The Symbolism of Smoke Bombs

Last night, I fell asleep with the following phrase repeatedly swirling around in my head: “He smoke-bombed a peaceful place to create space for himself. He smoke-bombed a peaceful place to create space for himself.”

On Monday, June First, the President stood in the White House Rose Garden and proclaimed he was a leader of “law and order”. A few blocks away, police were deploying smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and horses to clear an area of peaceful protestors in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church so the President could come and “pay his respects.” Upon arrival, his daughter handed him a Bible from her $1500 handbag, and he shared some disjointed thoughts about our country being the “best country in the world” and something about “it coming back strong.” His meaning was unclear to me. (See this link.)

Although some faith communities lauded the President for “wearing the armor of God” or perceived him as “walking the Jericho walk” (see Ephesians 6:10-18 and Joshua 6:1-27 for context), others excoriated his behavior as a publicity stunt used as a symbol of military force. The Right Reverend Mariann Budde, the Bishop of Washington Diocese of Episcopal Churches, responded by saying his behavior “…expresses the dissonance and the tremendous disconnect between what churches are and what our sacred texts represent and the President’s actions.” She went on to observe he didn’t pray or lament the death of George Floyd, nor did he address any of the systemic issues behind the protests. (See this link.)

He simply smoke-bombed a peaceful place to create space for himself.

There are so many elements to this story that are deeply upsetting to me, but perhaps the most distressing is the entitlement it requires to bully protestors decrying racism and quiet community voices to make space for his nonsensical statements. The symbolism of this decision astounds me. It basically communicates he is willing to hide behind the cloak of Scripture and utilize Protestantism for a political agenda. Believe me, if the majority of our country consisted of persons of Middle Eastern descent who practiced Islam, he would have chosen some mosque nearby to “teargas” a space for himself there. Instead, he chose a majority religion, one to which his White followers subscribe (or at least respect), and he stood in a place on which our WASP-y Founding Fathers would have approved.

Last week, I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and it was organized by local NAACP and Black leaders. On the fringes, near where I stood, was a very loud White woman, screaming the mantras at the top of her lungs to show her support. I noticed there were times in which she tried to initiate the chants or take over the current calls being led by the rally leaders. It was a subtly subversive behavior, probably not noticed by those around her, but the message was clear: the Black voices weren’t doing an adequate job, and a White person needed to “help” them.

In essence, she was smoke-bombing a peaceful place to create space for herself.

I’ve been thinking about spaces where I have smoke-bombed my way into a place of authority so I can be heard. I did it last week when I offered unsolicited advice to a clergy friend – and then I felt sad when I couldn’t get the metaphorical smoke out of my eyes. As a hospice chaplain, I have co-opted clinical spaces, and shared my very “helpful” insights with the team. And recently, I conversed with someone important to my kid (in order to “assist” his transition to adulthood), and he later informed me that was his job, not mine. It’s humbling (and sometimes painful) to acknowledge the ways in which I smoke-bomb my way into peaceful places, but until I can do so, I will remain just as culpable as a Bible-holding President.

What did this particular scene bring to mind for you, Mike?

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