A Collective Adaptive Moment

by Tim Knauff, Senior Pastor, Christ Lutheran Church, Valparaiso, Indiana

I hate plastic shopping bags.  I hate how they feel, I hate that they’re too weak for what we need them for and therefore require me to take two, I hate they are only useful once and then consigned to picking up my dog’s droppings.  I hate using them with a passion, and I will go to great lengths to avoid using them, even to awkwardly juggling too-many-items to my car when I’ve forgotten a reusable version.  I really can’t stand the crinkly little beasties.

At my local CVS, when picking up a prescription I can also check out other items at that back pharmacist’s counter.  Of course, I always ask to skip the bag, and unfortunately I rarely think to bring a reusable version.  This means that I regularly walk from the back of the store right out the front door with multiple items in my hands, not in a bag.  I have never been stopped by a store employee, whether the register tape is on top, buried underneath, visible or not.  I always wonder about this — why don’t they ask me if I’ve checked out?  Why do they trust me walking through their store?  I wonder if I had different-colored skin, if I would have the same experience.

These past weeks, as demonstrations and protests have raised the insistent question whether black lives matter in this country, I have become convinced we have come to a collective adaptive moment.  Our technical adaptations no longer work, the usual diversion and delay designed to dull the moment until our attention moves on to another topic.  Instead those who march, those who protest, the videos and emotions are “turning up the heat,” causing us to question who we are and who we should be, to develop a dissatisfaction with the way things are, and enkindle a felt need that can move us to new avenue, some new version of “us” that has previously been impossible.

As a leader in one of the whitest churches in the US,, a community leader in a former “Sundown Town” (Loewen, James. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,. 2018 ed., New York: The New Press, 2018; p. 200) with a history of the Ku Klux Klan, a pastor to a congregation that is overwhelmingly white and comprising every complexion of political perspective, I have found it particularly important to view this historical moment through the lens of adaptive leadership.  If, as I suspect, we are in an adaptive moment, then people in my cultural position will innately and automatically want to dissipate the dissonance of the questions being asked of us by videos of police brutality and violence.  We will seek simple solutions that cast back to what we have already known, technical approaches that allow us to “turn down the heat” without facing substantive, personal change.  I believe we are seeing that in political responses being put forward, the backlash and counterprotests against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, the growing visibility of white supremacist groups like the Boogaloo Bois, and the ringing dismay of some of my white congregation members as we continue to talk about race and sin and our own complicity.

However, adaptive leadership can help point me in a different direction.  If we are in an adaptive moment, faithful leadership must sit in the dissonance, listen carefully, refuse to name or define others’ experiences. To respond faithfully we must look beyond simple solutions and embrace the muddiness of the moment, to reject scapegoating and finger-pointing in all forms.  Adaptive leadership requires me to differentiate between individual and systemic, collective and cultural, and to constantly be aware of my own complicity: because I am American, I am part of the problem.  I am part of the system.  No solution that seeks to change “them” without changing me can ever be the faithful, godly response.  Until people like me stop calling the police on people like my brown-skinned friends, until they have the same experience walking through a CVS as I do, our work is not yet done.

This is hard work, and requires backlash, heartache, turmoil, and soul-searching personal adaptation.  I’m grateful that Christian faith prepares us for that kind of work, and that adaptive lenses give me resources to avoid pitfalls and shortcuts that will not lead us where God wants us to be.

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