Esau McCaulley on Protests and Riots

Image: Photo by Katherine Benware

Esau is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. He’s the canon theologian in his diocese, and he directs the Next Generation Leadership Initiative across the Anglican Church in North America. Esau writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Christianity Today and others. He’s one of the hosts of a podcast called The Disrupters. You will want to read his new book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope that comes out in November of 2020.

Ed: My family is from New York City. My grandfather was the first battalion chief for lower Manhattan, and my uncle was a New York City cop. As the city deterioted in those bad times, my parents moved us to a place called Levittown. It was the 1970s, and Levittown was struggling (as was our family).

I would later learn that black people weren’t allowed to live in Levittown, and then discouraged to do so after it was legal. It was one of the founding realities of the town. As I kid, I’d wonder why it was all Irish and Italians, but there were no African Americans.

The reason is that structurally it was created so they wouldn’t live there. We learn these things, and they undermine the narrative we first understood.

You’ve helped us to understand these different narratives to gain a better perspective on life from the perspective of African Americans. Now, let’s talk about a perspective on protests.

We both agree: Protests are good. Riots are not. Unpack that for us from your context.

Esau: There is a cycle of what happens. There’s a racial incident. African Americans protest. Some of those protests from people inside and outside the community turn violent. People say, “Hey, look at this. Why aren’t the Christians who are speaking out against the racial injustice equally strong speaking about the riots?”

There are couple of things that I want to say about that. First, there is no real question as to where Christians stand on riots. There isn’t a kind of evangelical pro-riot, black riot faction. Therefore, on one level there is not a need to condemn rioting as a form of social protest, because everybody’s clear about this.

The problem is that the very people who are mad at us for not being strong enough against riots are the same people who say systemic racism isn’t a problem. This only manifests the contradiction.

There is no question we are all opposed to riots. There seems to be a question as to whether or not Christians should speak out against systemic oppression.

There needs to be a public and robust statement that the followers of Jesus are on the side of those who are being unjustly treated.

The second thing that I want to say about that is that if you want to talk to someone who is behaving in a way that is counterproductive, the first thing you need to do is actually show some empathy. If the first thing you do is you come in and say, “Law and order, law and order, law and order,” you’re not understanding the deep sense of frustration.

A riot is the manifestation of hopelessness.

The first thing that I try to do, and you’ve seen many African American leaders do this, is to say, “I get it. You’re frustrated. It seems like these videos will never stop, and this has been going on for years.” Then, once you’ve established that you care, you can begin to push back on the riot themselves.

You can’t come to a community that you hate and then rebuke them for behaving in a way that you don’t find is appropriate. You didn’t care about them anyway.

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Source: Christianity Today