A Letter to the President from Bishop Russell
Dear Mr. President,
I awoke this morning to do my prayers. I clicked on the news on my computer. That is how I begin my prayers.
The image on my screen shocked me. It was a picture of you standing in front of an Episcopal church holding a Bible. As I learned more, my curiosity gave way to deep remorse, confusion and anger. I have spent the last few hours trying to name the reason for my emotional response to this image.
The people of the church you stood in front of last night pray for you every Sunday. I know they do, because I am a bishop in the same denomination, and the churches in my diocese pray for you, too. Congregations full of liberal, conservative, and independent people of all races and all orientations. Episcopalians pray for our president. Most congregations pray for you by your Christian name, Donald. We believe in the responsibility to work for the common good, and your office is an essential instrument of the common good.
I love this particular room in God’s mansion called the Episcopal Church. I have given my vocational life as a priest and now a bishop to her people, tenets and values. One of our values is that “all are welcome.” It was on the church sign behind you. It is a bit of a cliché for us Episcopalians, but the most conservative and most liberal among us try our best to live that cliché. I love that about this church. All are welcome.
As I mentioned, I am a bishop. I have spent the last three weeks agonizing over ways to get people safely back into their church buildings. Episcopalians love their buildings. At times we love our buildings too much, but I know why we love our buildings. Our buildings are holy ground. Holy ground. Sanctuary. For all.
I watched the entire video from last night. When you walked over to the church, you carried nothing. Someone handed you a Bible. “Is that your Bible?” they asked. “It’s a Bible,” you said. Then you held it up, and I heard the cacophony of cameras. Then you left. No prayer. No message from the Bible.
Mr. President, I love the Bible more than I do my church. I love the Bible for what I have found and continue to find in its pages. Here is some of what I have found in the Bible.
First of all, I find myself. I find that I have been loved into existence. Even more, I find that I am loved into eternity. I also find that I am responsible for more than my own life. I find a vision for how I want to live. I find people that spoke messages that confront my shallow self, like the prophets. And I hear voices that inspire me, like Mary.
I love the Bible because it is full of good stories. Here is one of my favorites.
Once upon a time a man wanted for murder met God on the holy ground of a mountain. “I have heard my people’s cry,” God told Moses. So Moses picked up a staff and gave his life to making a way for freedom for his people. Sometime later, Moses stood in front of a terrified crowd who were running for their lives from an army. Moses held up a staff. When he held up that staff, the sea parted and made a way into freedom.
I love the Bible because it tells the story of Jesus. I love Jesus more than I do the Bible or my church. I love Jesus so much that I want to be like him. Sometimes that is not easy, because he tells me that if I want to be like him, I must love like he did. Jesus told some great stories about love.
Once upon a time there was a man lying on the ground who had been left for dead. Two out of three who passed by did so without a second glance. In other words, 66% were indifferent. However, a third man stopped and crossed the street to help the dying man. Knowing what I know about that road to Jericho, it was a scary road. It took courage to cross that road to help that dying man. The man who did so was a Samaritan. I once heard that for a Jew, “a Samaritan was someone you would rather see dead than be helped by.”
The Samaritan crossed the street to heal and help. This is what love looks like. Jesus taught us to cross a street at the risk of our own life in order to help and heal.
Jesus also lived the story of love. Once upon a time he held up a cross, or rather it held him up. That cross turned out to be the threshold into an entirely new way of life. Jesus parted a way through the principalities and powers of this world, including death, in order to make a way into a new way of being alive. That is what love looks like. That too is freedom.
Mr. President, I am a citizen of that way of love. One of the demands of my citizenship is that I will not enjoy its promise unless everyone is welcome, too. It is hard, because I was born in white skin to well-off parents in a powerful country. As I see it, because of my lot in life, I must take the first step, and then the second and third.
In other words, it is up to me to cross the street for the sake of compassion. It is up to me to part a way for freedom for those who are enslaved. It is up to me to hold up the cross of mercy for all. I have a long way to go, but I do know the way.
So when you parted a way through the crowds, crossed the street in order to take a photo, stood on the steps of a church, and held up a Bible, it felt little like what I love, know and strive for as a child of God.
I will continue to pray for you, Mr. President. And I ask for you to pray for me, too.