuing this call to be prophetic and to draw on all of your pastoral courage at this time.
Some may see my call for a strong prophetic voice as antithetical to my work in the “purple zone.” I have spent many years of my career fostering the conditions for dialogue across political lines. I wrote a book called Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide to help pastors and congregations find ways to talk about important social issues without further dividing the Body of Christ. I’ve introduced hundreds of people to the process of deliberative dialogue and trained close to 100 clergy and laity in the sermon-dialogue-sermon process I developed. So I cannot deny the tension I feel between the call for dialogue and the call for prophetic resistance.
But as a student of mine said to me, “Sometimes right is right and wrong is wrong. The gospel speaks for itself.”
Indeed, we must preach the gospel of Jesus Christ who overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple and led a protest against the powers of oppression from the back of a donkey through the streets of Jerusalem.
There are times when the circumstances of the world call for resistance. This is one of those times. We must speak with a united voice against tyranny.
Of course, there will be some who want to push back saying that such a sermon or such actions violate the separation of church and state. But remember this.
Trump is the one who crossed the line separating church and state.
It is Trump who took over that church property. Trump has thrust the church into the political sphere. He has brought this fight to the church. He has given us no choice but to respond. And respond we must.
I have called for clergy to unite in a way similar to what the pastors of the Confessing Church did in Nazi Germany. They banded together to form the Pastors’ Emergency League and resisted the Reich until it was finally brought down. [Also see Dean R. Stroud’s book Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.]
However, a reader responded that the 7,000 pastors who were in a league against Hitler didn’t succeed. She argued that the church failed to stop Hitler and is failing to stop Trump now. So it is up to all people of good will to stand up and oppose Trump.
Indeed, it is up to all people of good will. But my point is that people of faith, especially Christians, have a specific responsibility to stand up to this violent authoritarianism that is using the church and the Bible as a staging ground for terror. If we ourselves don’t speak out, then we are truly lost.
Further, I would argue that the Christian resistance against Hitler DID succeed. They were part of the larger movement that refused to kowtow to the Reich’s subjugation of the church. They created a network beyond Germany that helped galvanize the Allies and educate people to understand the moral responsibility of the rest of the world to intervene.
Failure would have looked like all churches bowing before him and even more people murdered. Failure would have looked like a complete obliteration of the ethical and moral standards upon which the church is based. And failure would have looked like the Nazis not being stopped at all but, in fact, taking over the free world.
So if you’re feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and ineffective against what is happening, take heart. In Africa, Latin America, South America, Asia, Europe, and across the globe, pastors have played a role in resistance movements for justice throughout history. And you can too.
German pastors got the word out to the rest of the world about what was happening in their country. Many of them worked to get Jews out of Germany. They wrote to powerful people around the world begging for aid and assistance. That work behind the scenes is often overlooked. But it was real, and it made a difference.
This means that whatever work you do to resist this regime is real and will make a difference. Whether it is preaching a bold sermon, or standing alongside others with arms locked in protest. Whether it is providing water and rest for protesters, or taking on the work of addressing white supremacy and systemic racism. Granted, resistance is complicated by the pandemic. Many of us are not able to take to the streets in the way we normally would.
So advocate and activate in whatever way you can. But don’t sit this out.
If you are a Christian who opposes tyranny, if you are a clergyperson who answers the call of your faith to defend the vulnerable and actively engage in justice, now is the time to find your prophetic voice. There can be no sitting out and staying silent, for this is complicity with evil.
Find your voice, step into your prophetic calling, and do the ministry to which you have been called with God’s courage and faith.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).