If you’re looking for a Biblical parallel to Trump’s photo stunt in front of St. James Church, look no further than the “desolating sacrilege” of Daniel chapter 9. Jesus had his own warning about the desolating sacrilege in his day (Matthew 24).
What’s the Desolating Sacrilege?Daniel petitions the Lord for mercy for Jerusalem, who has been overrun with corruption and injustice. Daniel confesses his own sin as well as the sin of his nation and the sin of his ancestors. Gabriel is sent to Daniel with a word from God of both hope and consequences. There will be a period of payment for your sins, says Gabriel. Included in that payment is the humiliation and ultimate destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
He [God] shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifices and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.Daniel 9:27
What seems like murky language to us was clear to the reader: a vile invader has desecrated the Temple. This references the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who replaced traditional sacrifices at the Temple with sacrifices to pagan gods. The note in Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible commentary reads as follows:
a desolating abomination. Pointedly, Daniel cannot bring himself to mention the vile, disgusting thing that has been placed in the Temple. Some think it may be the statue of a pagan god; others conclude that it is a special altar for pagan sacrifice set up wihin the Temple. On the altar (or perhaps, before that statue), the animal sacrifices offered, as we know from other ancient sources, included pigs–an animal toward which Jewish loyalists had a kind of visceral revulsion, thus adding an associative coloration to the generalized language of disgust that Daniel uses here.“The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary,” by Robert Alter, page 788.
Jesus’ refers to this scourge in Jewish history as a warning to his followers some 200 years later. After entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and cleansing the Temple, Jesus prophesies that terrible destruction is imminent. He foresees a new desolating sacrilege and warns his followers.
When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea should flee to the mountains…Matthew 24:15-16
Jesus goes on to predict war and mass reprisal killings and the destruction of the Temple. The note in my study Bible says “The phrase may refer to Gaius Caligula’s attempt in 40 CE to install an image of himself in the Jerusalem Temple” (Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Fourth Edition). By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, indeed the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans.
Is this what Trump did?
Mostly.It’s typical demagoguery to marry religion and state-sponsored violence. Trump ordered the violent removal of peaceful protestors from church property, including clergy, so that he could stand in their place and usurp their moral authority. The irony is that moral authority can never be usurped, it can only be earned through humble sacrifice and service to others. Given the above examples, it seems clear that Trump tried to do what Gaius Caligula tried to do: make himself the one to be adored and worshiped. And if he can’t be adored and worshiped, he can at least be feared and obeyed.
The use of sacred items for profane purposes is nothing new. People have always justified terrible violence with sacred texts. In Trump’s case, the irony is that he acted a lot like Pontius Pilate on Palm Sunday clearing the square at Lafayette Park to show who was really the boss. Christians follow the other leader from that day: a man of peace, of solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, a man of humility, selflessness and service, a man whose main power was healing. The irony that Trump didn’t bother to even open the prop Bible he used was lost on practically nobody. That is both my hope and my fear. My hope is that the public is not fooled by this sacrilegious stunt. My fear is that Trump will move on to the next phase of demagoguery: further violence aimed at forcing subjugation of the populace. I wonder how much tear-gas that will take.
So, what now?
Jesus’ advice was to run for the mountains. The violence has already started. The military is being prepped and in some cases activated. There is a clear pitting of state-authority verses the moral outrage of the general population. I suspect there will be further efforts to dissolve the public outcry with brute force, disinformation aimed at slurring peaceful protestors and obfuscation where the main purpose of the protests is thoroughly overwhelmed with chaos.
Back to the Point
I pray that the offensiveness of Trump’s stunt is understood, widely condemned and that his efforts of suppression and subjugation are thwarted by the moral forces of good. I pray that we can maturely return to the sober matter of police brutality, enacting meaningful reforms that remove troublesome officers and enact means for police accountability and transparency. While the world was watching Trump awkwardly hold a Bible, a man named George Floyd lay in the morgue due to the toxic mixture of racism and police impunity. This is the kind of violence that Jesus entered Jerusalem some 2000 years ago to call out. The kind of violence where the state kills people and rest of the system shrugs its shoulders. In Jesus’ day, as today, the moral courage lay in the masses entering Jerusalem and in those gathered in Lafayette Square, recognizing and demonstrating for the mere dignity of all human beings, and decrying the indignity that our society begets upon people of color on a daily basis.
One Other Example, among many
In Louisville, demonstrations were particularly local, as an African-American healthcare worker was killed by police in her own home, based on a “no-knock warrant” This allows police to shoot first and ask questions later. Breonna Taylor’s brutal slaying at the hands of Louisville police has set off protests unique to that city. Again demonstrations-outpourings of grief-were met with a police response. In the midst of these demonstrations, a local man David MacAtee was shot and killed by police. His body lay in the streets for 12 hours following his killing. At this point, the words of the local people give stunning context to Mr. MacAtee’s death:
This is the basis for the protests…a pattern that occurs across the country. A list of names senselessly killed who only have two things in common: they were black and they were unarmed. This list added 4 names in the last 6 weeks. People of moral foundation and moral courage are called upon to speak, write and act for an end to this pattern. Don’t let anything Trump does obscure this basic fact.