(RNS) — Leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the pastor of an AME congregation in Wilmington, Delaware, are condemning a Trump-Pence campaign ad that uses footage of Joe Biden kneeling in the sanctuary of a Black church, describing it as racist and demanding an apology.
Silvester S. Beaman, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Wilmington that is featured in the digital spot released Wednesday (Sept. 9), said it encourages viewers to see Black church leaders and their flocks as “thuggish rule breakers.”
“The ad is overtly racist and offensive on numerous levels,” Beaman told Religion News Service on Saturday (Sept. 13). “It is a racist attack on the African American church, and because it was an attack on the Christian church, it should be offensive to every Christian and person of faith.”
Beaman was joined by leaders of the AME denomination, who are preparing a statement decrying the ad to be released on Monday (Sept. 14).
“This ad subtly incites white terrorism against people of color and attacks the Black Church and Black people for refusing to bow down to the idol called white supremacy,” read a draft of the statement provided to RNS.
The advertisement mostly featured scenes from protests against police killings that roiled several American cities this year, emphasizing violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police. But as the advertisement ended, it cut to slow-motion footage of Biden kneeling at Bethel in front of a group of Black leaders, including Beaman. Then comes an audio clip of Vice President Mike Pence saying “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” and a slide reading “Stop Joe Biden and his rioters.”
The footage was taken from Biden’s visit to Bethel back in June, when he met and prayed with a group of Black clergy and community leaders in the aftermath of demonstrations decrying the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis.
Beaman said the ad signals that “White folk in general and Trump’s base should fear the Black church,” and “that Black church leaders” and thus members of the Black church are “thuggish rule-breakers.”
“That is an erroneous depiction and it is offensive,” he said.
In their statement, AME leaders demand an immediate apology from the Trump campaign to the church and the removal of the ad. They also demand federal protection of Bethel to maintain its safety, and call on federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the legality of the Trump campaign’s use of church images in ways they say “might incite violence, and encourage racial tensions that lead to placing people of color in harm’s way.”
The AME statement is signed by Bishop Michael L. Mitchell, president of the AME council of bishops; Bishop Adam J. Richardson; Bishop Wilfred Jacobus Messiah, president of the general board; Bishop Frank Madison Reid, III, chair of the AME commission on social action; and Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, director and consultant for the commission.
Last week, Trump campaign Deputy National Press Secretary Samantha Zager, replied to a question about whether the ad intended to imply that black churches make America unsafe, saying, “That’s absurd and it’s shameful to even make the allegation.” Neither campaign immediately responded to requests for comment regarding Beaman’s remarks or the AME statement.
Beaman said the group assembled behind Biden in the ad included Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, as well as nine local pastors, a rabbi, two school presidents, a school board member, a Christian community activist, and an aide to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons. It also includes Renee Palmore Beaman, Beaman’s wife, who directs the Office of Delaware State’s Service Centers.
“To call us thugs diminishes the accomplishments we’ve made,” he said.
He said Biden’s taking a knee in the video was partly to provide room for a tighter photograph, but also as a “moral gesture of solidarity” for racial justice, which Beaman said was “is not an anti-police movement.”
“If (the Trump campaign) had been there, they would have heard us say that,” he said, noting that he has members of law enforcement in his congregation.
“I am insulted and appalled that our group of nonviolent religious, community, academic and political leaders would be characterized as thugs, when Trump’s response to the same issues causing protest was to use military-type tactics to gas, bully, and clear the way of protesters so he could go to a closed church — that didn’t invite him — and wave a Bible for a photo op,” he said, referencing when law enforcement forcibly cleared Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. of demonstrators and clergy in June.
“Now, whose action was thuggish and violent?” Beaman added.