Church After Mars Hill with Dr. Ron Ruthruff | Podcast Season 04, Episode 03
When examining the story of Mars Hill, there exists an underexplored theme of race and Whiteness. In his book “After Whiteness,” Dr. Willie Jennings defines Whiteness as the embodiment of a self-sufficient man who embodies possession, mastery, and control. Driscoll’s calls to White men tapped into not only male rage but also White rage, reflecting the desire for control and dominance. By exploring the missing elements in the Mars Hill discussion, our discussion aims to shed light on the intersection of Whiteness and the power dynamics within evangelical church culture.
Ron and Joel delve into the profound significance of addressing race and Whiteness within our systems, communities, and theological frameworks. They shed light on the far-reaching implications this exploration holds for the future of the church in a post-Mars Hill era. Through thought-provoking discussions, we’re challenged to move beyond the safety of homogeneity and embrace differences within our faith communities.
About our guest:
Ron Ruthruff, DMin, serves as associate professor of theology and culture at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Ron is core faculty, currently teaching courses such as, “Love in Public: What Does the Bible Say about Injustice?”; “Developing Cultural Competency: Being the Word on the Street” and “Care of the Soul in the Call of Sacred Activism.”
Ron is ordained clergy with the Street Psalms Community and a Senior Fellow with Street Psalms Resource Center, providing training, and support for grassroots urban leaders who serve youth and families in hard places around the world.
Ron’s education is an eclectic blend of social work, counseling, and theological studies. Ron holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Washington University, a Master of Science degree from Pepperdine University, and a doctor of ministry in complex urban settings degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston. His dissertation title, Welcoming Kids to the Table of Community: New Horizons Ministries as a Model of Service to Homeless Runaway Adolescents, addresses the psychosocial and spiritual issues surrounding homeless adolescents and describes a relationally based and theologically supported service delivery strategy to serve these marginalized young people.
For 30 years Ron, with his wife Linda, served marginalized communities and street involved youth. He has provided case management services, designed programs, and educated the community on the issues that impact this vulnerable population. Ron completed has two books released by New Hope publishers, The Least of These: Lessons Learned from Kids on the Street, in 2010 and in 2015, Closer to the Edge: Walking with Jesus for the Worlds Sake.
Ron has been invited around the world to discuss community building, justice and mission in diverse urban settings. In Guatemala, he supervised a doctoral project that was creating chaplaincy services for gang-involved street youth; in Hanoi, Vietnam, he presented lectures to the leaders of the communist government regarding faith-based approaches to urban problems; and in Nairobi, Kenya, and Mumbai, India, he taught philosophy of service and theology courses to urban pastors and youth workers. Ron continues to lecture and teach both internationally and nationally. Closer to home, Ron is on a regular preaching schedule at several churches and serves his community as a pastoral presence.
Ron and Linda Live in south Seattle in the Rainier Valley, a multicultural neighborhood in the city. Living close by are their two adult sons, Ben and Clayton. Ron and Linda’s mission is to equip individuals to lead lives of purpose, to empower faith communities to love their neighbors, and to engage communities in cross-cultural and global conversations.
About this season’s host:
Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. a Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. For 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.
Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.
Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.
- Check out some of the books and publications mentioned in this episode: After Whiteness by Willie James Jennings / The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings / Can “White” People Be Saved: Reflections on Missions and Whiteness – a lecture from Willie James Jennings / Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin / Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah / The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb by Eric Law / Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde / The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin / My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem / Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi and Joel Christian Gill / Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
- If you are a Christian leader or pastor seeking a space for support, growth, and transformation for yourself or for your team, we invite you to participate in one of our cohort programs, called a Circle. To learn more and to get on the waitlist to be notified when our next Circle is offered, click here.
- Don’t miss an episode: Subscribe to Transforming Engagement, The Podcast on Apple, Spotify, or Amazon Music (Audible)
Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and higher good. This season, we’re discussing church after Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld.
The Oscars are the highest honor anyone in the art of making films can aspire to. Back in 2015, all 20 of the acting nominations for the prestigious award went to White actors. This fact triggered April Rain to start a hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. In 2016, it happened again. All 20 of the acting nominations went to White actors. Though the nominations were the same, what had changed was the swelling voices about the lack of diversity. One year later, the voices of the #OscarsSoWhite movement were being heard in making headlines. That exposure prompted the Academy of Motion, picture Arts and Sciences to launch an initiative to transform the organization’s membership known as A2020. Protestors like April Rain had been pointing out what had been missing and that began to make a change. Like the #OscarsSoWhite, on this episode, we’re pointing out something that’s missing. And in the hope that something might change this season, we’re using Mars Hill Church and the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill as a case study to consider what the church might look like in the future if we learned from those lessons.
To do that, we’re exploring a number of issues raised by the podcast, but on this podcast we’re going to discuss an issue that The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill never addressed at all. An article by Sarah Williams in the Christian Century back in March of 2022 titled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is conspicuously silent on race,” highlights the silence around race and evangelicalism. The article points out that the choice by The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill not to talk about race is a striking omission in our current historical moment, in which social media has awakened White Americans to how police officers profile, harass, and kill Black people with impunity, in which White supremacists organize violent rallies, in which we witnessed an angry White mob storm the US Capitol to attempt a coup d’état. While the behind-the-scenes role of women in the alt-right has been underexamined, it remains true that the majority of racially motivated domestic terrorists in the United States are radicalized White men whose extremist views extend both to gender and to race.
Mark Driscoll’s calls to White men channeled not only male rage but also White rage. Dr. Willie Jennings in his book After Whiteness defines Whiteness as being embodied in a self-sufficient man who lives out the virtues of possession, mastery, and control. That control seeks to control knowledge first and one self second, and if possible one’s world according to Jennings. If one reflects on the story of Mars Hill, one can see the desire of its charismatic leader, Mark Driscoll, to be the kind of self-sufficient man Jennings describes leading through possession, mastery, and control and calling the men of his congregation to do the same. So let’s talk about what’s missing in the discussion of Mars Hill, how that story relates to race and Whiteness. My guest today is Dr. Ruthruff, and we’ll be talking about those issues as we consider what it means to be church after Mars [Hill].
Ron, welcome to the podcast. The first question that I always ask is just to have folks introduce themselves to listeners, however they’d like to do that.
Ron Ruthruff: Oh, well, Joel, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s a gift to be with you. My name is Ron Ruthruff. I tell the students, Dr. Ron, if your grade’s in jeopardy, otherwise, Ron is just fine. I, though, am the son of Esther Ruthruff, who raised me on $1.60 an hour as a nurse’s aide and taught me how to love and serve people. I’m the husband of Linda Ruthruff and I am the father of Ben and Clayton Ruthruff. That’s who I am. What I do is I’m the professor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at The Seattle School of Psychology and Theology, which means I get to talk a lot about Christian ethics, social justice, theology and culture type topics, like I think we’re going to be talking about today.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah. So you’re a longtime Seattle resident and were around in the years when Mars Hill Church was operating. At that time, what were your observations of the church and Mark Driscoll?
Ron Ruthruff: It was big. It was big, and so was Mark Driscoll, for being not that tall of a guy. He was a strong and big personality. But I think behind the scenes I noticed something happening in the bigger culture that was terrifying to a lot of us people that would identify as Christian folks or followers of Jesus, and that was– many of the theological categories that we had been introduced to as young people began to dissipate, they began to fall away. The lines became more blurry. And what does it mean to be Christian, I think became contested space. And I would argue that Henri Nouwen says the spiritual journey is walking from the familiar to the unknown, and that is a terrifying journey for all of us. It’s the letting go of one trapeze bar before the next one becomes evident. And so what I noticed sociologically, I believe happening at a place like Mars Hill was a lot of the categories that people felt like they could depend on were being questioned.
The world was merging. We were meeting people that we never thought we would meet in places like Seattle. And in light of that, one of the things I think that happens with faith development is rather than stepping into the abyss or the unknown or the unfamiliar and allowing faith to develop in the midst of doubt, I found that many young people circled back. They circled back to what was familiar to them. And so while Mars Hill had all of the window dressing of a very progressive place with beer drinking and ultimate fighting videos that men could watch and feel more masculine. It also had a very, it had a very siloed theology that was very clear, and it almost reminded me of the theology that many of the folks that were at some level reformed theologically, many of the folks there, it was the theology of their parents. So while they looked, they looked pretty hip and cool, they were, the gender roles, the expectations for what it meant to be a Christian seemed to fall back into old categories that I thought we were beginning to dismantle and question.
Joel Kiekintveld: It’s an interesting way to think of it, and I want to talk specifically about one of those silos or maybe a couple of them as they relate, but I’ve spent probably way too much time over the last year or so listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, partly because of this podcast, but partly just interest in that and in other places where I’ve been having this discussion. But what’s interesting to me is there’s some of the stories that podcast didn’t tell, and one of those stories that I think are one of the silos and maybe one of the things people were familiarly going back to, is kind of this idea of Whiteness and the intro to this episode. I talked a little bit about Willie James Jennings definition of Whiteness as being kind of possession, mastery and control. So would you mind talking a little bit about that? That area has not been explored or was not explored at least in that podcast very well, but seems to me is part of that ethos of what was happening at Mars Hill. How can we look at what was happening at Mars Hill, I guess is a shorter version of the question, through the lens of Whiteness?
Ron Ruthruff: It’s interesting Willie Jenning’s work, especially his work in Beyond Whiteness, but also The Christian Imagination paints with really broad strokes around this idea of doctrines of discovery and what doctrines of discovery do or what they create in a group of people. Like you said, mastery, control, and possession or mastery, control, and ownership is as I’ve heard it described. And what’s interesting is at times I feel like we’ve given Western Christianity a break and we’ve used words like complicit, that Western Christianity was complicit with that. But my argument is, and I think that Mars Hill was part and parcel of this, Western Christianity was not only complicit, we were culpable, because our doctrines of discovery are not part and parcel of mastery and control. They are divine providence. That idea, exceptionalism, I mean, this is one of the things that I think we need to sort of hold John Calvin to task on. When he was confronted by a group of people that were suffering a lot of existential angst in the midst of doctrines like total depravity and the idea of divine election, he was asked in his Institutes what sort of sign is there that God has chosen us, or how do we know that we are part of this idea of the elect? And in John Calvin’s old Institutes, he argues that it’s divine benevolence. Divine benevolence is the sign, not communal benevolence, but divine benevolence, which means it has to come not from my community or in any sort of collaborative sort of sense of wealth. It has to be an individualized wealth showing up in the life of a believer as evidence to their soul security, or I should use the word election. And with that divine benevolence, these ideas around White exceptionalism or these ideas around doctrines of discovery, I mean, they become part of the ways that I prove, or I convince myself that I am part of the elect. And so I think that Mars Hill just sat in the midst of these doctrines and began to think, how do we become the elect or exceptional, or how do we prove our right standing in a divine sort of theological perspective? And it’s through this idea that Calvin said that divine benevolence is the evidence, is the physical evidence of the election of God.
Joel Kiekintveld: So as you were speaking, I mean that makes me think of a number of different things that in the Mars Hill story sort of fit with that. One of the things that of course shows up, at least in the podcast over and over again was that the justification for a lot of what was happening was like, look at the numbers. Look at how big we are, those type of things, which are ways of measuring, I suppose, prosperity as a church or even this idea that Driscoll didn’t want to be mentored by anybody with a smaller church than him. He actively pushed against that. Those feel in a way– those in a sense feel like what you’re talking about around, that’s a way of measuring with a metric, like what is blessing or benevolence as you’re using that word. Does that make sense?
Ron Ruthruff: Yeah. And I would just set that in contrast to the fact that, followers of Jesus, I mean the idea of following Jesus with the mandates that Jesus gives him, gives us, as a way of following, aren’t that popular. And even the accumulation of followers of Jesus, I mean only had, my therapist often tells me, Jesus only had 12 people that followed him. So let’s be really honest about how popular, I mean it wasn’t a very successful church model. And it didn’t, until Constantine got ahold of it as a religion, it wasn’t that successful in relationship to building much.
Joel Kiekintveld: Which seems contradictory to how we often think about sort of church in the Western world. The idea is the bigger it is, the more blessed it is, the more God’s hand is on it, the more the Spirit’s at work. We don’t think about that in terms of smaller groups or the way that God might be working in different ways.
Ron Ruthruff: Yeah, and theologically, the evidence of the Spirit is not only sort of power and the gifts of power to be transformative in your culture. The gift of the Spirit is also an unbridled joy in the midst of hardship and suffering. And that hardship and suffering has sort of been disproportionately ignored for the sake of this idea of wealth and the accumulation of wealth. And I would say as it relates to Whiteness, the justification of systems of wealth accumulation that then can be placed on this idea of, well, this is the sign of exceptionalism, this is the sign of God’s benevolence that I have this stuff. And it really is by any means necessary,
Joel Kiekintveld: Which seems to fit well with the story that we know [Ron: Yes.] about Mars Hill by any means necessary to maintain the empire, the kingdom that that’s being built, kingdom with the small K I suppose. [Ron: Yeah.] The way we’re talking about Whiteness here and the way that Jennings is talking about Whiteness, that can that be easily substituted for just Western thought or is there something particular about this way of looking at it? Is it just a lens for viewing race or is it a way of thinking about kind of Western thought in general?
Ron Ruthruff: It’s a way of viewing race, but I think Jennings just a good job in his, ”Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?” lecture where he cautions an audience that is amening him a lot, that anybody can be White. And I don’t want to sort of speak for Dr. Jennings here, but I will tell you that I think what Dr. Jennings is getting at is there’s a larger cultural construct that is being manufactured with this mastery, control, and ownership that has to do with exceptionalism and benevolence where Blackness is to be avoided and Whiteness is to be as ascribed to, or I would argue, those attributes are to be ascribed to at any cost necessary. So if you have to use bodies or steal land to accumulate wealth to be perceived as exceptional and to actually exhibit mastery, control, and ownership, if you need to do that to sort of fit into that category of the divinely elected, then you will.
Joel Kiekintveld: So it’s really kind of at all costs, whatever it takes. And I know that one of the things that Jennings uses around there is that the ultimate model of that is a self-sufficient man who is possessing those traits that we’ve been talking about, possession, mastery, and control or ownership. And that really fits well with what we see with Mars Hill where Mark was setting himself up as that sort of leader that was self-sufficient, working in those ways and inviting people to follow in that same way.
Ron Ruthruff: And when it’s not contested space, when it’s not negotiated space by any other idea or any other set of values. There’s this interesting sociological construct that gets presented in Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Charles’s book, what’s it called? What’s the book called?
Joel Kiekintveld: Come on. Oh, I know the book.
Ron Ruthruff: Unsettling Truth.
Joel Kiekintveld: There you go. That’s the one.
Ron Ruthruff: Chapter, chapter two of that book. They talk about how does culture get developed, and one of the ways they talk about culture being developed is beliefs that we hold get externalized. So a dominant culture that has the power to take their internal beliefs and externalize ’em, they then institutionalize them. And then once again, those institutionalized beliefs are then internalized as truth. So you can see what happens in a culture that has mastery, control, and ownership, or Whiteness being the predominant value or the predominant belief that gets externalized the only way to do things. It gets intu-, it’s institutionalized as the way things are, and then it gets internalized as the way things literally are as far as Truth with capital T or objective truth.
Joel Kiekintveld: So the internalization of the organization’s values is what you’re talking about. It just becomes this feedback loop. [Ron: Yes.] That yes, things become in some ways more and more true as you hear them and you begin to internalize them, they begin to spin into this more and more truth.
Ron Ruthruff: Yeah, sure. Exactly. Exactly.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, I mean, we’re talking this season obviously about Mars Hill, and in light of that, I want to ask this question about how do we undo Whiteness? So I, I’m sure listeners that have been listening to this conversation have been able to start to identify places where they see this in their world, in their life, in things they’re familiar with, but how do we begin to undo or dismantle this sort of addiction to this way of operating in the world?
Ron Ruthruff: We allow that space to be contested. And what I mean by that is a couple of years ago when George Floyd died, all of us faculty got together and rather than writing some statement that was kind of a manifesto about how wrong that was, we chose a little bit different route, and I was really appreciative of this route. We all kind of just wrote personal statements to reflect on what do we do in light of George Floyd, and my blog post, article, whatever you want to call it, my blog post revolved around two things that I think are crucial, and I want to give credit to the 98118 zip code and the community that I’ve lived in for 35 years for teaching me this. This isn’t something I didn’t learn in difference. It was sitting in the middle of difference on a little corner, on a little street that most people say we were stupid to buy a house on. We were able to buy a house there. And our community has taught us that this neighborhood has been my classroom and my teacher in this. But those two ideas that I presented in that, I guess it was a paper, was posture and proximity. Proximity being first–we have to live around difference. We have to sit in a place where our ideas, like I said, are contested. And the challenge is that we want to live in homogeneous environments. We want to live in environments where everything is the same, where think, because for many of us who have had mastery, control, and ownership that guide us, we’ve begun to confuse the ideas of safety and familiarity. We find things to feel unsafe like the Black body of a Black man or like the way a culture sort of understands shared space. We find those things to be unsafe and really all they are is unfamiliar. And so my argument is that we have to be in proximity to difference. We have to be in places where those ideas are challenged, and we don’t quickly retract or remove ourselves from that environment because they feel unsafe. We literally have this wonderful interpsychic conversation with ourself where we say, this is unfamiliar. I might not know about this, but this doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. And then my argument is with that proximity comes a posture that’s very counterintuitive to exceptionalism. In fact I would argue, and I’m not a psychologist here, so forgive me, I would argue it’s almost disassociative. It’s very, very difficult. People that have been taught things like the doctrine of discovery or exceptionalism or these attributes of Whiteness as mastery control and ownership. How do we embrace weakness? How do we embrace not knowing? How do we embrace the unfamiliar? How do we live in a world that is –where we’re not the majority when we’re used to operating through that majority lens all the time? And I find that those are the ways out. Now, this is my argument. Those sound really good ideologically, they sound awesome ideologically, but when they really become embodied is when we begin to negotiate the same grocery stores as our neighbors, when we negotiate the same dangerous streets as our neighbors. Rainier Avenue, the street that I live on has more people hit and killed by cars walking than any other street in Seattle. The strip of light rail from Rainier Beach to Mount Baker Tunnel is the most dangerous strip of light rail in the city. It’s now a case study on how not to do public transportation, literally, literally, Public education. We love to live our lives in public. We like public libraries, we like public radio, we like public tv, we don’t like public schools. We’re really, really, really afraid of public bathrooms. And it’s, the question is, how willing are we to be in proximity? And then how do we then have a posture that’s open to negotiating those things from a different playing field, from a position that isn’t as powerful?
Joel Kiekintveld: As you were speaking, I mean, something that came up in my mind was that how much of that is counterintuitive to church growth theory from the last 30 or 40 years where the idea was you build a church based on affinity, that people want to go to church with folks that are the same as them or similar to them. And what I hear you saying is no, no, we need to be not only in church spaces, maybe where we’re in contact with people that are different than us, but we just need to be in spaces that are different or are in contact with people that are different than us. Can you say a little bit more, because in what I hear of what you were saying there around posture and being present in these spaces is–there was very little there about church spaces and more about how you’re involved in your community. So can you say more about that?
Ron Ruthruff: Yeah. Well, I’ll just say this. The homogeneous growth principle wasn’t given to the author of the Book of Acts. [laugh]
Because Luke’s second volume is all about the boundary-breaking work of the spirit. So over and over there becomes this place where the church asks themselves, do we cross this line with the Ethiopian Eunuch? Do we cross this line with Greek and Scythian? How do we sort and what I find to be so amazing about that volume, and we’re moving towards Pentecost here, so this is probably a pretty good sermon, that we need to be attentive to what is the trajectory of the Spirit from the time it descends on Jesus in Mark 2 and as it works through Luke 4 with Jesus’s proclamation of his call. And then in this Luke’s second, volume, Acts, what does it actually do to communities? And it breaks down boundaries. It doesn’t create barriers. It begins to be all inclusive, I would say. It becomes, it’s like right when we believe, oh no, not them.
Oh no, not them. Oh no. Well, that takes proximity. That takes living close enough to difference to be in relationship with people and have conversations where your ideas are contested, your views of leadership, your views of power, all of those things become suspect when you find yourself in relationship with people that are different than you. So I understand the purpose-driven church. I understand that Rick Warren has since apologized for that homogeneous growth principle, but what I would argue is the book of Acts and the church, especially our document that we read from Paul’s writings to the church at Corinth, it’s a very different space than what we mostly find in churches.
Joel Kiekintveld: And I would say Rick Warren was not alone. I mean there was others. No, no, no, the same. It was all over the place. One thing that I’ve thought about for years now is the thing that you were bringing up there with Acts and with some of the writings of Paul, if we think about this trajectory where the church is constantly expanding and is being brought up against these lines over and over again, do we let this person in? Do we let this person in? Do we let this person in? That seems to start bumping up against, I guess for me, I look and say, oh, can we project that, continue to project that because the book of Acts ends in a particular place in history, and here we are over a thousand years or more later, where are the boundaries now? And that’s what becomes interesting for me is like we’re still fighting around. Do women fully get included in the church? Do homosexual folks get fully included into the church? So can you say a little bit more about how we project that forward? Is that something we should be doing? That’s my sense of it as we should take that trajectory that’s happening in Acts and project it forward into our world, this constant expansion. But maybe you have a different sense of that.
Ron Ruthruff: No, I guess I just totally agree with you. I find that many of those categories are profoundly helpful to me if I want to feel secure. But if I want to live the life of faith, I always bump up against the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, this story of a sexually altered male who’s given insight into the text. And I ask myself, who else in our culture that we’ve dismissed, actually has sort of interpretive skills that are beyond mine? The book that was incredibly helpful in this is a little book by Eric Law called [The Wolf Shall Dwell with] The Lamb. I think it’s at this, I think the subtitle is something like leadership in a multicultural spiritual community, and what he really talks about isn’t who’s out, but how we redistribute power and how do we understand or interpret leadership and how do we redistribute power so that more people have a chance to participate? The truth is we’ve never been at a place in our history where we’ve treated difference as equals. Audre Lorde says that. I found this great quote in a book that I love called Sister Outsider, and she says, ”we have no patterns relating across human differences equals, as a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.” And my real question in this conversation is, have we used difference as in the purpose of separation and confusion, or have we used difference in a way that it could be or it could contribute to the whole of what it means to be part of a community? So I think Audre Lorde is asking a question in her book, Sister Outsider, that I actually think by theological text, at least in the book of Acts and in Corinthians, and I would even say Philippians is beginning to lean into a suggestion that most of us don’t want to hear because we want to gather around what is considered by some, and Martin Luther King said this, the most segregated day of the week.
Joel Kiekintveld: So one of the things we’re trying to do this season as we go through this case study and we think about we’re using Mars Hill as a springboard to have some of these conversations, is what are practical steps that faith communities can do? How do we ask kind of constructive questions? So I know you’ve talked about proximity and posture and those are really important, but I wonder if you have practical steps that you would suggest for faith communities to begin to dismantle what we’ve been talking about, this idea of separation over difference, this idea of possession, mastery, and control, that Whiteness idea. What are some practical steps faith communities can begin to do to unpack that and begin to move forward from that?
Ron Ruthruff: Well, I’m a professor, so the right answer to all of this is: read. And that’s the, you can’t, and come on. Let’s be really honest. We can’t read our way out of this problem. We can’t put enough Black Lives Matter signs in our yard to sort of protest our way out of this problem. It is going to take posture and proximity. It is going to take us realigning our friendships, but the place we can start with that is by having a good conversation among our friends about Whiteness actually is and where do we see it manifest itself, and how do we hold ourselves accountable? One of the groups that I get a chance as a faculty person to support and lead is we have a student- initiated Whites doing anti-racist group at our school where people come together, students, faculty, and staff. And it is a closed group for just White people, not an exclusive closed group, but a group that says, how do we do our work? How do we work towards anti-racism? And one of the authors that’s been profoundly helpful to us is James Baldwin. James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. If you read that book and you just circled how many times he said White people should or White people could, there’s enough reflective exercises there to last a church for two or three years. Baldwin is really good at reading the culture and he’s saying things, well, The Fire Next Time was written in 1962. It was written the year I was born. He’s writing things prophetically in our culture, paying attention to the lives of Metzger, Malcolm, and Martin in ways literally as a–he’s a writer documenting that observations and he’s telling White people to do things in ‘62 that it would be great for us to play with those exercises or those suggestions now. And the work of Eric Law is also really helpful. And even, oh, his name escaped me right now. I’m reading the book for a national group that I get to be a part of on for professors, White professors doing anti-racist work, My Grandmother’s Hands, that. So I think those are great places to start.
Joel Kiekintveld: So beginning to do the work of unpacking, what we’ve been carrying or maybe unconsciously. I know I’ve heard was Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about if you don’t know, it’s raining outside, if you’ve been under an umbrella your whole life, like this idea of beginning to notice what’s happening around you. That’s what I hear you saying and these ideas of reading these things, having the conversations doing the work is sort of beginning to unpack those things that we were unconscious of around us.
Ron Ruthruff: And owning the fact that it’s not hate, an interpersonal dynamic, that is the catalyst for racism in our culture. Ibram Kendi is the one that identifies this in Stamped from the Beginning. He says, it’s not hate that moves us towards racism. It’s self-interest. Racist policies need racist ideas. It’s not racist ideas that perpetuate racist policies. So when you think about that dynamic in relationship to what we are talked about earlier in this podcast, exceptionalism, and divine providence and doctrines of discovery, and then Ibram Kendi’s coming out, I don’t understand, I don’t think he’s a theologian. I don’t know much theology he knows or he’s been introduced to, but when he uses the word like self-interest, it feels like it’s a very compatible word. It feels like self-interest speaks to a way that we operate in the world because of exceptionalism or because of the hope of divine providence that actually is the catalyst for all this. And so then you couple that with Ta-Nehisi Coates who literally says, if White people would delay gratification or let’s use the word self-interest, for three generations, which they probably won’t, if they would, we could begin to address some of these systemic issues through issues like reparations and those sort of ideas. But self-interest is a beast that is supported by our theological constructs. And self-interest literally exposes and illuminates the fact that we live in a culture where Whiteness is to be ascribed to and Blackness is to be avoided.
Joel Kiekintveld: It’s interesting, first of all, I think it was actually Dr. Kendi that I was who does the umbrella and the rainstorm thing and not Coates. It dawned me as you were talking. But what you described there of three generations of removing self-interest, then we might be able to make progress on these feels a bit like the Old Testament concept of the Jubilee. And I know there’s heard Walter Brueggemann talk about there’s no evidence that the Jubilee ever happened is always the pushback and his take on it was, well, there’s lots of things in the book that we’ve never tried. So it feels a little bit like we even have a resource in the text to show us what that looks like to relinquish self-interest and to kind of in some ways start over. Does that line up with what you’re talking about?
Ron Ruthruff: Yeah. And two thoughts about that. A friend of mine, an attorney that worked for an organization called Landessa, he argued that there was a research project on a longitudinal study on the wealth that was given to Black slaves after they were freed from their masters. And you can actually follow that generational wealth to who are the most wealthy Black families in America right now. That the truth is, if we talk about reparations, 40 acres and a mule would’ve worked. I mean, and I’m saying that anecdotally, but the point is it would’ve worked. The other thing, and this is Coates’s comment, which I think is profoundly helpful–when we talk about reparations, we’re not talking about going back six generations. We’re going back to unethical and illegal banking practices in 2008. We’re going back to redlining in the 1970s and 80s that literally created their own set of subprime loans and bad land deals for businesses and neighbors in Chicago that got Black people screwed out of home ownership. 1947 with the GI Bill – And we all know the GI Bill was distributed locally, not nationally. The GI Bill created or accumulated and created more wealth for White families than anything. 1947 to 1960 was a time of great wealth accumulation that literally the Black community was held out of. The tragedy that many of us don’t even know what Black Wall Street was, is part of the tragedy of this story. So when we talk about practical jubilee-type programs, we’re not talking about going back and taking Ron’s land from him and giving it to the Duwamish, although not a bad idea. We’re talking about public policy that held people out in 1970 all the way to 2008, rethinking some of how those policies had implications for families and communities.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, I mean that idea of redlining and even the covenants that happened in neighborhoods, there was in Anchorage, some redlining where I live here in Anchorage, Alaska, but there was tons of neighborhoods that had covenants that are still on the books today that you’re not supposed to sell your house to anybody other than somebody from a White European race. So they’re like all over the books still. And I mean that stuff’s still happening now because the law’s never been fixed, the covenants have never been changed.
Ron Ruthruff: And redlining has all sorts of economic implications because if you won’t allow a business to buy at a certain neighborhood, you get very few insurance companies will then insure a business in that neighborhood. So you can see the sort of snowball effect of how some of these laws have disproportionately impacted people of color. And in the case of Mars Hill, in the case of all of our churches, a lack of awareness on that, a lack of awareness of those systems. It allows us, this is the challenge that I have. We all relate to each other in four very different ways, sociologically. Many of us White people only believe that we relate to each other interpersonally. So we create entire systems of ways of relating churches where we only deal with interpersonal problems or personal sin, but really as human beings, we relate to each other on four different levels: systemically, organizationally, interpersonally and interpsychically, what do I think about me and what do I think about you that I don’t say? And until the church begins to pay attention to all the ways of relating and becomes aware of and active involvement in trying to deconstruct the systemic and organizational and intrapsychic ways as well as the interpersonal ways, we won’t get very far on this problem of race in America.
Joel Kiekintveld: As you were speaking. The thing that comes to mind is my experience here in Anchorage with two completely different pastors groups, one predominantly White and male, and one that’s predominantly African American and much more gender diverse. And the conversations in those groups are completely different. We very rarely have systemic conversations in the pastor’s group, the White pastor’s group, whereas in the Black pastor’s group, that’s a huge part of the conversation on an ongoing basis. I’ve never talked about the police and police brutality in the White pastor’s group, but we talk about it often in the Black pastor’s group. So it’s interesting those ways of even the way that the Whiteness has taught us to stay separated from certain issues and how we operate, even in the tradition that I grew up in, we’re taught actually as pastors to not be political, which in other traditions is a completely ludicrous idea because you are thinking organizationally and systemically, but we’re almost taught not to be doing that at all.
Ron Ruthruff: And if you were a young man and we were sitting in a bar and you and I were talking about what we just talked about, I would just encourage you to ask, and I’m not saying you’re not, but I would encourage you to not be frustrated by those differences or not dismiss them, but begin to be fascinated by them. Why does this group of Black pastors in this community talk about things in a way, and why do they pick topics that you never hear at the other group? I find that that fascination in relationship to proximity gives me an openness to an imagination of something different that I didn’t have before.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, I want to ask you an imagination question as we kind of near the end here of our time together. But you mentioned it earlier in our conversation, but Dr. King was quoted back in 1963 about that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing “in Christ, there is no east and west,” we stand at the most segregated hour of this nation. And then Christianity Today, 50 years later said that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life with more than eight out of 10 congregations made up of more than one predominant racial group. And I guess the imagination question I’d like to ask you is what do we need to do differently so that 50 years from now, there’s not some blogger or podcaster or Christianity Today or whoever’s saying, nothing much has changed in the last 100 years?
Ron Ruthruff: Well, I have to give credit to Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who just did a National Public Radio interview about this specific topic. So if you’ve not heard of Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, if you’ve not read her work, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, in it, she does a lot of very good theological deconstruction and construction. And one of the things she asks in that book is, and I think it’s a profound question, she asks if the God of the slave holders and the God of the enslaved is the same God at all. And I actually believe that that is the paramount question in our culture. Are we truly a monotheistic religion or are we worshiping a false God if we worship the God of the masters or if we worship a God of mastery, control, and ownership? And so in her podcast, she does a, or excuse me, not her podcast, but her interview with National Public Radio. She does such a great job of articulating the problem that we have and why people are drawn to what’s familiar to them. And she just says at the end of that interview, that race has to matter. Now we know that race is a sociopolitical construct designed for the sole purpose of oppression. There’s no such thing as race. We’re all ethnically different, but race was constructed for a purpose, but we have to understand what it was and what it was manufactured to be in order to deconstruct it. And so her challenge is: White people, I’m speaking to my people, White people need to care about deconstructing that model and beginning to ask themselves if, in the words of Willie Jennings, if White people, and when I say not White like pigmentation, but if there’s anything salvific about mastery, control, and ownership, because the stories I read through the scripture from the Exodus to the story in Revelation, which is a great unveiling of the way things really are, I don’t see mastery, control, and ownership being the attributes of a church that’s faithful.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, that feels like a good place to land, asking the hard questions of what God are we serving and what are the attributes of that God. So thank you so much, Ron, for sharing with us a little bit and helping us fill in this gap in the way that Mars Hill’s been discussed, in the way that’s been responded to. I really appreciate it.
Ron Ruthruff: Well, it’s an honor to be with you, and I love having conversations with you. So when you invited me to do this, I thought, why not? You’re a dear friend and this is a worthwhile conversation, so thank you for inviting me into it.
Joel Kiekintveld: You’re absolutely welcome. My thanks to Dr. Ron for joining me on this episode. I always enjoyed talking with him, and I hope you enjoyed listening in our conversation. I hope it also spawned you to think about Whiteness and how it relates to how we operate in the world and how we become a new kind of church in this environment. If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the Low Residency Master of Arts in Theology and Culture Programs at the Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at theseattleschool.edu. I also invite you to check out the Center for Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that one in three pastors is at risk for burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local context and in the process to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach transforming engagement.org/offerings. Until next time, I’m Joel Kiekintfeld. Grace and Peace.