This article is part of the Arc of Justice series, responding to the killing of George Floyd and the international movement it has sparked.
On Juneteenth, Plough’s Peter Mommsen talked to Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers about the international movement that’s grown in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Plough: You both have been working for decades as Christian leaders in the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston. What have been your thoughts in the weeks since George Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020?
Jacqueline Rivers: Mostly, I’ve been thinking about what the response of the church should be; it’s been heavy on my heart because the church has not played a clear role. It seems as though the protesting young people, many of whom are not people of faith at all, are coming out in hundreds of thousands, because we, the church, haven’t done enough to advance racial justice and so God has placed this responsibility on the shoulders of nonbelievers.
Eugene Rivers: It’s important for the church to think more creatively, and to pay much more attention to history. I’m old enough to have seen the riots the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, April 4th, 1968. The rage young people felt then had been growing, as the theater of struggle shifted beyond the deep South to cities like Los Angeles, where the first major riots happened. Today’s movement has been building since the death of Trayvon Martin. Right before George Floyd, we had the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
These young people have been able to exhibit a level of interracial solidarity that we haven’t seen in the churches since Martin Luther King.
And the church, black and white, did not see deeply enough into the nature of the crisis. We have to look in the mirror and ask, “Where were we? How were the nonbelievers able to exhibit this level of black–white solidarity?”
Jacqueline Rivers: I experienced a striking example of this. Despite the pandemic, I wanted to participate in some of the protests so I went to one in Franklin Park here in Boston, and I was really impressed by one of the signs I saw there. A young white man had a big sign: “When the police come, white people to the front,” that is, he’d use that white-skin privilege to protect black people who would be more likely to be treated worse by the police.
Eugene Rivers: That was absolutely astonishing. Events were shaping the thinking of whites in a way we haven’t seen in recent history, since the civil rights movement when the white students went to the South and stepped to the front. That was the power of the story of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights workers murdered by the Klan in 1964 – those two young whites, Schwerner and Goodman, stepped to the front.
It’s crucial that the change that comes out of this movement is not merely superficial and symbolic but structural.
George Floyd’s death is nothing new – black people have been fighting this forever. In the last eight years, we had the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and a dozen or so other terrible instances. But in the last few weeks, the game-changer is the young whites who’ve stepped up. Although I have fundamental disagreements with the Black Lives Matter organization and its agenda, these young people have been able to exhibit a level of interracial solidarity that we haven’t seen in the churches since Martin Luther King.
Jacqueline Rivers: Even during the civil rights movement, at the time of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the degree of black–white solidarity within the church was very questionable. It’s not that there weren’t white Christians who went to the South to support the civil rights movement. There certainly were, but the level of solidarity that we have seen in response to the latest expression of police violence seems to far surpass anything that we’ve seen in the church.
Eugene Rivers: And these demonstrations have surpassed anything that the 1963 March on Washington did. The March on Washington was like a quarter of a million people. This is much bigger.
Race and Policing
Plough: Why has the movement gained such strength this time?
Jacqueline Rivers: Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, apparently for eight minutes and forty-six seconds – a man died three feet from his face. I think that cold-bloodedness has fueled the outrage.
In the heat of the chase it’s different – even in an awful case like Walter Scott’s in Charleston, there’s adrenaline involved. But in the case of George Floyd, as two black former police officers from Minneapolis pointed out, Chauvin’s hands were in his pockets as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. He killed in cold blood.
You might say, “Derek Chauvin is just a sick individual, and it wouldn’t have mattered if the man under his knee were black or white.” But then you have the killing of Rayshard Brooks just days later in Atlanta. And there is a long history of such extrajudicial killings of black men.
How do we expand structural change beyond policing and address some of these larger underlying problems?
One social media post I saw encapsulated the change that’s happened since Floyd’s death; it was a white woman commenting on the video. I’m paraphrasing: “Up to this point I hadn’t really known what to think of police brutality. But now? That’s just murder.” Yet even though she was outraged, she admitted not understanding what people are talking about when they speak of white privilege. To me, she represents the broad middle of people right now who are struggling to figure out questions of racial justice.
Eugene Rivers: What hasn’t helped is the corruption of the national conversation around race in the mainstream media. For example, the New York Times has increasingly veered away from classical reportage to this 1619-ish, subjective, self-referential journalism that shrinks from complexity or ambiguity. All the same, George Floyd’s shocking death cuts right through that.
As society has become increasingly polarized, the church needs to say: Let’s think, let’s not get sucked up into rhetoric and emotion. There are legitimate demands for justice. But we’ve got to respond boldly, within a framework of agape love, to say like that young white man at Franklin Park, “When the cops come, step to the front.”
Jacqueline Rivers: The Covid-19 pandemic also helps explain the power of this movement. The pandemic has illustrated all too vividly the meaning of terms like systemic racism and structural inequality in a way anyone can grasp: “Oh, you mean black people are at greater risk from Covid-19 because they’re more likely to be working in supermarkets or other essential jobs, and to use public transportation, and to live in housing that doesn’t allow for social distancing? And their mortality rate is higher because they’re more likely to have pre-existing health conditions?”
Though Christians must stand in solidarity with the protesters, we cannot compromise our fundamental beliefs.
It’s crucial, then, that the change that comes out of this movement is not merely superficial and symbolic but structural. Of course, many of the suggested reforms are obviously good: changing policing strategies, barring chokeholds, demilitarizing law enforcement. But what about more fundamental things like changing police hiring practices? There is a problem of over-policing, where a minor crime which would go unnoticed in a white neighborhood is immediately pounced upon in a black neighborhood.
Eugene Rivers: The Boston papers are reporting that over five hundred city cops make in excess of $200,000 per year, largely as a result of a bloated overtime system. This creates a perverse incentive: an arrest means court, which means overtime for testifying.
Jacqueline Rivers: That’s why in some cities where these perverse incentives exist, the slogan “Defund the Police” may be valid; let’s shift spending to where it helps instead of harms. But in other parts of the country, the problem is the opposite. There we may need to pay police more generously in order to attract higher-quality officers, provide better training, and achieve greater accountability.
Eugene Rivers: I’ve seen examples of this firsthand. Back in 2014, before the funeral of Michael Brown, I visited Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where he had been shot. I spent three days at the protests and walking around Florissant, where all the marching was. One thing I learned then is that it was miserable being a Ferguson cop. It was a terrible job, largely because of the deep poverty in that community. We want quality police officers, but if it’s a lousy job, that just asks for bad policing. Now clearly, the greatest victims of our broken system of policing are the people treated badly, or unjustly, or murdered. But the poor guy wearing a uniform can be another victim with a job that sucks, that he hates, that nobody cares about.
How radical would it be for white people to go to black churches – and not take over?
Jacqueline Rivers: That’s why the idea of community policing is so important: to have policemen on the beat, building relationships with people in the community. It’s important for the police themselves, to help them remember that they are not simply working among animals. They may see some people at their worst, but there are other people in the neighborhood who are good, warm, kind, and loving. Even the person you see at his worst isn’t that way always.
Plough: Which is a fact that we Christians should know about ourselves in the first place: that at some moments we can act in terrible ways, and yet that’s not the last word about us.
Jacqueline Rivers: “There but for the grace of God go I” – that’s a vital recognition.
Plough: You both have been involved in promoting community policing for over two decades. What have you learned?
Jacqueline Rivers: Starting in 1998 we’ve worked with community activists and law enforcement, local and federal, meeting together weekly on Wednesday mornings to talk over challenges facing the neighborhood. This past Wednesday, we had a conference call to discuss the current unrest, and so many wanted to make clear that we have good cops. Somebody said, “If the police department pulls the cops in this neighborhood, people want to know, where are our cops?” Because they had cops walking the beat; they want their local police. In poor black neighborhoods, people want to have police. They recognize that not every police officer is Derek Chauvin – that although some structures of policing need to be changed, there are many cops who work for the good of the people.
Plough: So the answer is not to abolish the police, as some are calling for?
Jacqueline Rivers: Absolutely not. Because there’s another truth that few want to talk about. As horrendous as Derek Chauvin’s actions were, the number of young black men who die at the hands of police officers is a tiny fraction of the number who die at the hands of other young black men. We’re not often willing to engage that question; it’s so much more difficult to respond to. I can decry the racist white cop when it’s Derek Chauvin. What do I do when it’s my son, or my nephew, or the little boy who grew up next door to me, who is the murderer?
There is structural racism underlying that, too. Hopelessness about jobs, lack of access to high-quality education, and worst of all, residential segregation. Does it matter whether we can or can’t live next to white people? Only insofar as city services, quality of education, et cetera, are better where white people live and worse where black people live. So that contributes to a kind of nihilism. How do we expand structural change beyond policing and address some of these larger underlying problems?
The Role of the Church
Plough: You pointed out earlier that Christians have too often been at the periphery of today’s movement. Going forward, what answers should the church be offering?
Jacqueline Rivers: The church can give hope. From a purely secular point of view, it is discouraging to realize that despite real accomplishments such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement of the 1960s did not eliminate white supremacy.
But we as the church know that in the long run, God is in charge; he’s the source of righteousness and justice, and the church will endure. So if we accept our mantle, we can begin to work for the long term, beyond when today’s movement has run its course. Whether this movement lasts five years or ten years, we as the church can be the permanent part of the solution.
To do this the church really needs to have a deep understanding of what is going on, to study problems in all their complexity. That means persistence and reading up, not just grabbing the first black person that comes along and saying, “Explain this to me.”
And let us break out of our racist segregation in the church and really see how we can work together. Peter, I like the question you asked in an earlier conversation: “What about white people going to black churches?” I think the expectation about integration is that black people will go to white churches. How radical would it be for white people to go to black churches – and not take over? Too often, that’s the expectation.
There are “principalities and powers” at work in white racism. The only enduring answer is seeking God’s power and relying on him to intervene.
Eugene Rivers: The church needs to learn how to put the hook out there. How can we take the language and refashion it so that young people can hear it? The civil rights movement of the 1960s used the language of scripture in a powerful way. We see the same more recently with biblical phrases popping up in hip-hop. For example, that famous song by KRS-One that references the Book of Revelation: “That’s the sound of da police / That’s the sound of da beast.” We’ve got to re-appropriate our own language.
And the church must stay true to itself. Though Christians must stand in solidarity with the protesters, we cannot compromise our fundamental beliefs. At a certain point, for example, I’ve got to engage the Black Lives Matter organization and their anti-Christian agenda regarding sexuality and gender. Because they’re fomenting civil war in the black community with their rejection of the very idea of male and female.
Plough: How do Christians stand in solidarity while not aligning ourselves with aspects of the movement with which we cannot agree?
Jacqueline Rivers: It’s important to declare what you’re for – when I went to the march everybody had a sign. I could carry a sign that makes a Christian statement, a sign that talks about the God of justice. It’s not necessarily easy to make clear what you are against in a situation like that, but you can make a strong statement about what you are for. The march I went to was cosponsored by Black Lives Matter and another group, and they opened with what sounded to me like a very Christian prayer. Not everybody who says “Black Lives Matter” is supporting the points of the organization’s manifesto that conflict with our faith.
Plough: Five years ago, John McWhorter wrote a provocative article titled “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.” In the past few weeks, we’ve seen online videos of white people using seemingly religious symbols and rituals to absolve themselves of guilt: “If I go to the right rallies, if I raise my hands and renounce my white privilege, if I kneel like Colin Kaepernick, I’m one of the good ones.” Then you have progressive middle-class college kids pouring self-righteous contempt on working-class people who haven’t mastered the antiracist jargon. Your thoughts?
Jacqueline Rivers: With mainstream culture shifting to an antiracist position, for these young white protesters it’s of course really tempting to just go with the flow. We need to ask them: Are you really prepared to deal with what happens when it’s time to choose what neighborhood to live in, what kind of school to send your children to then? What decisions will you make then? All too often, I think the decisions reflect limited personal or family interest, but they’re not the kind of decisions that bring about structural change.
That is why I find it important to start this process by really doing the research and reading – really understanding the nature and the history of white supremacy, learning to appreciate how difficult it is to solve structural problems such as residential segregation. Because only then can we start working toward long-term change.
Plough: Similarly, plenty of major corporations are all too happy to tweet “#BLM.” But when it comes to rezoning or structural economic changes, they’re unlikely to be so enthusiastic.
Jacqueline Rivers: Exactly. For corporations, of course, the bottom line is making money. If the thing that makes them money right now is to say “#BLM,” that’s what they’re going to do. Whether they’ll actually change policies, whether they’ll stop outsourcing jobs because it’s affecting black people – that’s a whole different question.
Plough: You see it in the educational sphere as well, at very exclusive and wealthy institutions like Harvard, where you teach. There the language of antiracist egalitarianism seems especially jarring.
Jacqueline Rivers: Harvard is observing Juneteenth today, I’ll have you know.
Plough: So they got the memo.
Jacqueline Rivers: They got the memo. But Harvard is probably the place, in the circles I move in, where the culture of antiracism is most powerful. To what extent will that result in structural change? We’ll have to wait and see.
The Spiritual War
Plough: Eugene, you’ve written for Plough about how movements for racial justice are weakened when they ignore the spiritual nature of the struggle. How does that apply now?
Eugene Rivers: Christians need to talk about the real roots of white supremacy. It’s not simply oppression and injustice, it’s pure evil. Good, spirit-filled Christians are not really prepared to understand the depth of the evil and the sadism associated with this anger.
Jacqueline Rivers: There are “principalities and powers” at work in white racism, to use the words of the apostle Paul (Eph. 6:12). Look at the eerie persistence of white supremacy: it’s morphed from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Actually putting it to death seems to me beyond human control – we have got to approach it with prayer. That’s a thing the church can bring to bear that none of these radical young white people can. They don’t understand the true nature of the problem. They don’t recognize that the only enduring answer is seeking God’s power and relying on him to intervene.
Eugene Rivers: White supremacy is a supernatural evil that has wrought havoc in the world. We in the churches have backed away from engaging this. Do I expect young people at Black Lives Matter protests to engage properly with something I’m not prepared to engage myself? This is a sin, a failure by the church. The answer is the prayer Jackie mentioned.
Jacqueline Rivers: In addition to prayer, the question of unity is also important. If we harbor in our hearts the same racist inclinations that come from white supremacy, we can’t really be united in the power of the Spirit to resist it. So it’s important for us to work toward that unity between white and black churches. This means white churches taking on the issues that are important to black churches. “Are you working on issues around teenage pregnancy? Are you working on public education?” Maybe you’re just struggling to survive as a black church in a gentrifying neighborhood.
We’ve got to pray. We’ve got to repent. Then we’ve got to engage the truth.
Eugene Rivers: I think the church has a unique, singular opportunity in history. And God is kind to us; he gives us these kairos moments where if we’ll humble ourselves and pray, he will heal the land. He’ll do that, but we’ve got to be willing to pray, seek God’s face, humble ourselves.
Jacqueline Rivers: And turn from our wicked ways. We must confront the history of the white church and our complicity in white supremacy. From the period of slavery there has been a component of the church that has not stood up for racial justice. Some of the most powerful proponents of slavery were white clergy who argued for that cruel institution on the grounds of scripture. In fact, the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches all split because the Southern congregations were so committed to slaveholding. In the twentieth century there have been some efforts at reconciliation, but many white churches, particularly in the South, have not opposed racial injustice as they ought. Recently there were reports of black Christians leaving white churches because of their support for racist policies. We have to confront this.
Eugene Rivers: We’ve got to pray. We’ve got to repent. Then we’ve got to engage the truth. The churches must understand more clearly that intercessory prayer is an indispensable political resource for struggle. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most intense periods in the Birmingham and Selma nonviolent campaigns, when confronted by violent police would kneel and pray for his enemies. This act of intercessory prayer for the victims of terrorist violence, as well as for the perpetrators, served as a transformative expression of God’s power. King, like Jesus, prayed to the father to forgive those who did not know what they were doing.
As the theologian Walter Wink perceptively commented, “Intercession is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current contradictory forces.” At this time of great turmoil and division in this country, Christians must understand that history will belong to the intercessors. As I referred to earlier, God says: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
In all of this we must learn from William Stringfellow, as I wrote in my article for Plough. I’d like to quote from him:
The monstrous American heresy is in thinking that the whole drama of history takes place between God and humanity. But the truth, biblically and theologically and empirically, is quite otherwise: The drama of this history takes place amongst God and humanity and the principalities and powers, the great institutions and ideologies active in the world. . . . Or to put it differently, racism is not an evil in human hearts or minds; racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence in their lives.
Unlike Stringfellow, we recognize the effects of white supremacy in human hearts and minds, as well as in institutions. But more importantly, we know that God has given us the power to battle and ultimately overcome all principalities and powers through his Son, our Savior.
That means praying like New Testament Christians, so that the power of the Holy Spirit can be poured out as it was at Pentecost. We must discern the principalities and powers we fight against, we must pray against them and teach against them. This is where boldness comes in. It takes extraordinary boldness to say, “White supremacy is a demonic spirit. The source of it is pure evil. But the Spirit of the God in Jesus Christ is stronger.”
This interview, which has been edited for clarity and concision, was conducted by telephone on June 19, 2020.