By Kirk Petersen

The actual fire was extinguished quickly. The metaphorical fire still rages.

Bishop Budde: ‘I am outraged’

Less than 24 hours after disaster was averted at historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Park so that President Donald Trump could use the church and a Bible as props for a photo opportunity.

Episcopal leaders quickly and harshly criticized the president’s actions.

“Let me be clear,” said Bishop of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde, speaking on CNN to anchor Anderson Cooper. “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, and everything that our churches stand for. And to do so, as you just said, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the churchyard.”

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry released a statement that said in part: “This evening, the president of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a Bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.”

The statement was posted to the presiding bishop’s Facebook page, where within an hour it had attracted more than 1,000 comments — split between people who were critical of the president and those who were critical of the presiding bishop.

On Sunday evening, May 31, an arsonist touched off a fire in a basement nursery at St. John’s, known as “the Church of the Presidents” because of its location in sight of the White House, and because every president since James Madison has worshipped there. Rector Robert Fisher told TLC that the fire was contained in one room, but that room was utterly destroyed.

Budde and Fisher spent much of Monday, June 1 arranging for a continuous presence of parishioners and other others outside the church during daylight hours, to pray and distribute water to passers-by and protesters in the neighboring park, which has been the site of protests against police brutality since news of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25.

In an address to the nation in the late afternoon from the Rose Garden, Trump said “Today I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” As he spoke, shots and the clatter of tear gas canisters could be heard in the background. Well before the 7 p.m. curfew, police, some of them on horseback, began forcibly dispersing peaceful protestors to enable the president to walk across the park and pose with a Bible.

[Religion News Service reports that a priest from another Episcopal church, who was wearing a collar, was among the people forced to disperse.]

On MSNBC, Brian Williams said “The president went to the entrance [of the church] and held up a Bible and said about our country, quote, ‘It’s coming back. It’s coming back strong,’ and he added, ‘You see what’s happening.’”

In her CNN interview, Budde said: “I am outraged. The president did not pray, when he came to St. John’s, nor, as you just articulated, did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now, and in particular of the people of color in our nation, who wonder if anyone ever – anyone in public power will ever acknowledge their sacred worth, and who are rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.”

Budde and Curry have both expressed criticism of the president in the past. In July 2019, Budde, along with the dean and canon theologian from the National Cathedral, responded to Trump’s description of the City of Baltimore as “very dangerous and filthy,” and “rat and rodent infested,” and to the president’s assertion that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “corrupt” countries they supposedly came from.

“After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?” Budde and the others wrote at the time.

That episode occurred two weeks after Curry said in a sermon to the Union of Black Episcopalians, “Something is fundamentally wrong when crowds chant about a congresswoman, a Somali American, and say to ‘send her home,’ and when the president of the United States says, ‘You need to go back home,’ to four congresswomen of color who have been openly critical of him.”

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