I am praying for Kyle Rittenhouse.
Like many people, I followed the trial of this 18-year-old man who traveled from his home in Illinois armed with an AR-15 and medic’s kit, ostensibly to help stores from being damaged by potential rioting. But instead, he got involved in conflicts with protestors, two of whom he killed and one he seriously wounded. From the beginning of the trial, the prosecution faced an uphill battle with a presiding judge who would not allow the deceased and wounded to be considered “victims,” but rather insisted they be called “looters, and who repeatedly challenged the prosecution’s line of questioning. To be fair, the people who Rittenhouse shot did come after him, such that Rittenhouse could claim he shot in self-defense. Ultimately, the jury bought his testimony and he was found not guilty on all accounts.
Since the verdict was announced, I have been praying for Kyle Rittenhouse. Now don’t get me wrong, as far as I am concerned, he had no business being in Kenosha. He carried a gun he was not legally old enough to carry and had he been a Black 18-year-old on the streets of Philadelphia, he would have been arrested for the possession of an illegal firearm, and the friend who bought it for him would be charged with straw purchasing. He had no credentials that required he go to Kenosha; he wasn’t a member of the National Guard or law enforcement. He was a young kid enamored with vigilante justice. He ended up killing two people and seriously injuring a third and faced a trial that could have put him away for life.
Now that he has been given a reprieve, what will he do for the rest of his life? I heard a CBS reporter say he hoped to become a nurse. While paradoxical given his circumstances, it is an admirable goal, if he can get there. He has one half of the country that sees him as a hero and another half that sees him as a pariah and symbol of all that is wrong with the criminal justice system. Jacob Blake, whose being shot sparked the demonstrations in Kenosha, is forever handicapped, but Kyle Rittenhouse gets to go free. It does not seem fair. And yet Rittenhouse is not truly free because both halves of the country will seek to use him to promote their political agendas.
Minutes after the verdict was announced Fox News host Tucker Carlson played Rittenhouse’s words following the trial. No doubt Carlson and his kind will seek to make Rittenhouse an icon of how white Americans should respond to calls for racial justice. Meanwhile, across the country protests challenging and condemning the verdicts have been held in communities across the country. Also, liberal media pundits are pontificating on what Rittenhouse’s verdicts mean for the future of racial justice in our time. Ironically the other trial going on in Brunswick, Georgia, the case of those three men who killed Ahmad Arbery, may have much to do with the kind of lasting impact the Rittenhouse case has. If Abery’s killers are found guilty, perhaps Rittenhouse’s verdict will not seem so obscene. Of course, if Arbery’s killers go free, all hell could break loose… and justifiably so.
However, at this moment I am thinking of Rittenhouse not as a hero or a pariah, but as a young man with his future before him. I saw his breakdown when the verdicts were read. I wonder if his reaction was in part a response to the magnitude of what he did. I have heard he is seeking counseling for PTSD; is that just because of the public pressure, or has the fact that he actually killed two people begun to sink in as well? Will the media vultures on the Right and the Left continue to hound him or will they allow him to pull his life together again? How will he be received, if in fact he does pursue his goal of nursing school? And most importantly what has he learned through this experience — that he happened to get a sympathetic judge? That vigilantism is the way to go? Or, that his actions while exonerated by the court, were mindless, stupid, and incredibly dangerous to him and the others in the street that night in August 2020?
While I believe Kyle Rittenhouse should have been held accountable for his action, as a restorative justice advocate, I don’t believe a prison sentence should be anyone’s total and final fate. As Bryan Stevenson has said, “Each of us Is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I pray that Kyle Rittenhouse can come to see that what he was done is the worst thing he has ever done and that from here he can move toward his dream of becoming a healer, rather than the source and symbol of polarization, and hate. I pray he will resist the gun-toting haters that want to make him a hero, and he can move past his detractors who see him as a whiny little kid who got off because of his race. I don’t know what and who Kyle Rittenhouse in the quiet of his own mind and spirit, but I pray he can learn that how he acted in August 2020 does not need to be who is going forward. I pray he will find the grace and the presence of mind to become something other than a vigilante toting a big gun just looking for someone to shoot. If that happens, his experience in court will truly have been a tragedy. But if he can be transformed, his life can be a sign that metanoia, a reminder that a change of heart and mind can not only happen to a vigilante but can happen for all of us.
(Picture from Wikimedia Commons)