Sankofa Reflection 2019: The Truth About Acting Counter Cultural
I’m grateful beyond measure to have been able to participate in Sankofa this year. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect beyond an intense, soul-searching journey. The way the trip is designed necessitates a spirit of humility and introspection since participants are in control of almost nothing. This is both unusual and uncomfortable for pastors who are used to being in control. In that sense, it was the perfect way to keep us open to what we would experience.
Since we returned, I’ve done a considerable amount of reflection, not just on the trip itself, but on my thoughts and feelings about something I once knew as vague and interesting facts.
I knew slavery is part of our American Heritage. Martin Luther King Jr. was the spiritual and strategic leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat. The legacy of slavery is that even today African Americans live with certain obstacles in our society.
Though I’ve always been mostly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, as a list of facts, I’ve always been able to detach myself from it. I’ve been able to blame the atrocities committed against African Americans to a bye-gone era with outdated sensibilities. Without giving it too much reflection, I assumed—like I believe most people assume—that I would have been different.
I wanted to believe that if I was a white southerner in the 50s and 60s, I wouldn’t have fought to keep churches and schools segregated and I most certainly would never have participated in a lynching.
Most people simply will not act counter to our cultural environment. People do not think alone.
If I was a plantation owner, I would have fought for the freedom of slaves to my own economic detriment. If I was a Birmingham clergyman, I would never have written to King, asking him to wait for the right time to launch protests. If I were a white, northern moderate, I would have jumped in to help at the first opportunity, not wait until a white person was murdered to get involved. My list could go on and on.
But as I reflected on what I experienced, I realized that to assume I would have done differently is the height of arrogance or ignorance. The fact is that most of us are simply products of our culture and society, not independent actors. Most people simply will not act counter to our cultural environment. People do not think alone.
So, how then, could I avoid the atrocities committed by otherwise good members of society? After the Sankofa trip, I reflected on this question from the perspective of a pastor and came to a couple conclusions for my life and ministry.
…to assume I would have done differently is the height of arrogance or ignorance
First, I need to make the effort to step out of my own cultural context and see Scripture from other perspectives. One question that continually came to me was, “How could anyone believe Scripture justifies slavery or segregation?” Of course, the answer is that they were unwilling or unable to view Scripture though a lens different than their own. If I only seek to know my cultural perspective, I can justify anything. But to combat a narrow perspective, I must be willing to read pastors, scholars and theologians from other cultural backgrounds and establish deep relationships with believers from other perspectives.
Second, I must learn to trust believers from other cultural perspectives.
It’s not enough just to know a pastor from another cultural background or ethnicity, I must be willing to trust that their perspective is valid.
I know there are many, especially my African American brothers and sisters, who might wonder why this even needs to be said. But I believe there is still a pervasive, unexamined assumption among white Christians that ours is the default perspective and all other perspectives are variations on that.
It’s a shame that I must continue to remind myself that Christianity is not a “white” religion.
It wasn’t started by Europeans and most Christians today are not white. It didn’t grow from a position of privilege, but in the midst of oppression. Yet because of my position of privilege, I can still fall into the trap of thinking of my faith as the default expression of Christian faith. The Sankofa trip, particularly the conversations, helped me see that there is much about the experience of white Christians that can blind us to the fullness of following Jesus. We all have a perspective and all perspectives have their blind-spots. But through relationship with believers from other perspectives we can have a better understanding of the Christian faith.
I would highly encourage anyone who might be thinking of participating in a future Sankofa journey not to hesitate. When you do, go with an openness to facts you might not already know, but even more, prepare yourself for the emotional impact of what you experience. Allow yourself to see from another perspective. And don’t let the impact fall by the wayside. Get involved.
I came to realize that white believers, even if we are sympathetic to issues of racial reconciliation, simply do not feel the same sense of urgency felt by our African American brothers and sisters.
The spirit that drove slavery and segregation are not just history, they remain today, just in a different form.
But I’m convinced that we need to. The spirit that drove slavery and segregation are not just history, they remain today, just in a different form. The economic disparities between black and white remain significant. Issues of police brutality and mass incarceration disproportionately effect people of color. These are realities that white Americans do not have to think about if we don’t want to. But they are present realities for our black brothers and sisters in Christ.
I came away convinced that we need each other. If we are to see racial reconciliation happen in our country, just like it did during the Civil Rights movements, it needs to start in the church. If followers of Jesus, who see ourselves as family, cannot come together on this, then who can? Trips like Sankofa can go a long way to help us build a common understanding of the issues we face in our society. When we have a common understanding and the common bond of Christ Jesus, we can make the change.
Pastor Kory Kleinsasser is the lead pastor at Waite Park Church in Minneapolis. He went on the Sankofa Journey the first week of May 2019 with Transform Minnesota and 38 other Twin Cities faith leaders.