BY ERIC CLAYTON | June 4, 2020
In a series of days full of disturbing, painful images, we now have a new one to add to the collection: that of the President holding up a bible and posing for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
As I saw that image appear again and again on my Twitter feed, I felt disgust turn to insult: A church is not a background for a photo-op. The Bible is not a prop. My faith is not a political tool.
I felt mocked. Jesus’ words, uttered after cleansing the temple, came to mind: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves.”
My thumbs hovered over my phone, witty tweets taking shape. This is the kind of thing that makes Jesus flip tables, I typed.
I never hit send. All of that privilege hit me first.
Because I realized that Jesus has been flipping tables for days now. If the murder of multiple black men and women, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, didn’t rouse in him anger—and I’m quite sure it did—then the persecution of peaceful protesters certainly did. The threat of violence and fear certainly did. The legacy of systemic racism, injustice, and oppression that we allow to fester in our lives and society certainly does.
Jesus was already flipping tables. My tweet would do nothing about that. It was merely a reflection of my own powerlessness, my own privilege, and my inability to grapple with either.
I returned to the image of the President waving a bible in front of a house of prayer and found myself forced to realize that I stand in a long line of white men waving bibles in front of oppressed peoples. The President’s actions unsettle me because they are a reflection of the privilege I enjoy, that a comfortable faith permits.
Faith cannot be comfortable. Yet my white privilege allows it to be.
Fr. Bryan Massingale encourages us to “sit in the discomfort this hard truth brings.” And to bring these hard truths to prayer.
St. Ignatius advises us to put ourselves in the stories of scripture, to use the raw material of our own lives as the fertile soil through which scripture speaks anew. In it all, we encounter Jesus.
I invite you to engage in such an encounter with Jesus now. Bring your frustration, your anger, your confusion, your sorrow. Let us see how Jesus responds.
I stand in a barren place. Nothing grows here. It’s quiet. The wind is still. An uneasy peace without and within. A false peace. My heart is troubled.
Jesus comes to me. I sense his presence before I see his face. He, too, is unsettled. I see pain in his eyes. Tears.
Jesus speaks: “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (Jn 12:27-28)
I respond to Jesus. I share what troubles my heart now, in this moment. And I wonder, how can God’s name be glorified in this moment, so rife with division and violence, particularly violence against people of color?
Jesus replies: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. …Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 10:34, 39)
Jesus’ words confuse me. These do not seem to be the words of a peaceful faith. Is this what discipleship means? Am I called to violence? I share my concerns with Jesus.
Jesus reminds me of the creative tension of my faith. That he is both God and human. That he both died and rose from the dead. That the way of the world is not the way of God. That God’s peace is not the world’s peace.
Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:27)
Jesus continues: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” … “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Mt 10:16; Mt 5:8)
I point, then, to the violence that I believe others have committed. I try to wash my hands clean of what I see, claiming that I have been peaceful; I am like a dove. I have no blood on my hands. I didn’t squeeze the air from anyone’s lungs.
But Jesus cautions: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them.” (Mt 7:15-16)
I grow frustrated with Jesus. His demands are too great. I grow frustrated with myself. My privilege is too hard to root out. I grow frustrated with the world. This is just the way it is, the way it will always be.
But Jesus reveals to me God’s dream. God sees the systems that hold up the status quo. God desires that they be broken. God desires that all people live in justice, freedom, right relationship.
Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…” (Is 58:6-8)
Jesus asks me to consider this: What light might I shine in this moment? What will I commit to doing that advances racial justice? What might I need to sacrifice—to fast from—to build up the world God imagines?
Eric Clayton is the deputy communications director at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, responsible for developing and sharing resources and reflections to promote Ignatian spirituality. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press). He and his wife are both graduates of Fairfield University and live in Baltimore, MD, with their two daughters.