The Desecration of St John’s
Many of us have encountered the frequently quoted phrase, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” But this prophetic statement has never rung more true than on June 1st, 2020, when United States forces used tear gas and other violent methods to clear out St John’s Episcopal Church yard so that President Trump could stage a photo-op in front of it, Bible in hand.
These past few days, we have witnessed unspeakable evil. The lynching of George Floyd and countless other acts of racial violence have once again highlighted the toxic racism that has run through America’s veins since its inception. Much has been written and said about the ramifications of these events, along with their historical precedents. It is not my intention to paraphrase what so many voices from people of color have already articulated, such as Morrison, Baldwin, Du Bois, Lorde, Oluo, Brown, Coates, West, hooks, and plenty more, when readers can go straight to the source. However, as a member of the Anglican Communion, which includes The Episcopal Church, I realize that I cannot be silent about the evil that has taken place on church property.
The President used military power to violently disperse a peaceful assembly on church ground so that he could take a photo in front of St John’s Episcopal Church. As the Bishop of the Washington Diocese has confirmed, Trump did not ask for the permission of any church leader to do so. During his photo op, the President did not pray for George Floyd or any of those seeking racial justice. In fact, he didn’t pray at all. And we have now learned an even more shocking truth from priests who were present: in clearing the way for the President, US forces also used tear gas to force a priest and seminarian off of church property.
What Does This Mean?
In order to set church buildings apart as sacred space for worship and the administration of the sacraments, specific rituals are performed to consecrate Episcopal Churches. By attacking a peaceful gathering at St John’s and staging a sacrilegious photo op in front of the church, the President desecrated this holy ground. So there is far more theological significance here than “We don’t like Trump taking pictures in front of our Church.” This action was a deliberate profaning of sacred space.
This travesty is not unprecedented. After all, the US has been desecrating the sacred ground of Native Americans for centuries for the sake of political power. Violation of religious ground, like racial oppression, runs deeper than Trump’s presidency. Such evil has been with us for centuries, and shows no sign of leaving soon.
But acknowledging that this event at St John’s has not happened in a vacuum shows just how fragile our situation is. Churches are public, religious spaces, designated for peaceful assembly, worship, and religious action. The priest driven away from St John’s was fulfilling her vows as Episcopal clergy: when first ordained, Episcopal clergy are charged by their bishops “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” As priests who remain forever first and foremost deacons, they are “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
To follow in the way of Jesus requires that priests respect human dignity by caring for the vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a priest and seminarian were offering medical care, water, and other essential resources to those in need. Actions like these, Christian theology claims, are an indispensable form of worship. In violently attacking priests offering these services, the US government attacked them for practicing their faith. This is an explicit violation of religious liberty.
I want to tread carefully here, as American Christians have often bought into the myth of Christian persecution, exhibiting what is commonly called a “persecution complex.” The problem with such a misplaced complex is not only that it is untruthful, but that it can drown out genuine cries of persecution, such as what we have here with St John’s.
One of the terrifying aspects of this event is not only its transgression of the freedom of Christians to follow Christ, but also what it means for other religions. Christianity is the most privileged religion in American history, and St John’s Episcopal Church has been a specific site of such political prestige. After all, the vast majority of US Presidents have attended at least one service at St John’s, as it is the closest church to the White House. And if US forces are willing to desecrate the grounds and terrorize the people of one of the most politically powerful and privileged churches in US history, what’s to stop them from doing worse to synagogues, mosques, and gatherings of other historically disenfranchised religious groups? The stakes could not be higher.
The Least of These
Jesus told us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and tend to the sick. He explained that what we do to “the least of these,” we do unto him (Matt. 25:40). So make no mistake: When the President attacked those gathered at St John’s Episcopal Church, he not only terrorized those individuals, but Christ himself. Christ’s body was yet again beaten and bloodied at the hands of political power.
As Christians, we are called to confront such injustice. This involves making our voices heard, which includes reaching out to our political representatives, raising our voices, and allocating time, energy, and resources towards justice movements. We do so for the sake of human dignity, for peace, and for justice. We do so in the name of the Savior whose lungs were crushed under the asphyxiation of state-sponsored crucifixion. For those of us who can breathe, let us use our breath wisely, all the while listening to the cries of those who can’t.