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Trump's Bible and the problem with bookshelf credibility

Krish Kandiah has a confession to make

The tragic and unlawful killing of George Floyd was yet another American black man dying at the hands of white police officers. But his death was different. Firstly, because the event was captured on video in its entirety. The world watched in horror as the police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck until he died, despite clearly hearing him say he couldn’t breathe, and despite the pleas of onlookers to stop. Secondly because this murder has sparked protests across the USA on a scale not seen since the days of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the middle of a global pandemic where the US president’s scientific knowledge, leadership and wisdom have all been questioned, Donald Trump decided to respond to the protests by using riot police and tear gas to disperse peaceful protestors so that he could be photographed posing with a Bible in front of the closest church to the White House.

At first, I was outraged. There are literally hundreds of verses in the Bible that speak about God’s love for people, defending the rights of the downtrodden, protecting the poor, and leading with humility. It is no wonder the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde objected to Trump using her church “as a backdrop antithetical to the teachings of Jesus”. 57 years earlier, and only a mile away, Martin Luther King used the Bible to challenge the racial injustice of America. Back then the Bible had empowered the civil rights movement.

How could Trump have got this so wrong? If he was trying to signal to Christians that they could trust him, it certainly didn’t work for me.  

 

But then I was embarrassed. Trump’s decision to use the iconic symbols of the Christian faith as a stage on which to make himself look good reminded me of the way Zoom interviews conducted from home in lockdown are being staged. This phenomenon has led to a brilliant Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility.

We use our books as a way of signalling our intelligence, our taste and our values. I do exactly the same. I use my heavyweight bookshelf for the more academic calls, and my colour-coordinated bookshelf for the more creative meetings. Sometimes I move a pile of books I have written to the forefront for all to see. I also often stand in front of a church with a Bible in my hand. Am I any better than Trump, using my books and my Bible to send a politically expedient message to my viewers?

And then I was convicted. How often have I used the Bible for my own ends? How often have I drawn on the credibility and kudos of the Bible to justify what I want to do or say.

Am I any better than Trump, using my books and my Bible to send a politically expedient message to my viewers?

According to the gospels even the devil quotes the Bible when he tries to tempt Jesus in the desert to go against God’s will. If it is not whether we use the Bible that matters, but how we use it, then we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Do I use the Bible to challenge others, without hearing it first challenge me? Do I use the Bible to look good, instead of to do good? Do I use the Bible to remind me to stand up against injustice just when #blacklivesmatters is trending on Twitter, or all the time?

Last time I saw Trump with a Bible it was on his inauguration day where he solemnly swore that he would, with God’s help, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. That constitution exists to ensure peace, wellbeing and justice for all. Perhaps I can still hope that President Trump will remember his promise to all Americans, both black and white.

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