President Donald Trump, right, bows his head as Relentless Church Pastor John Gray, left, says a prayer during a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
On Wednesday, August 1, President Donald Trump met with prominent black clergy at the White House to promote a prison and criminal justice reform bill that passed the House in May. After opening remarks, Trump turned to Rev. John Gray, pastor of Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina to offer an opening prayer:
God, we thank you for an opportunity to speak about the hearts of those who sometimes cannot fight for themselves. Thank you for this moment to be able to share our hearts with the President and his administration. Dr. King said we cannot influence a table that we are not seated at. And so we pray that this conversation will be fruitful, and productive, and honoring of the best traditions of this nation. We further pray that you will continue to give wisdom and insight to our President and his leadership team to be what our nation needs, to build this country from the inside out, that we will continue to be a beacon of hope and light around this world. Bless his family, bless his health, and everything that he puts his hands to do. This is our prayer. And bless our time together. Jesus, in your name, I pray. Amen.
For starters, assuming the “Dr. King” Gray is referring to is the Martin Luther King, Jr. there’s no quote attributed to him that says this. At best, there’s a line from his “I Have a Dream” speech that “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” None of which alludes to the sentiment Gray invokes at this particular table in the White House.
Some tables you don’t need to sit at.
I know I committed verbicide because of the preposition at the end, but such a statement poignantly highlights the cultural distortion that the Trump administration has meted out on the American public.
The transcript of these pastors and religious leaders, mostly black men, narrates what amounts to an ecclesiastical circle-jerk. Each clergy member goes around the room touting their accomplishments and commitments to prison and criminal justice reform and each following comment becomes more self-gratifying than the previous. And simultaneously, they heap “thank yous” and accolades to Trump for “taking the time to hear us concerning our concerns in our community and in our faith, because they both need the ear of the President,” as Bishop Darrell Hines, pastor of Christian Faith Fellowship Church of God in Christ said.
The meeting of black Christian religious leaders in the White House was the embodiment of a theology of accommodation and assimilation. A theology of accommodation and assimilation takes its text from Romans 13 where Paul essentially praises the Roman government as being a good thing. (Somewhere in the corner, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was smiling like a Confederate elf-on-a-shelf.) Most scholars acknowledge, however, that Paul wrote this passage simply to provide himself political cover since his central message about Jesus as the Christ was not just heresy, but was treason. Despite Paul’s assertion of a theology of accommodation and assimilation, there aren’t any recorded visits to Caesars’ palace to have a sit down at any table. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the black and Hispanic clergy who accepted the invitation to sit at the President’s cabinet table. As an assembly, they amount to a modern-day Sanhedrin. These are they that chose to sit at a table and devour a Barmecidal feast served and prepared by Donald Trump himself, for which they gain nothing, and certainly the people whom they pastor are left in the same predicament as before.
While there are times for diplomacy and a type of savoir-faire pragmatic respectability politics, this ain’t one of them. This is a time for a radical embodiment of a theology of resistance. This is the time to call on the ancestors that resisted the ills of racism even unto death. The spirits of Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Harriet Tubman, Maxine Waters and Sojourner Truth should be the guiding lights of clergy that pastor black and brown bodies.
I could recount the multiplicity of ways that the Trump administration has been the veritable shit-hole in which decency, decorum and a general sense of how, at least, half-way decent government should operate, has gone to die, but I’m sure history will record it appropriately. Notwithstanding the part-time racist Paula White and full-time Uncle Tom Darrell Scott being part of this number, it’s unfathomable why any of the others would want to be associated with Trump in any shape or form other than personal bragging rights to say they’ve been invited to the White House and they’ve met a President of the United States. It was clear from the transcript, that not a single clergy member showed up with a lobbying agenda. It was as if they had been brought in just to compliment the emperor’s new clothes.
As fate would have it, Gray was in last in the line of roundtable remarks from clergy. He said “In a time of moral relativism and secular humanism, it is refreshing to know that those of us who have committed our lives to fighting for people who cannot fight for themselves have a seat at the table to share our hearts.” To remove this statement from its context, given that Gray himself is a black man in America, one would think given such an opportunity, this would ultimately be contextualized by radical demands for fair policing practices in black and brown communities, the rights of Hispanic immigrants at the border, maybe even the third rail of politics around gun policies. But of course not. No one gets to sit at this table and assert a theology of resistance to Caesar Americanus.
To those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, are you worthy of taking up the cross and following him, or are you only worthy of American empire‽
Don’t sit, stand.