Rev. Eugene F. Rivers is a top advisor to Bishop Charles E. Blake, the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, a 6-million member, predominantly African-American denomination in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition.
Last week Rivers, a Boston-based activist and Pentecostal minister, spoke with members of the California legislature on SB 128, a measure that would legalize physician assisted suicide. While in Sacramento, he expressed grave concerns that the Black community has about SB 128's implications.
His main question to representatives: “How will the passage of this bill effect the poorest of the poor?”
Rivers took time during his visit to speak to The Tidings about the meaning of human suffering, SB 128 and how different cultures handle the end of life.
Tidings: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Rev. Rivers: “Glad to be here.”
T: Reverend Rivers, you’re known around the world for your work and for your wisdom with the AIDS epidemic and violence and so human suffering isn’t something that’s foreign to you. Can you tell me, why does God let us suffer?
R: Suffering is one of the ways that humanity confronts its limitations and tragedy, connecting to suffering, is a way that God introduces us to the mysteries of life. See, suffering's a mystery — you know — suffering is a mystery because in most cases there are not easy or facile answers. But suffering produces the context for which we can exercise our faith in the biblical tradition.
The Bible says that all things work together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose, right? And so, people of faith suffer and struggle and wrestle with unanswered questions. And for the people of faith, we have the promise that despite what the circumstances are — despite our lot in life — that ultimately, at the end of the day, all things work together for our good because God loves us.
And suffering becomes a crucible, in which, I come to a deeper knowledge of God, through faith.
T: In your work and in your ministry, can you tell me about a time that you helped a family that was struggling through death, please?
R: Much of the work that we have done with gangs actually in the United States and abroad. We meet with families that are poor, we meet with families, mothers and children that have suffered violence. And that have died, you know, at the hands of gangs. And what happens is that as a shepherd, as a pastor, my job is to communicate the empathy, the concern, the love, the compassion — the fact that God identifies with the suffering of the poor.
And so, as a shepherd, my job is to love, to empathize, to be there in their suffering, to share in their suffering. And in so doing, I’m able to give those who are suffering the most a glimpse of the love of God.
T: Those who support SB 128, a legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California, they describe that as compassion. They describe that as a way that you’re supposed to love people — to relieve them of their suffering. How would you respond to that?
R: Well, first of all, it is based on a philosophically untenable position. The idea that the human condition — the human experience — must be exempted from suffering. Suffering is a part of life, just as its opposite: joy, success, you know — those are all part of life.
And that’s what happens at the end of life, suffering. In fact, my mother for example — my mother had pancreatic carcinoma, and she was supposed to live for, at most, six months. She lived for three years and our family cared for our mother. And our mother died, actually, living in my sister’s home. Because of — and it was in the context of a loving environment where she was cared for — the love of her children, family, and God.
And she went home to meet the Lord in the crucible of the suffering. See it is a facile argument which is inconsistent with the reality of the human condition. The Promethean idea that somehow, I have the power to help humans avoid the basic realities of life.
It’s a fiction, and in fact, what it really is, in more cases than not, it’s a way of eliminating those individuals that we think are disposable as a result of their infirmity.
So it’s not really mercy, it’s an act of opportunistic convenience which in many cases simply serves the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Oh no no no no no, see, the idea that, for me to encourage suicide as an act of mercy is a beautiful lie that betrays the reality that life is more than simply living here.
There is dignity in coming to a deeper knowledge of my relationship with my Creator through the reality of suffering.”
T: Oregon is held up as a model for the California physician assisted suicide bill. But the demographics in Oregon —
R: It’s a white state. See you’re being very polite. You’re talking about demographic homogeneity. That’s your way of saying it’s all white people and the six brothers that live in state are all in jail. See here, we live in the real world — you in California live in the real world — I mean, there’s ever-conceivable variety of individuals. It is a remarkable socio-economical stratified society with obscene levels of wealth and obscene levels of poverty.
So to transfer a white model in a state where you got four brothers, all of who are in prison, with a remarkably heterogeneous environment, with differential levels of wealth and access is absurd. On its face, it doesn’t — I mean it's apples and screwdrivers.
T: If I can ask you more about that. My family is from the Dominican Republic, and the way that we deal with suffering and the end of the life is much different. We have more of a family connection, I would say.
R: “It’s communal!”
T: That’s right. Can you speak to that: about the difference that we have in our different cultures and how—
R: Well I’ll tell you what’s interesting: for the majority of poor people from the South, suffering is a communal experience, where families and extended families come together to share in the suffering. And there is solidarity, again, in the crucible of difficulty and challenge.
In other words, suffering is a form of adversity. It’s adversity, right? And adversity can be — especially for the poor and the people of faith — an opportunity to intensify the solidarity of the nuclear unit in the family and the community. As people come together and in the struggle together, their lives are enriched.
And when the one who suffered is called home to be with the Lord, he or she lives in the lives of those who remain. It’s deep. It’s very deep — spiritually, philosophically, practically. There is this enlightenment idea based on the “perfectibility” of the human condition as a result of this Promethean arrogance and hubris, which is part of a secular society.
And those that are “defective,” well we will help them from their condition by essentially killing them. And as a result, just flushing this “refuse” which is this disposable population of poor people and all of this is done in the name of doing them a favor. And it’s a lie. It’s the worse kind of lie, where greed overlaps — where the Promethean idea that the human condition should reflect the wealthy, the perfect, the beautiful and those that have not been as fortunate should be disposed of because they function and live as unsightly refuse.
So we will do you losers a favor and basically kill you. It’s a disgrace, it’s an outrage. And the people of faith should, in the most vigorous terms, reject this culture of death.
T: In terms of the broader picture of what we need to do as a society so that we’re creating this culture of life, where we’re not facing these bills — where do you see some of the root causes of this mindset that does see other human beings as disposable?
R: They are structural, institutional, and cultural sources of this mindset. Now what do we do with the challenge of institutionalized inequalities which are intensifying by the hour? And then the institutional reflection of these structural inequalities, you know, which play out in terms of goods and services, and social provision, you know, and the social safety net. And then the larger cultural questions.
What has to happen is that the faith communities with other people of good will need to mobilize in ways that we have not done before. Because the globalization of economic inequality and its institutional expressions now present a challenge to the people of faith. And if we will have the courage of the one to whom we pray, you know the Good Shepherd, right?
Yet though I walk through the valley of shadows without fear because thou art with me.
That God, if we will stand on what we say we believe and then stand for righteousness and justice and peace for the poor, we can reverse this process. But we’ve got to decide, as people of faith, that we want to win. A lot of the time we don’t believe in the God we talk about. And as a result, we declare defeat before the fight has begun.
See, I come from a tradition where little shepherd boy, he understands that a couple of pebbles defeats the bully in the neighborhood. Well the same God that empowered that shepherd kid to beat the bully in the neighborhood exists because he’s the same yesterday, today and forever. And if we will believe in the God we confess, we can be victorious, in the name of Jesus.
T: There are a lot of people who don’t know what to make of SB 128. They don’t know how to even think about it. How would you address people who are feeling indecisive or unsure about this bill?
R: You know what? I was in Sacramento at the State Capitol yesterday. And we were going around talking to the elected officials and their staff people.
Most of the individuals who are staffers in Sacramento had not asked this basic question: how will the passage of this bill effect the poorest of the poor? No one had asked the question! These people were prepared the vote on a question that had not asked the question of how this might effect the poor. And so, what we’re saying to everyone — listen, there are two sides at least to every argument, and you will decide what you will decide. But, there is a moral and ethical and practical question, which is: how will this bill — the passage of this bill — effect the poorest of the poor?
And we’re simply saying to everyone, as people of conscious, we must engage in a debate regarding SB 128, that assesses its empirically measurable impact on the poorest populations. And if this bill injures them in any way — that must be the moral criteria upon which we decide where we come down on this bill.
And we’re saying that this discussion should take place across the entire state of California. And like I said, it was astounding in our conversations with people whose day job it is to review this legislative stuff — none of them had even raised the question!
So I say to people of goodwill, recall the question. Let’s not rush to judgment when we’ve not done our homework and assess how this will impact upon the most defenseless, vulnerable parts of this society.