Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

On Trump and Those Bibles in Alabama

It's not always about Trump. Even when it's about Trump.
March 11, 2019
On Trump and Those Bibles in Alabama
(Art by Hannah Yoest; photo Shutterstock)

When I first heard about President Trump signing Bibles at Providence Baptist Church in the midst of the disaster zone around Beauregard, Alabama, it was through the lens of people making fun of the folks gathered in the church. And it made me sad. Because if we’re ever going to emerge from our bunkers and rebuild political life, we’re going to have to realize that even when we’re talking about Trump, not everything is about Trump.

Let me tell you what it was like in Alabama a week ago: I watched with horror as massive and violent storms passed through the central part of the state. The local meteorologists from Montgomery started warning the area just east of where I live to take shelter immediately. As the storms battered our region we heard the tornado sirens, made phone calls, checked on loved ones and neighbors, and made sure people were okay.

We knew it was going to be bad. And it was.

Twenty-three people dead, including children. A tornado a mile wide tore through a section of East Alabama turning houses and neighborhoods to rubble.

The response started as soon as the storms passed. Churches and volunteers, state and local governments, civic organizations and individual people sprang into action. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians donated $180,000 to cover the funeral costs of all of the victims. Just think about that for a minute: This was a disaster big enough that people needed help just to bury their dead.

And then, on Friday afternoon the president visited the state and as so often happens, he became the story.

What happened is that Trump visited a church where there were victims and volunteers and some of them offered their Bibles for him to sign and he did it, scrawling his autograph on the front cover of the Scriptures.

This angered me on a number of different levels. Trump is just a man. Why would people give him their Bibles? Why would he sign them? It isn’t his place; it’s near sacrilegious. But, then, as the criticism grew, I found that I wanted two things. The first was for people to remember that everyone in that church was either the victim of a horrendous disaster or a volunteer there to help. Making them the object of ridicule is cruel. Full stop. People everywhere ought to be treated with kindness and mercy. People suffering through disaster deserve it even more. You can believe that the devotion of white evangelicals toward Donald Trump is a misplaced trust and affection that compromises Biblical values and still understand how using a situation of incredible devastation to mock and ridicule the vulnerable is deeply wrong. Because this moment wasn’t actually about Trump—it was about those who were suffering.

The second thing I hope comes out of this is that President Trump would consider what the Bibles he signed say, especially for those suffering from disasters and loss of life and who are vulnerable. Two passages in particular come to mind. One, involves Jesus being asked about whether a tower falling on people and killing them was because of their sins in Luke 13:1-5. With great seriousness Jesus answers, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The other passage is from Zechariah 7:8-14 where God tells Zechariah to tell the people that their worship and sacrifice is useless unless they “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But, it says that the people refused to listen, turned a stubborn shoulder, stopped up their ears, and made their hearts “diamond hard” (vs. 11-12). The result of the people not rendering true judgments or showing kindness and mercy to the widow, fatherless, sojourner, and poor is that God didn’t listen to their prayers and He sent a whirlwind to scatter them to the nations.

The Bible tells us that when disaster comes and we see those who are vulnerable and in need, we shouldn’t blame the victims by asking if their sins caused this. Likewise, we shouldn’t turn away from them, focus on ourselves, and harden our hearts. Rather, we should all see our own mortality, recognize our days are few, repent from oppressing others, and show kindness and mercy to those in need. We should live with a sense of holy fear and awareness that each of us could face death in an instant and soberly ask what it means for us today. Instead of casting blame on people for what happens to them, Jesus says that we are to all repent and turn to Him.

Whether the words of Jesus have any meaning for you or not, we can all recognize that inherent in disasters—be they hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, the cry of the poor, or the migrant family fleeing violence—there is a call to turn to one another, see the humanity in those suffering, love our neighbors, and help the most vulnerable among us. This mercy and kindness is foundational. For people of faith. For President Trump. For all of us.

I would not have given Trump a Bible to sign and I believe that he should not have signed them if asked. He is not the author. Theologically, it was wrong. But having said that, mercy and kindness should be extended to those in that church. The people in that situation were victims and volunteers almost certainly overwhelmed by the disaster around them and suddenly thrust into a new situation with a visit from the president. If I were a pastor there, I hope I would have stepped in and suggested the president sign something else. But to be honest, I probably would have been overwhelmed by the moment, too. I’m apt to give them some grace and then point them to the true Author of the Bible who cares for them.

And for Trump, I’m glad he came to Alabama to visit with my neighbors who were suffering. He shouldn’t have signed the Bibles and, as someone who claims to be a Christian, he should know better. But, I pray that as he continues to develop policy for the poor, the vulnerable, those who suffer from natural disasters, and the migrant families coming to our border seeking asylum that he will consider the Biblical call for true judgments, kindness, mercy, and repentance toward God and one another.

My father always taught me that if you’re ever going to sign something, you should read it and know what it says. I pray that happens in this case . . . for President Trump, and for all of us.

Alan Cross

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.