Of Bibles, Blessings, and Twitter Outrage

On Sunday, this tweet from the National Cathedral appeared in my feed. There was an immediate response from many who found it and the event it was depicting deeply problematic. Conversation about its significance and appropriateness began immediately and unlike so many such twitter controversies, it has not died down 2 days later. NPR picked up the story as well.

I was deeply troubled by the original tweet as it stated the Cathedral was “blessing the official Bible of the Space Force.” There are serious questions here about what this blessing says about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with the United States and its military, some of which I may address on another occasion. What caught my attention however was the phrase “the official Bible of the Space Force.”

I know little about how the Space Force has developed since President Trump announced its creation; in fact, I assumed it was little more than one of those things the President is prone to say that seem to have little basis in reality. Apparently it is a thing. But I had a number of questions. This official Bible was apparently to be used to swear in all commanders. That raises questions about the role of religion, specifically Christianity in the creation of the military hierarchy, and what role, if any, people who aren’t Christian would have in that hierarchy. Are there also “official” Torahs or Qurans for commanders who might be Jewish or Muslim, or for that matter, what provision is made for people who claim no religious affiliation?

While space has been militarized since the beginning of exploration, the creation of a Space Force seems to me to be a qualitative leap beyond what has occurred to this point. I imagined Space Force conquerors claiming planets as US territory following colonization patterns familiar from past centuries, with missionaries coming behind, Christianizing alien races as the Church of England followed the Empire as it colonized the world and Franciscans and Dominicans accompanied Spanish conquistadors.

The NPR article provides a bit of background and walks back the tweet’s inaccuracies but at the same time introduces some other astonishing and troubling details. The Bible was donated by the Museum of the Bible which is itself mired in controversy regarding its questionable acquisition of items and its ideological perspective. And then there is the prayer that was read at its blessing:

“Almighty God, who set the planets in their courses and the stars in space, look with favor, we pray you, upon the commander in chief, the 45th president of this great nation, who looked to the heavens and dared to dream of a safer future for all mankind.”

There are complex issues involved in occasions such as this. The blessing was performed by Bishop Carl Wright, the Episcopal Church’s Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries. He oversees chaplains in the Armed Forces, Veterans Administration, and federal prisons. It’s important work and I’m grateful for the Episcopal presence in all of those places. I wouldn’t second-guess any action he took, especially considering I have no direct experience in any of them.

At the same time, I think this event and the reaction to it reflect a much more important issue in the life of the Episcopal Church. Since the founding of the US and the Episcopal Church, we have been the quasi-established Church. It’s no accident that we have a “National Cathedral” that is the site of state funerals like that of George H.W. Bush as well as inaugural prayer services. The difference between this event and the widespread fawning among Episcopalians when President Obama attended Inaugural service es at Episcopal churches is more a matter of degree than of kind.

The fundamental question is this. How can we as a church minister in and to institutions that are deeply oppressive, violent, unjust, and militaristic even as we also seek to call them to account? The blessing of a Bible that will be used in a commander’s swearing-in ceremony implicates the Episcopal Church in whatever command decisions he or she might have to make.

As the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian becomes smaller every year, and as the Episcopal Church itself continues to decline in numbers and influence, it will incumbent on us to develop a public witness that is at once faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ and recognizes the pluralistic reality of the world in which we live.  We must also acknowledge that the people among whom we minister in those institutions are also struggling to negotiate multiple identities of their own and competing claims for their allegiance. While they are doing this, they are also working with people who  are struggling in the same ways and are often coming from very different religious and cultural backgrounds.

What would it be like if the Episcopal Church, instead of reaching back to traditional symbolism and language or adopting models from established churches, explored new religious forms that recognized the complexity of the world in which we live and sought to honor and strengthen the religious commitments, not just of Episcopalians, but of people who reflect the diversity of America’s and the world’s religions?

All of this requires much greater nuance than is possible in 280 characters.