1 Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:1-3, NRSV]
[L] George Lloyd. [M] Three officers kneeling on Floyd, one on his neck, killing him. [R] Protesters with “I Can’t Breathe” sign.
While the coronavirus devastates the body, racism drives people to kill and injure and, worse, to deny and rob the God-given human dignity and equality of the other. Both devastations are raging on a major scale in America right now.
Massive protests throughout America against racism and police brutality have entered the fourth week. Racial prejudice runs deep in America. “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible” (Maya Angelou). There may be many facets to the burden.
In the first place, social justice educator Robin DiAngelo sees it as a white people’s problem. White people expect to be treated as subjects of respect while they treat others, especially the African Americans, as objects of indifference or worse, of contempt. The Whites are granted their individuality which they do not equally accord to people of colour. To the Whites, “Whiteness is seen as the norm for humanity.” They cover up their own fragility by projecting their imagined supremacy and block out feelings for others’ suffering.
Racism permeates society in ways that are obvious and also in society’s silences. St. Thomas Aquinas identified three ways we can incur the sin of anger: first, excessive anger; second, misdirected anger; third, deficiency of anger. We sin through deficiency of anger when we are not angry enough to boldly join the mass movement against racism which the Church calls a sin. So Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller remarks: “The fight against racism requires a personal change of heart, a genuine interior conversion.” Real conversion, however, is immensely difficult. As DiAngelo points out:
- “The problem with white people is that they just don’t listen. In my experience, day in and day out, most white people are absolutely not receptive to finding out their impact on other people. There is a refusal to know or see, or to listen or hear, or to validate.”
Systemic racism in America is real and it needs to be addressed. Donald Trump, the current president of America, however, is not part of the solution; he is part of the problem. His tweet remark lifted from a historically loaded phrase of the Miami police chief Walter E. Headley’s brutal response in 1967 – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – incensed many and escalated the crisis. He then stoked controversy over race and police issues by remarking that chokeholds sounded “so innocent and so perfect”. American media suspect dark motives in his decision to hold his first election rally, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the scene of one of the worst massacres of African Americans in US history in 1921.
1. The Walk of Shame
On May 25, a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd, an African American, by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring his repeated pleas for air – “I can’t breathe.” Christians trace their “made from the dust” origin and recall the first man became alive only when Yahweh breathed “into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:5-7). On May 25, God’s breath of life in Floyd was snuffed out by racist police brutality.
The Floyd case is neither a special case, nor an exceptional case. But, supported by crystal clear video evidence which immediately went viral, it has awakened such overwhelming public consciousness that earlier cases of similar police racist violence are now catapulted to public attention. They attest to the damning reality that extreme police brutality against coloured people is a common occurrence in America. Floyd is the catalyst that sparked nationwide protests, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, against police killing of Black men and women and institutional connivance. A national uprising rocked America, its anger quickly reverberating and even igniting protests in major cities around the world. Some call it an “American apocalypse”. History once again is witness to the American hypocrisy, as history has so often witnessed for as long as the American nationhood of merely 250 years. Once again, Trump’s “greatest country in the world”, “the beacon of freedom and equality”, is reduced to fiction.
Closer home, fearing a security breach of the perimeter fencing at the White House, Trump had to temporarily evacuate to basement bunkers. Angered by media coverage depicting him as the “bunker-boy” running in fear for cover, he wanted to be seen outside White House gates. The following day, he threatened in a tweet to unleash “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” on the protesters. And, in phone calls to governors of major cities, he berated them for being “weak” in quelling protests, and demanded immediate military actions to “dominate” the streets, failing which he would “do it for them!” “Dominate! Dominate!” he yelled over and over. He later praised crowd dispersal by tear gas and other force a “beautiful scene”, “like a knife cutting butter”. While the nation needed a message of hope and healing, the president drummed up violence and division.
Then, with expertise as a reality-TV impresario, Trump choreographed a two-part drama heavily laden with military and religious symbols tailored for a television-moment:  a triumphant-walk after violently roughing up and clearing protesters outside the White House, and  a photo op waving a Bible outside a famous church. On June 1, 2020, the camera rolled.
[L & M] Peaceful protesters in front of White House June 1, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP). [R] Unidentified Police/Military personnel in full riot gear on standby.
[L & M] Violent force, tear gas, flash grenades and chemical spray employed to forcefully clear streets for Trump to walk to St John’s Church. [R] A woman has her eyes rinsed out, in Lafayette Square, near the White House, on June 1, 2020. Stephen Voss/Redux.
As Trump (with four American flags behind him) was giving a speech inside at the White House Rose Garden in which he promised swift and decisive military crackdown of street protests, armed riot-police and horse-mounted National Guard troops were on standby mode outside the gates. Right on cue, the troops in a sudden burst of action deployed flash grenades, chemical spray, and tear gas to forcefully clear peaceful demonstrators and journalists from Lafayette Square and surrounding streets in Washington, D.C. It was all to create a path for Trump to walk right after his speech from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church a block away for a photo op. Muriel Bowser, DC Mayor, criticised Trump’s forceful tactics as “shameful”. He intended the post-clearance walk as a victory lap, a show of power and control, but the majority of the American people and of the world saw it as a walk of shame.
Perhaps sensing the shame, Defence Secretary Esper tried to excuse himself by later claiming that he did not know where the walk was heading and what it was intended for. But America’s most senior military officer, General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, publicly apologized for joining Trump in this infamous walk to his photo op, admitting his mistake and regretting that he had unwittingly allowed Trump to politiicise the military.
A priest and a seminarian distributing water and hand sanitizer to protesters from the steps of the church, were driven away by armed riot-police to create an uncluttered tableau. A Bible was procured from inside the church for Trump to brandish.
Every sitting president has attended the St John’s Church at least once since it was built in 1816. Standing outside this “Church of the Presidents”, Trump held up a Bible and posed for a photo op which lasted five minutes. He neither entered the church, nor prayed or read from the Bible. An oft-quoted line of uncertain origin reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This was an especially discordant image highly offensive to the Christian faith: violence against peaceful demonstrators exercising constitutional rights, and sacrilegious use of Christian sacred symbols as political props. This “fascist performance” was deeply offensive and has caused a furor amongst religious leaders.
[L] Trump pumps his fist toward police as he walks between lines of riot police in Lafayette Park across from the White House, to St John’s Church for a photo op. (REUTERS/Tom Brenner). [R] Trump posing in front of St John’s Church with a copy of the Holy Bible.
2. Disgust Over Trump’s Words and Actions
Two points at once demand Christian attention.
First, the Bible is the Christian Scripture, which means the Bible contains God’s Word to the believing community who accepts it as authoritative for believers’ faith and life. It is sacred. The Bible testifies that Jesus taught the message of peace, non-violence and love of neighbour on one mountain (the mountain of the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5-7), and he lived that message to the full all the way to the other mountain (the hill of Calvary where he died in peace and non-violence, love and reconciliation). Violence is antithetical to the Bible and the life and teaching of Jesus.
In a creative move on Friday June 5, D.C. Mayor Bowser had the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted in giant yellow letters on the street leading to the White House. She also renamed the intersection near St John’s Church “Black Lives Matter Plaza”. The 35-foot-tall letters span the entire width of the street and stretch for two city blocks of 16th Street just north of the White House. The overwhelming mural slaps Trump across the face, and reclaims city-ownership of the streets of Washington. It further declares that the city stands for equality and non-violence, in opposition to Trump who uses oppressive force to get his way. It delivers a much-needed note of hope and catharsis.
[L] People of all races help in painting. [M] D.C. Mayor walks on the street symbolically reclaimed from Trump and his violent military. [R] Aerial view of the mural on the street.
Second, Jesus told his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and their associates – the Sadducees, the scribes and the Herodians (Lk. 12:1, Mt. 5:20, 16:6, Mk. 8:15). The Herodians were politicians aligned to King Herod, while the others were different religious leaders. Yeast (or leaven) is a spreading agent that quickly dominates and puffs up a large body. The four groups haboured dark motives (like yeast) against Jesus for his popularity in teaching and working signs and wonders of the Kingdom of God. Many who received grace and blessing followed him. But, their interests now threatened, the four groups sought to protect their own positions and meal-tickets by slandering and condemning Jesus, and made up rumours about him. Lacking in discernment, the people followed the leaders’ negative campaign so much so that the whole Jewish religion was filled with the sounds of condemnation of Jesus. Their priority was certainly not about loving God and neighbour or according equal respect to all, or about caring for the marginalised and the oppressed. Instead, their consciousness was directed to plotting the violent removal of Jesus, the subject of their jealous contempt. Jesus labeled their dark motives as “hypocrisy”, a “yeast” of which the disciples were warned to “watch out”, to “take heed”, to “beware”. Hypocrisy works as yeast does. It will start off slowly, imperceptibly, and eventually it will penetrate everything. Such dark motives will be exposed and made known, even “proclaimed from the housetops” (Lk. 12:3). The last thing Jesus wants from us is pretension or a fake imitation. He wants something genuine, something that is real in our lives, which explains why he also warned his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:20). As disciples today, we are to be very careful of this insidious spreading agent of which Trump’s actions are emblematic. It is like a fig tree that has many leaves (showy externally) but bears no fruit (unproductive; lacking real substance) and should best wither to the roots under a curse (Mark 11:12-25).
Greg Brewer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida calls Trump’s abuse of sacred symbols a “blasphemy in real time.” Noting his “partisan purposes”, Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, denounced Trump for failing to help or heal “in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country.” Bishop Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C. at once denounced Trump’s unannounced visit to the church. Her “outrage” is representative of religious people across the denominations:
- Trump did not even “acknowledge the agony of our country right now.”
- “And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love. We align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others.”
- “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.”
- “This was a charade that in some ways was meant to bolster a message that does nothing to calm — to calm the soul and to reassure the nation that we can recover from this moment which is what we need from a President, and that’s what the faith communities stand for.”
- “What I am here to talk about is the abuse of sacred symbols for the people of faith in this country to justify language, rhetoric, an approach to this crisis that is antithetical to everything we stand for.”
Deservedly, Trump’s actions drew immediate condemnations from all round. The violent clearing of demonstrators from Lafayette Square was widely condemned as excessive and an affront to their constitutional right in the freedom of assembly. The New York Times noted the “burst of violence” as possibly one of the defining moments of the Trump presidency. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, have filed a federal lawsuit against Trump, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and other federal officials, for violation of the protesters’ constitutional rights. The event drew a cascade of criticisms from military leaders. In the scathing comments of James Mattis, a former Secretary of Defence (under Trump), instead of defending the country against outsiders, the military is turned against peaceful domestic protesters; Trump, who always divides and never unites, is a threat to democracy. Retired General John Allen said he never thought the Constitution of America could be under threat until recently, by Trump. William Cohen, another former Secretary of Defence, describes the silence of Republican House Representatives and Senators as being complicit or fearful of reprisal by Trump. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell and Republican Secretary of State, said of Trump in words he never said of any other former Presidents, “He lies all the time .” Powell would never vote for Trump. Commenting on the House impeachment of Trump, Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today (an evangelical Christian periodical founded by Billy Graham), wrote in December 2019 about the unambiguous revelation of facts concerning the character of Trump. “Patient charity” for three years in reserving harsh judgment is enough; Trump is so grossly immoral, unethical and incompetent that Christianity Today now unequivocally calls for his removal from office.
3. What Does Pope Francis Say?
[L] A vigil in memory of George Floyd at the Basilica of St. Mary, Rome. [R]Bishop Mark Seitz with clergy knelt in silent prayer for 8 minutes 46 seconds to honour George Floyd.
How did America get to this pathetic state?
The reality is, this is not something new. America did not get to this bad on racism; it has always been so. The more than two centuries old virus has never gone away. Racism, Bishop Claude Alexander has said, was in the amniotic fluid out of which America was born. Throughout American history, the White people have been soaked in the virus of white supremacy and racial prejudice. Individuals of colour had to excel so much more than the Whites before their superior talents could finally be recognized grudgingly in sports, in studies, and in every field of human endeavour. Even after that, the Whites would do their level best, legitimately under White law, as well as by stealth and criminal force at will, to eliminate competition. Anyone interested may read up on two items to get a picture of: [a] the inhuman devastation of Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’, and [b] the insidious increased devastation of the Black people during Obama, the first Black President’s terms in office.
Today, we need to factor into the Police and political reality an institutional indifference, a powerful union shield, and individual character-depravity, to get a glimpse into how deep this racial prejudice has found a home in the collective psyche of the American Whites. There is a systemic racism in America, the eradication of which is extremely difficult. America “can’t breathe” in the face of the White stranglehold.
Bitterness is pervasive, and it grows out of hopelessness. But the current unstoppable waves of protests have created a degree of consciousness and universal revulsion against racism that seems different this time. That the Minneapolis City Council acknowledges that the current Police system cannot be reformed and is actively working towards getting rid of the entire Police force in order to build a new system, is an encouraging sign of some Americans “putting their money where their mouths are”. On our part, we believe love, respect for human dignity, and conscience are deeply embedded in the heart and soul of every human person, even though signs of their presence in Trump are hard to find. Christian words of encouragement must flow into acts of love and solidarity. For this, we spotlight a couple of cases, one in Rome and the other in El Paso, Texas.
A Vigil at St Mary’s Basilica, Rome
On June 5, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the head of the Vatican department for Family, Laity and Life, attended a vigil in memory of George Floyd at the Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere, Rome. Organised by the Catholic lay movement St. Egidio, attendance at the vigil included foreign dignitaries. In his message, Farrell stressed that Christians must maintain the universal dimension applicable to all humanity:
- Christians are called to promote harmony and reconciliation and avoid partisanship by returning to Jesus’ gospel teachings. Instead of fueling “anger and frustration,” people of faith must promote “a culture of respect“.
- “Offensive words and gestures of contempt, looting and violence lead to nothing good for the future. For this reason we Christians must not hide in fear. On the contrary, precisely in these delicate moments of social tension we must be present to address the just desire for equality, respect and justice that is present in the hearts of so many men and women.”
Bishop Seitz knelt in silent prayers for 8 minutes and 46 seconds
“With eyes closed, masks covering their faces, white roses in hand,” and armed with handwritten BLM signs, Bishop Mark Seitz and 12 other priests from the Diocese of El Paso knelt in silent prayers for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on Monday June 1, to remember the police killing of George Floyd. Two days later, he received a call from Pope Francis who thanked him for his act of solidarity with the suffering and marginalized. Seitz related what the Holy Father wished to convey:
- “Through me, he’s expressing his unity with everyone who is willing to step out and say this needs to change, this should never happen again. Wherever there is a lack of respect for human beings, where there’s a judgment based on the color of their skin, this has to be rooted out. Whether it’s in law enforcement, in business, in government, in any aspect of our society, this has to change. And now we know very clearly that the Holy Father is making this his prayer.”
At his regular Wednesday Angelus prayer at the Vatican, Pope Francis addressed Floyd by name, calling his death “tragic” and said he was praying for him and “all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism.” On June 3, the Holy Father challenged pro-life Catholics on racism:
- We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that violence is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost. Let us pray for reconciliation and peace.
We conclude with the light of wisdom from two venerable civil rights luminaries:
- I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (Martin Luther King Jr.)
- No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite (Nelson Mandela).
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, June 2020. All rights reserved.
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