Author: Mark Woods, 2 June 2020
A picture of the Bible has flashed all around the world. It’s on every news channel and in every newspaper.
As an organisation devoted to distributing and promoting the Bible, we might be expected to be happy about that. But we’re not.
The Bible in question was held by President Trump, who’d taken a short walk from the White House to St John’s Episcopal Church. The area in front of the church had been cleared, by police using teargas, of demonstrators protesting against the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman who knelt on his neck.
Video shows the President standing by the church signboard turning the Bible around until he finds the right pose.
It’s not entirely clear what Mr Trump intended to convey by this photo-op, but it’s a disturbing image. Certainly he outraged the church’s bishop: Rt Revd Mariann Budde told CNN, ‘Let me be clear, the President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.’
It’s genuinely troubling to see the Bible being used as a prop – particularly when, as the bishop says, it’s associated with images of violence. Co-opting the Bible as a justification for repression is unacceptable.
What was in President Trump’s mind? Perhaps Romans 13.1, which says, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.’ But Christians have always understood that this authority has limits, and that authority can be exercised oppressively and tyrannically. We read Romans, but we also read Amos, who said: ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (5.24).
Amos is one of many prophets to express holy outrage at wrongdoing. This passion for justice permeates every page of Scripture. It’s what lay behind Jesus’ actions in turning over the tables in the Temple. It’s what has lain behind every great movement for social reform in Christian history. It lies behind the anger expressed by church leaders at George Floyd’s death, and what it reveals – yet again – of what it’s like to be black in parts of America today. It lies behind the marches and the protests that have greeted the death of another innocent black man. And while it may be right to say that these have sometimes been hijacked by thugs and criminals, there’s a righteous and biblical anger there as well.
When President Trump held up Paul’s words in Romans, he was holding up Amos too – the prophet who warned that the longed-for ‘day of the LORD’ would be ‘as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him’ (5.19).
Enlisting the Bible in our cause is a dangerous thing to do. It is fundamentally untamed; it judges all of us – presidents and people. Yes, it judges the looters and destroyers – but it judges murder, racism, oppression and injustice too.
I suspect more people than usual will currently be asking this question. Christians naturally turn to the Bible, yet the Bible offers no seamless answer to the problem of pain. It speaks in stories and images, and tackles this thorny issue in more ways than one.