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Author Archives: Rosie Dawson

Brandishing the Bible: division amongst evangelicals in Trump’s America

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Associate Research Fellow Rosie Dawson reflects on Trump’s highly controversial pose outside St John’s Episcopal church last week and wonders if the key to the American election lies in the divergent response amongst evangelical Christians.

“To describe all that has happened within sight of this spot, all that this church has seen, looking across the square, would be to tell in large part the history of the United States.”

So wrote Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of the “President’s church,” an elegant, white building on the north corner of Layfayette Square opposite the White House. It was designed by a Yorkshireman, Benjamin Latrobe, and consecrated in December 1816.

Former Presidents have sometimes looked to St John’s Episcopal church in times of national crisis. Lyndon Johnson asked for a service there on the day after Kennedy’s assassination; George W. Bush went there to remember those who died in 9/11 on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Last week, the church was again at the centre of political events engulfing America as a nation rose in protest at the murder of George Floyd. But the presidential style was different. Donald Trump used police and tear gas to clear the square in front of St John’s of protestors so that he could have his photograph taken outside. He held up a Bible. According to his supporters this showed leadership akin to Joshua’s storming of the city of Jericho. According to his critics it desecrated the Scriptures and the Church.

But there’s no mystery as to the President’s motives. It is to be found in one of the shorter tweets he directed at his opponents last week: “NOVEMBER 3rd”. Donald Trump’s stance was aimed at the electoral base crucial to his chances of re-election, the eighty per cent of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016. Fifteen per cent of Americans identify as white evangelicals but they are more likely than any other demographic to turn out to vote. Will that level of support hold? Will his action last week pay off?

Evangelicals can be broken down into many sub-categories, of course. But for the millions for whom being a white evangelical is a political identity, reading the Bible or going to church isn’t necessarily what they sign up to. They are religious in the way that Trump himself is religious. It’s about memory and nostalgia and was summed up in a podcast made by David Brody, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

“He remembers a time in the 1950s, back when he was growing up—remember, born in 1946, he’s 74 years old—he remembers a time where you dressed up for church, where you prayed in school. He remembers a time when there was Bible reading in classes. This is Donald Trump’s America”.

This was also a time of racial segregation and the Jim Crow Laws, but Brody said he didn’t want to get into that.

In 2016, research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that white evangelicals were the only group who felt that America’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. Three quarters of them thought it had. The demographics and culture of the country have shifted around them: it is no longer the predominantly white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant country they thought it was, and they feel under siege. Bizarre though this may seem, for many of them, Trump’s stand outside St John’s Church was a statement in support of the persecuted, by which they mean themselves.

Then there’s another group of conservative evangelicals that are very serious about their Bible-reading.  Some of them, including the flunkies who make up Trump’s religious advisory group, look in it for prophecies that Donald Trump is God’s anointed. But, more generally, this group read their Bibles purely from the perspective of the individual’s need for salvation rather than society’s need for transformation. Sin is individual, not structural. The African American evangelical Darrell Harrison used Twitter last week to draw a distinction between the “social gospel” and the “biblical gospel”.

“The social gospel preaches structural transformation that works in society from the outside-in, whereas the biblical gospel preaches spiritual transformation that works in society from the inside-out.”

George Floyd’s killing was caused by hate, rather than something called racism, he suggested. The solution to ending hate is “by repenting and believing the gospel”.

The Washington Post, however, noted protests in the capital last weekend which were organised by groups of conservative evangelicals and which appeared to call for change from the outside-in. Among them was David Platt, the white pastor of a huge mega church, McClean Bible, which Donald Trump has visited in the past. Standing alongside another conservative evangelical Thabiti Anyabwile, the pastor of Anacostia River Church, Platt prayed for forgiveness “for our history and our present”. Pastor Anyabwile, who has often spoken out about racism, told the Post that the moment felt significant.

What happens within these groups of evangelicals in the coming months will be reflected in future histories of the United States. Donald Trump will hope that actions such as his gesture outside St John’s will stoke just the right amount of fear among his supporters to make them feel threatened, but not so much that they are don’t trust him and stay away from November’s poll. The Democrats’ hopes may depend on the evangelicals who marched at the weekend, and the fact not just that they read the Bible but how they read it.

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Review of ‘Tragedies and Christian Congregations: the practical Theology of Trauma’

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Rosie Dawson, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, reviews ‘Tragedies and Christian Congregations: the practical Theology of Trauma’ edited by Megan Warner, Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison, and reminds us that churches can be both comforters after, and perpetrators of, trauma.

“This is an extremely important book,” writes Bishop James Jones in his foreword to Tragedies and Christian Congregations. And so it is. The field of trauma studies itself—let alone of trauma in relation to Theology—is still relatively new. The understanding of how traumatic events come to dominate the lives of individuals and communities has developed greatly since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 with which Bishop James was so closely associated through his chairing of the independent panel. Many who, like me, were assessed as adoptive parents 20 years ago will wish they had been privy to some of the more recent research into how trauma affects the young brain. This book offers a comprehensive resource to those wanting to understand what trauma is, how it manifests itself individually and collectively, and how churches might respond liturgically and pastorally to traumatic events both within and beyond their congregations.

The Tragedy and Congregations project at the University of Exeter from which this book grew was started in 2016. The following year terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington presented an urgent challenge to churches which sometimes found themselves overwhelmed by the demands placed on them. Some of those involved shared their experiences and liturgies with the authors. The Revd Prebendary Alan Everett wrote in his memoir After the Fire that perhaps the most important thing that he had done in his entire ministry was to open his church and turn on the lights as the fire took hold of Grenfell tower. Liturgies included as appendices in the book include the national memorial service held for the Grenfell victims at St Pauls cathedral and a “reclaiming” service held in Salisbury following the Novichok nerve agent attack in 2018.

As the title of Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal work of 2014 says, The Body Keeps the Score. Trauma refers not only to an event or experience but to the imprints left on brain and body and their long-term consequences. Hilary Ison details the physiological aspects of the trauma experience which trigger the responses of fight/flight. Trauma is what happens when an individual is overwhelmed, has her beliefs about how the world works shattered, and is unable to process what has occurred. Healing the trauma lies not simply in a cognitive acknowledgment and acceptance of what has taken place but in identifying the sensations in the body which give rise to dis-regulated emotional states. Kate Wiebe’s chapter “Towards a faith-based approach to healing a collective trauma” explains how the tissues of a whole community can be damaged, creating an injury or culture which is both different from and more than the sum of the private wounds of the individuals involved.

But, as Meg Warner explores in her chapter on “Trauma through the lens of the Bible”, we are not left comfortless. The Bible is a book borne of devastating loss. The Hebrew Scriptures were put together in their present form in the aftermath of war, exile, and the destruction of Israel’s holiest places. God’s people cry out for justice; they wonder if their God has abandoned them. Much of the New Testament too was written after the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. The Bible provides an invaluable and tested resource for those seeking to express and heal their trauma. When I visited the area around Grenfell Tower a few months after the fire I found the walls of underpasses graffitied with quotes from Scripture, including the Beatitudes—”Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”—and Psalm 61—”Hear my cry Oh God; attend to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I cry unto thee when my heart is overwhelmed.

The events of 2017 provided churches and other faith groups with many opportunities to reach out effectively and with compassion to their neighbours. But the authors note the danger of the church focussing so much on this role that it fails to recognise its own propensity to inflict trauma. Carla Grosch-Miller considers the trauma visited on congregations when a religious leader is found to have sexually abused a child or adult. Clergy abuse creates “spiritual havoc” among congregants who will question every sacred moment they have shared with the offender. Inadequate institutional responses to the abuse may compound the trauma. Grosch-Miller speaks of congregations being “in recovery” for years. “Afterpastors”, as they are known in the US, may find themselves the focus of displaced anger and mistrust. The job of guiding a church through the process involves giving clear information about what has happened, creating safe spaces in which people can express their feelings, and providing reassurance that those feelings are normal in the face of terrible reality.

The aim of recovery from trauma, we are reminded, is never to return to things as they were. But facing trauma has the potential to transform and to heal. A story which Grosch-Miller considers in the second chapter of the book, but which resurfaces several times in subsequent contributions, is that of a Manchester teenager who committed suicide because she felt that her church and God would not be able to accept her as gay. The response of the minister and congregation to that tragedy is offered as an example of the transformation that is possible when trauma is faced head on and allowed to reshape peoples’ understanding of Scripture, faith, and practice.

Healing trauma is not the work that the Church must get out of the way in order to get on with its core mission. Healing trauma is the Church’s core mission. Grosch-Miller quotes John Wall: “To be created in the image of a Creator is one way of saying that we are in part perpetually responding to furnish new moral worlds within the… complexity and tragedy of human life.” (John Wall, Moral Creativity: Paul Ricoeur and the Poetics of Possibility, OUP, 2005)

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Come the Resurrection…?

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Associate Research Fellow Rosie Dawson reflects on the fire at Notre Dame and sex trafficking in New York—and warns against moving on too soon.

The Pope may have to take a bit of a back seat this year. Of course, the TV crews will be there at the Colosseum for the traditional Stations of the Cross but there’s only really one set of images for Good Friday this year—those of the shell of Notre Dame cathedral, and particularly the photograph of an illuminated cross shining out among the debris and smoke of the fire.

The significance of the fire happening during Holy week was lost on no one. Parisians could only watch and weep as their cathedral burned; just as Mary and the disciples could only watch and weep as Jesus died. But even on Monday evening the talk of restoration and rebuilding had begun. Reassuring messages, confident about resurrection, were sent from Coventry Cathedral and York Minster. I found it rather unseemly. A bit like telling a grieving friend that it’s time to move on before they’ve even planned the funeral.

Donations for the restoration fund have poured in, prompting debates about whether its right to spend so much money on a building when half the world is hungry. President Macron launched an architectural competition to redesign the spire, declaring that the cathedral will be reborn in even greater glory and within five years.

I’ve just returned from New York where I was following a Stations of the Cross specially curated around the theme of sex trafficking. Pilgrims gathered at the Port Authority Bus station where young people coming into the city for the first time are easy prey. We heard from a young woman, Gigi, who was ensnared by her abuser there. This was the First Station—Jesus taking up his cross. A strip club was the location for the Station where Jesus falls for the first time.

A Catholic refuge offering comfort to vulnerable young people was the Fourth Station; I interviewed “Jonesy” whose daughter was lured from the street into a “trap house” and was missing for six days. I was struck by her reflections on the gospel story of Jesus meeting his mother. “I definitely have a special feeling for Mary,” she said, “When I was going to meet my daughter after she’d escaped her abusers I didn’t know what I was going to find. She looked different—they had changed her hair colour and her clothes. I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her I loved her and that none of this was her fault. And I think that is what Mary would have wanted to say to Jesus too—this isn’t your fault.” Such a fresh and original insight. I’d never heard anyone understand Mary that way before. As Andrew Graystone, an advocate for abuse victims, has said, “Survivors of abuse are amongst the church’s finest theologians.”

The resonances continued. If anyone feels they are forced I would recommend reading the work of David Tombs from the University of Otaga in New Zealand, who argues that the humiliation of Jesus by his torturers included sexual abuse. At JFK airport Jesus was stripped of his garments—or rather, Shandra was stripped of her passport and return ticket by a man who was purportedly picking her up to take her to her job as a hotel waitress. The reality was rather different—she was sold several times a day for $145.  The Eleventh Station where Jesus is nailed to the cross was a notorious Brooklyn motel where the “services” on offer are the talk of Trip Advisor. The pilgrims prayed outside and waved to women looking out from their windows.

What is the promise of resurrection here? How long the wait from Good Friday to Easter? It is easier to assess the damage to a building than to a person. Healing can take much longer than five years and is rarely complete. “The week of Jesus’ resurrection is his first week home from prison after a very public arrest, trial, imprisonment, and death sentence,” I read on the Sojourners website. He is unrecognisable and scarred. We forget that sometimes.

So as the bus headed back into New York city at 3pm in the afternoon, the time when Jesus is said to have died on the cross, I asked Gigi what she has to say about the idea of resurrection. She paused to think about it. No false confidence here. Her reply was striking for both its power and paucity. “Well, it’s possible,” was all she could say.

You can listen to Heart and Soul: New York Stations of the Cross here.


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