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June 6th: Moving Forward, Not Back

Many of us have seen the picture of our president standing next to a church signboard, holding up a Bible for the camera. It is a painful image to me, not least because I know that peaceful protesters — whose rights to free speech and assembly the government is sworn to protect — were gassed and forcibly cleared away to make the photo op possible. 

If you doubt that this was in fact a photo op rather than a sincere act of leadership, take it not from me but from the conservative US senator Ben Sasse, who said: “There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property and no right to throw rocks at police, but there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.” 


I, too, believe this Bible was slung about as a prop, a cheap stunt of virtue signaling for the sake of poll-driven politics. I have seen no evidence that the president is familiar with the Bible or its teachings, except perhaps for a few misunderstood lines about “to those who have, more will be given; from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.” If he is a Christian, he is a kind I have not encountered. And if it is true that “by their fruits you will know them,” we may be able to make some guesses about what our president really worships.


Nevertheless, as a Baptist, I defend both the president’s right to profess whatever faith he chooses (or no faith at all) and his right to include signs of his piety in the performance of his office. Remember Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the Rev Clementa Pinckney’s funeral? Of course our leaders are allowed to be pious! This president says he is Christian, and that he counts the Bible as the greatest of books. I am not capable of judging his heart.

As a fellow Christian, there are many parts of the scripture I would commend to our president’s Bible study, starting perhaps with the allegory of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25; or with Amos’s prophecy about true piety in chapter 5 verses 21-24. Otherwise, if he is not going to take seriously the teachings of this scripture we share, I would request that he refrain from turning the Bible into meme fodder. That is truly outrageous, a sacrilege. 


But as a Student of performance art, my message to us in the ABCMC region is a little different: do not be too distracted by the shiny, outrageous object. They are a magician’s sleight of hand. Yes, we have seen many outrages, and not a few sacrileges, recently. And we have a right to our outrage. We have every right to be offended when holy gifts from God are treated like stage props and our noblest sentiments become punchlines in some cruel stand-up comedy routine. So we feel our outrage and express it. When the moment is truly painful, we take a pause, an evening, or a day to recollect ourselves. But then we return to our focus. 


This cheapening of the Word is an outrage. Far more outrageous, however, is the endlessly repetitious murder of African Americans, especially when perpetrated by those sworn to be officers of the peace. More outrageous is the negligent homicide of tens of thousands during this pandemic by our collective failure to provide adequate health care or an economy supportive of a basic income for everyone. Or the harassment of Burmese refugees and the burning of Asian churches because “China virus” has become a white supremacist hashtag. Those deeper outrages are our proper focus. We cannot get distracted by the president’s feral genius for misdirection.


Because as a Theologian, I can promise you, nothing the president does, gold-leaf prop-book in hand, can mitigate the power of the true Gospel so long as we keep preaching it in word and deed. This shabby abuse of the heart of our faith is indeed outrageous, and we have said so. But our work is far larger: to preach a Gospel Word of love and of justice. As we begin to “re-open” our society, our deeper goal must be to move forward, not to go back. “Back to normal” would mean back to a society without adequate health care, without adequate social & community support, without adequate education, and without enough good prospects for meaningful work, for too many. We need not a “re-opening” but a new opening — of hearts, of access points to privilege, of safe clean paths for life to thrive. That’s the Word we need to hold up today.


On a practical note, as you consider the return to your facilities for work, study, and worship, I urge you to be careful and slow. Far better to be slow and safe than to be hasty and a hotspot! Many of places that have done well combatting the virus are now experiencing resurgences in illness as they “re-open.” In-person services of worship can be super-spreader events. 


Consider the case of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Frankfurt, Germany, a country with far better control over the virus than we have in Illinois. On May 10, the church held an in-person worship service following all the guidelines for social distancing and disinfection. About 180 people attended that service. Soon after, 112 of them tested positive for the coronavirus and another 150 were connected to it by contact tracing. Given how many of our congregants fall into higher-risk categories, this kind of event would be disastrous in many of our churches. (Thank you to Rev Frank Walton for sharing this story with me.)


It may be that our energies are better spent on improving the ways we offer online worship and create distanced community for the foreseeable future than on “re-opening.” Perhaps the smart move is simply to decide now that there will be no more in-person worship until Phase 5, when a vaccine, a successful treatment, or a cure is widely available. Remove the pressure of worrying about the “when” of then, and focus instead on improving the “how” of this ministry now. Please be careful.

Rev. David Gregg

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American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago

(773) 634-1495

4401 W. Irving Park Rd.

Chicago, IL 60661

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