Out of Our Dark Times Must Come Good
By Debra Green OBE
The Black Lives Matter campaign exploded into life in Britain on 7 June, after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was hurled into the harbour in Bristol by a furious group of protestors. Watching events unfold that day was Marvin Rees, a member of the BAME community and the city’s elected Mayor. And, as he explains, he hopes the controversy will act as an important agent of change.
Q: Do you endorse the statue of Edward Colston being thrown into Bristol harbour, or was it a legitimate form of protest?
I can’t endorse it as a civic leader, because it was criminal damage. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t want the statue gone years ago, or that I mourn its passing. And I think it was poetic for a statue to be taken down, carried through the streets and thrown into the harbour, from the very quayside where some of his ships would have docked. It’s not just the statue, Colston’s name is all over the city. Colston had a drive to bring civic order to the city at a time when there was quite a bit of turmoil among the working classes within the city. He is seen by some as a founding father and he tried to convince poor people he was working for their interests. But he wasn’t.
Q: How long have you been connected to the city of Bristol?
I was born in 1972 in Bristol, so this is genuinely my city. My background on my mum’s side is white, English-Welsh. I start with that, because that’s an important part of who I am. My dad came over here as a 12-year-old from Jamaica. My mum left school at 14, and had me at 23. Before I was born, the health workers were saying I should be aborted because she was an unmarried white woman with a brown baby on the way, and no money. This was the 1970s. And when I was born, they suggested she should give me up for adoption.
Q: Were you a teenager when you developed your faith?
It was way before that. Before I had the language to express it. I always believed. What I believed, I didn’t necessarily know, but I always had a sense of the infinite, the mysterious. I always felt connected to something that was beyond myself.
Q: Did your mum influence your beliefs?
It would have been in part from my mum. She never taught me about God when I was little but once we started to go to church, I heard more, and then my mum became a Christian when I was eight.
Q: And you became a Christian as well?
They said, ‘You need Jesus in your heart.’ As an eight-year-old, I thought, ‘Of course you do!’ It was logical to me.
So I walked forward to the altar, and, with various degrees of commitment and failure on my part ever since, that’s been my walk.
Q: You went on to achieve well academically, going on to study at Yale
At Yale there is something called the Yale Fellows Program, where they take 15 people from around the world and send them to university and really invest in their leadership. And despite my sense of imposter syndrome when I was there, I got a place on it. It’s incredible to be a part of it. I knew I needed something, right when I was at school. I needed something to help me escape the circumstances of my childhood.
Q: How long have you been passionate about people who live on the margins?
Since my childhood actually. I watched my mum struggle. We lived in a house and we had an electric meter. Probably one of the worst sounds you can hear was the 50 pence dropping in the electric meter, because then your lights went out and sometimes you didn’t have another 50 pence to put in. I have vivid memories of an £88 electric bill coming, before we had the meter, and the turmoil in the house about how are we going to pay this bill? So I grew up worrying about money and I watched my mum struggle, how she was disrespected as a white woman with no money, and a brown baby, born out of wedlock. These feelings of frustration, of inequality and unfairness, are all things I’ve carried since childhood.
Q: You worked with Tearfund, a Christian charity, and with Christian leaders in America who were political activists. What effect did this have on you?
It was all part of me trying to find out, what is Christian politics? How do I mobilise my faith and my life to take these challenges on?
Q: Some Christians say we should keep politics separate from faith. Do you feel the two are really linked?
I don’t understand the argument that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. I think our faith should be as abstract and spiritual as the nails that went through the hands of Jesus. If they’re made of real metal, let’s get with the real world. If you can spiritualise the crucifixion, then go for the super-spiritualised Christianity that has nothing to do with the physical world.
How can you say you love someone if you don’t care if they have a home, an education and food? You wouldn’t do that with your children. And if you do care about those things, then at some point you have to get involved in policy.
Doing charitable work after the fact is good. The problem is that charitable works maintain systems of inequality and power, because there is a giver in a position of power over the receiver. That’s not good.
Q: What does it mean to be the Mayor of the city where you grew up?
I feel a rootedness here. Many of the things I’m talking about tackling are things I’ve lived with, in this city. Some of my political opponents talk about how bad it’s been, since I was elected. I say this. I grew up here. I lived under your leadership. Let’s not try to convince me that you were right.
Q: Your mother must be very proud of you?
She’s proud. I think she’s quite relieved as well that we’ve come through what we’ve come through. To me, that’s one of the reasons why we talk about Bristol being a city of hope. And it’s something I carried around for a long time as well.
We don’t despise our sufferings because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character and character produces hope. I’m not an optimist though. I think optimism is flimsy. Hope grapples with suffering and the idea that we do spend time in the wilderness, and there we find our resilience and our character which underpins a hope of substance.
Q: Bristol has got an amazing reputation: the churches and the different organisations work together; the faith groups with the civic leaders.
Yeah, they do. In terms of the planning, we’ve gone on a process in the city where we’ve tried to move beyond local government to city governance. Local government means a disproportionate focus on the local authority, whereas governance recognizes that what any city is depends on decisions made by a whole suite of organisations: the universities, business, the private sector, faith groups, the voluntary sector, health service and so forth. We’ve got to capture that collective impact, and we have pulled all those groups together to write this plan to take us to 2050. The churches have been a part of that, with other faith groups as well. Now that plan is written, and the churches know what we are trying to get done. The churches and faith groups turn up with people and resources, and we talk and engage.
Q: Does it work in practice?
Covid is a classic example of this actually. When we were looking at excess deaths, we talked to the churches and the other faith groups, we got everyone together and said, we’re anticipating more people dying. We’re anticipating people mourning, more people in social isolation, smaller funerals, and so on, and you can help us get ready as a city. They were there to fulfil that pastoral role and they stepped up for that. Another example is child hunger: 55,000 meals went out for hungry children last year. There was lot of organising within the church to make that happen, but not just the church.
Q: Moving on to the whole Black Lives Matter debate: do you welcome the fact this is now being addressed not just as a hashtag, but something that might bring about long-lasting change?
We’ll see what happens. From a child, I’ve been interested in race equality, for obvious reasons. We want to change the world. Racial hierarchy is a key part of that. It’s one of the big determinants of life chances. People who look like me are born destined to die earlier than others, become sick earlier, and are disproportionately poor and caught up in the criminal justice system and mental health services.
And that’s not genetics, not culture. Social circumstances determine our lives. So when I see people dying at the hands of the police, it is heartbreaking. Worse than that is a system that does not hold anyone to account. I’m pretty dismayed by the church in the United States. And I say church in the broadest sense of the term. I love what Martin Luther King said, ‘I want to be careful about being judgmental here.’ But in his letter from a Birmingham jail, is a very powerful line, he said ‘I’ve walked through your towns and I’ve looked at your steeples and your seminaries and I thought who worships there? Who is their God? Where are your voices?’
I struggle to see how some of what I see in the USA is Christianity. Trump is not the beginning and end of racism. He’s a product and promoter of it. But I struggle to see how some prominent evangelicals can reconcile their position, in outright opposition to Obama, and their seemingly unqualified support of Donald Trump.
Q: Are you hopeful now, because this debate is coming to the fore, that we can have a less segregated community, or do you think there is still a huge battle ahead?
I’m not confident, to be perfectly frank. We’ve had these seminal moments in world history before, when we thought everything was going to change. We had the financial crash of 2008, and we said, let’s change the way finance works. We’ve had the climate protest and warnings. As a species, humanity seems to find a way of just ignoring these challenges. The status quo is incredibly adaptable and resilient, and we get caught up in symbolic and superficial change. That’s very dangerous. And I think the same is probably true about race.
The other thing that worries me is that this debate, this discussion is happening on social media, which I think is one of the most perverted platforms for political debate we have at the moment: no nuance, no graciousness, no space for redemption. It robs people of the opportunity to get involved in real political discussion, with a bit complexity, recognising our own fallenness. I think it is going to be one of the biggest challenges we’ve got, to making any real progress. We’ve got to learn to disagree well. I’ve been saying that as I’ve been managing the city through various events like the Colston statue coming down. I need to try to take us on a journey whereby, if you don’t get what you want, or even if you get what you don’t want, you still know you’ve been respected as a human being.
That does not mean you go at the pace of the slowest, but it does mean you try to bring people with you. And it’s the wisdom of Solomon as to how we walk that tightrope. This is the kind of leadership we need, and a big part of leadership is an intention to have that kind of leadership, rather than leaders playing to what they call their base.
We’re all on this island together with different perspectives, and whether we like it or not, we have to find a way of living together. And that’s not cheap reconciliation and it’s not a fear of conflict. I’m all into conflict. Martin Luther King talked about tension. But he said there are two types: destructive tension and creative tension. We’re not afraid of creative tension. But if you have bad leadership, tensions become destructive very quickly, very easily.