Kyle Rittenhouse, Whiteness, and The Responsibility of White Faith Leaders: Notes from Conversations with Ruby Sales

kenoshaBy Rev. Margaret Anne Ernst

The seventeen year old Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with killing two protesters in a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, could have been my cousin or little brother. Raised in the far north suburbs of Chicago, his life proves that it is not Southern rural people who are the foot soldiers of white supremacist violence, like I was often raised to believe as someone who grew up in the North, but white people everywhere, including and especially in tree-lined suburbs just like where my own people came from.

I woke up last week to news of Rittenhouse’s murders of two protestors who were in the streets raising their voices for justice for Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and to the defenses of these murders from amidst the Right’s flanks like Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter said she would want someone like Rittenhouse as president. Tucker Carlson said that Rittenhouse was right in “maintaining order” on the streets of Kenosha, echoing the law and order talking points that have become front and center in the Republic National Convention.

Carlson and Coulter both have enormous reach and influence not just on the right but specifically among people who are my brethren: white Christians. And this is why I want to offer, to white Christians, an alternative perspective that comes not from the conceptions of “freedom” rendered by Fox News, but from the freedom struggle lineage of Ruby Sales, whom many of us in the movement for racial justice and beloved community call out of respect and affection, “Mama Ruby.” This article was written with Ms Sales’ consultation and feedback.

The same kind of white vigilante violence played a central role in Ruby Sales’ life, when in 1965 in the small town of Hayneville, Alabama, an off-duty county deputy Tom Coleman shot and killed Jonathan Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian who like Ruby, was working on voter registration in Alabama.  Targeted for their activist work, Daniels died putting his body in front of Ruby, not unlike how Anthony Huber, another young white man, died at the barrel of Rittenhouse’s gun when putting his body in front of other protestors in Kenosha.

Last summer, I had the privilege of visiting the monument in Hayneville to Jonathan Daniels while on a roadtrip with a friend, when in a pilgrimage-like fashion, we visited several sites of significance to the Southern Freedom Movement. The monument was erected by Daniels’ undergraduate alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, where he attended before seminary, not by a government body. In the same town square, more visible to the road, is a memorial to police officers who died on duty, and in the center, a Confederate monument. In one town square, memorials to the contested American memory, and future, of our collective town square, posing the question of who we will be.

Jonathan Daniels, Anthony Huber, Kyle Rittenhouse, and Tom Coleman offer an example of the spectrum, and the spectre, of futures that are possible for young white people, and especially, for young white men at this stage in our turbulent history. There is a whole generation of young people, of all racial and class backgrounds, who are being radicalized in this moment in different directions. Many, like Anthony Huber, are willing to risk their bodies and livelihoods for the sake of justice and what I would call as a Christian, collective salvation. I witnessed this choice when I saw hundreds of young people, many of them white and under 25 years old, who showed up to help defend an encampment of unhoused people in my current city of Philadelphia last week, where hundreds of people are demanding affordable housing and access to a land trust.  As I prepared to be alongside these young people and the camp’s residents as the City planned to move in to clear the camp, I found myself in awe of the palpable commitment around me. So many young folks were willing to give up their own comfort and safety in resistance to the encampment’s evictions and in the struggle for housing, because ultimately, they know it is their struggle too.

This should not be a surprise.

Young people just a generation behind me, a millennial, those who have lived their adolescence or early adulthood under Trump and were becoming teenagers during Ferguson and were children during the Occupy movement have lived nearly their whole lives in a context in which peaceful protestors are teargassed or shot at for fighting for what’s right, with voter suppression and an economy that fails them. They have every reason to call into question all authority they were raised with, and to become extremists ready to lay down their lives. Dr. King wrote from a Birmingham jail that it is not about whether we will become extremists, the question is what kind of extremist we will become.[1] I believe there are quantifiably more young people who are becoming extremists for love, rather than extremists for white nationalism and other defective forms of belonging. But I also believe it is caring adults, including spiritual communities, that will make that difference as we continue into an uncertain future, marked by the travesty of late capitalism and ecological collapse.

When young Black men kill, there is often an expectation for Black clergy to take responsibility to “call them in”, to care for the flock, and to prevent intra-community violence. Where are the calls for white clergy to call in our young boys like the ones who could be the next Kyle Rittenhouse, to care for our flock in a way that faces down the demon of white supremacy for what it is? White spiritual leaders must see it as our responsibility to accompany young people in struggles for justice, to let them know they are not alone, that they are loved, and help them to remain in the struggle in sustainable ways. And for those young people who are being pulled into ideologies like Kyle Rittenhouse or Dylann Roof, who massacred nine Black people while they prayed in their sacred space at Mother Bethel A.M.E in South Carolina in 2015, we have the social and moral responsibility as faith leaders to intervene.

Ruby Sales calls white supremacy “soul murder.” I was blessed to recently be in a public conversation with her in a webinar for white faith leaders engaged with Faith in Action, a national community organizing network. Discussing how whiteness impacts our soul life, and where such impulses to violence and hatred comes from, Ruby posed an essential, challenging question to myself and other clergy on the line, she asked, “What pain must someone be going through in order to be so violent?”

When I was a hospital chaplain doing clinical pastoral education, I was trained to listen for what the spiritual issues underneath my conversations with patients were, whether or not they gave voice to them. Guilt. Loneliness. Anger. Grief. Self-doubt. Clicking off boxes, I would need to choose the top two or three feeling words that expressed what I observed was happening for the patient spiritually and emotionally. As formal of an exercise as it was, needing to identify with such specificity someone else’s spiritual reality whom I had just met, this was a helpful discipline to me in being able to listen behind the words and understand at a deeper level, as pastors are supposed to, how someone is really doing.

If pastoral caregivers can be expected to discern spiritual issues from a fifteen minute conversation with a patient when they are in the ICU, we can also, and must be expected to answer Mama Ruby’s question: to identify the underlying spiritual issues in the urgent care unit that is our collective spiritual problem of white supremacist violence.

In order to be constructive with this demand, I want to be as generous and clear as possible with how we do this. The standard images of pastoral caregiver such as shepherd, wounded healer, etc., are insufficient for pastoral work of this nature. For a liberating white pastoral theology, here are additional images for the caregiver of white souls, I offer to you:

  1. Deep Listener who discerns the legitimate human needs — material and spiritual — that are being fulfilled, falsely and incompletely, by white supremacy in our current system. In listening closely to white people, what longings are behind racist behaviors, beliefs, or public policies they support, which must be responded to pastorally instead, through multiracial solutions in community and a gospel of radical love?
  2. Exorcist who helps “name” and call out the demon of white supremacy, by telling the truth about the history and present of white supremacy, providing opportunities for visceral, emotional exposure to these realities, and to be present with them in their responses – whether it is anger, shame, denial or “self-horror.”[2]
  3. Hospice chaplain to those in whom whiteness is dying as white people in our communities come to honest reckoning with systemic racism and turn away from white supremacy practices. This includes sitting with each other in the uncertainty and grief that comes with a shifted identity and values system.
  4. Midwife to a new, anti-supremacist identity rooted in struggle for the abolition of whiteness and for collective freedom, a nurturing presence for the birth of new life.
  5. Catechist in freedom struggle, teaching and accompanying white people in the ways of participation in Black- and brown-led struggles, and introduction to lineages of whites who have fought for justice, like Jonathan Daniels, Anne Braden, Lillian Smith, Mab Segrest, and others.

I don’t want to wake up again tomorrow to word of another police shooting of a Black person by police, or to continuously fear for the lives of my Black friends, colleagues and church members. The boys who grow into white police officers who kill Black folks on duty are our problem, white clergy. They sit in our pews, listen to our sermons. We are at their bedsides when they struggle with chronic pain, or when their daddies die, or when their families are under stress.  Kyle Rittenhouse is our problem. For young people like him, for our Black and brown members and communities, and for our own soul’s sake, we must view whiteness as a spiritual concern just as vital as any other that might come across our radar in any given week or month in our life as working ministers.

Ruby reminded us that whiteness depends on our numbness and makes people think that it’s their individual failure and weakness that cause their problems. This makes it hard for white people to identify or even talk about the question Ruby has posed publicly for many years “Where does it hurt?” It’s why we are ashamed of talking about losing our jobs, or not finding work, or when we have family facing addiction or children dropping out of school. Eschewing this shame of being vulnerable is a critical step in becoming safe enough to even begin to be the Deep Listeners we need to be. Ruby said, “We must move from a culture of numbness to a culture of feelings, connection, and intimacy,” all of which are discouraged by what she calls the “capitalist technocracy” in which we are expected to live.

At some point in the conversation, we spoke of what we can tell people in our communities who experience misery in a society in which we are alienated from each other, confused about our belonging and belovedness, and in which young people are told they must achieve material success or at least maintain their position over others in order to be loved. Mama Ruby offered this as a response:

We must speak of how, for all of us, we are worthy of being loved not because of what we possess. But simply because of who we are. Ordinary white people must believe they are worthy of being loved.

This is the gospel. And to state this to white people, in a society in which we have been told for generations that it is our whiteness that makes us special, is what it means to offer Jesus to each other, not Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter’s theology of law and order, or its white liberal equivalent.  Something critical I have learned from Ruby is that whiteness does not make us special. She tells us, “whiteness is not a privilege.” In my own words, whiteness is an identity founded in falsehood, blood and violence, an inherited deal with the devil. It cannot be the deal we pass down to future generations that comes to define them and which, as Ruby points out, will isolate them from all other dimensions of their humanness.

Maybe, if white spiritual leaders offer forms of belonging and love for our people, rooted in God’s true vision for the world instead of white-skin nationalism, alongside the work of our Black siblings who are fighting for their lives, we can save our collective souls.  Let us not be Priests of the empire, but let us be as Rev. Michael-Ray Matthews of Faith in Action says, Prophets of the Resistance, working towards a God-centered culture, with a critical, liberating pastoral care as an essential frontline in that prophetic work.

Rev. Margaret Anne Ernst is a minister, community organizer, and writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has worked alongside her colleagues at Faith Matters Network, a womanist-led organization focused on personal and social transformation, to help shape the vocation of movement chaplaincy, the spiritual accompaniment of social justice movements and their leaders. She is also Associate Pastor for Community Engagement at Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia, a founding congregation of the Faith in Action-affiliated organization POWER Interfaith. Rev. Margaret is ordained in the United Church of Christ.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, (New York: HarperCollins, 1986 by Coretta Scott King), 295.

[2] For more on the role of exorcism in journeys towards freedom for white people from whiteness, see James W. Perkinson, White Theology, Outing Supremacy in Modernity, (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2204), 237-239.

6 thoughts on “Kyle Rittenhouse, Whiteness, and The Responsibility of White Faith Leaders: Notes from Conversations with Ruby Sales

  1. Patrick Michel

    This is one of the most hateful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. White, Christian Americans are literally under physical assault right now. Thousands of us are murdered every year by blacks. You say nothing. Tens of thousands of White women are raped by black men every year. You say nothing.

    Instead, you blame the few White men who are standing up to it. This is victim blaming at it’s worst. We have a God given right to self-defense. If you disagree then you are on the side of your father the Devil.

    1. Patrick: your comments are cemented in fake news and racist stereotypes. One of the things that we find very compelling about Rev. Ernst’s writing is that it is rooted in repentance. As a white Christian theologian, she takes the principality of whiteness seriously. She is convictional and confessional. She is also quite constructive. In her writing, she models what white Christian America (on both the right and the left) so desperately needs: a prophetic and pastoral engagement with white racism in all its manifestations.

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