Alumnus explores the intersection of race and religion in Lutheran Center Fall Symposium
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder this summer, the book Dialogues on Race gained momentum in Christian congregations looking for a way to guide conversations on the intersection of faith and systemic racism. The book features perspectives from thought leaders challenging the legacy of racism within the American church, including a chapter by St. Olaf College alumnus Kristofer Coffman ’13 titled “Christmas Cookies from Cambodia: The Bible and Race in America.”
The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community, along with the Religion Department, the Classics Department, and College Ministry, welcomed Coffman for a series of virtual conversations with the St. Olaf community at the end of September. He presented a chapel talk, where he referenced the Cain and Abel story in Genesis and encouraged people to consider what it means to be a “brother’s keeper.” Coffman also delivered a virtual presentation for all during community time titled “The Bible, Race, and the Art of Ambivalence: A Cambodian-American Lutheran Reading.” After the symposium, he hosted a conversation with members of the Religion and Classics Departments about his experiences at St. Olaf, the path he’s taken since, and the graduate school experience in both Classics and Religion.
A native of southern California, Coffman studied Religion and Nordic studies at St. Olaf. After earning his M.Div. at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, he began his Ph.D. work in the Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, where he is currently writing his thesis. Coffman is on track to become, to his knowledge, the first person of Cambodian descent to earn a Ph.D. in biblical studies.
“In the United States we often think of religion as this very private affair. It’s interesting that we do that because for many people religion tends to affect the way that they act and look at the world,” Coffman says. “I think there’s a way in which it’s very important for us not to be silent about the things that influence the way that we see the world. It’s important to point out the ways in which people are driven to do very positive things because of their religious affiliation, which we don’t always hear about.”
In the United States we often think of religion as this very private affair. It’s interesting that we do that because for many people religion tends to affect the way that they act and look at the world.Kristofer Coffman ’13
Coffman notes that many individuals assume joining religious institutions is to learn how to live morally. This is problematic when tackling systemic issues like racism, he says, because individual actions of “goodness” do not result in change. Even seemingly benign things are harmful if they reinforce injustices. In this way, being “virtuous” does not directly contribute to dismantling systematic oppression.
“The sin-virtue binary is not a conception that’s very useful when we’re talking about systemic issues,” Coffman says. “Even if you live your life with the best interest in mind, if you still participate in institutions set up to advantage or disadvantage certain groups of people, you’re perpetuating institutions set up to maintain inequality. Sin is not just doing bad things but allowing those systems that are harmful to continue as long as they benefit you. You can’t absolve yourself of all responsibility by saying that you’re not doing openly bad things.”
Sin is not just doing bad things but allowing those systems that are harmful to continue as long as they benefit you. You can’t absolve yourself of all responsibility by saying that you’re not doing openly bad things.Kristofer Coffman ’13
Instead of associating the opposite of sin as being virtue, Coffman believes that we need to reframe it as faith. Faith focuses less on being “perfect” and more on how we can live more faithfully, be put together as whole people.
“Kristofer was able to help us think about some of the resources in Lutheran tradition that can be helpful in thinking about different issues of structural racism and our relationship to them today,” says Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson ’89, the Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy, noting that the Fall Symposium is designed to bring speakers from interfaith backgrounds to tackle contemporary issues in exactly this way.
Kristofer was able to help us think about some of the resources in Lutheran tradition that can be helpful in thinking about different issues of structural racism and our relationship to them today.Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson ’89
“There are a fair number of students, faculty, and staff who want to focus on the harm that religious traditions have caused. I think that’s important and appropriate,” she says. “At the same time, part of the work of the Center is to also highlight ways in which there are resources in religious organization, in people of faith themselves, who push back and work against those structures. There are legacies of harm, but there are also legacies of reform and revolution.”
Finding shared experiences
Coffman is Cambodian-American and of Norwegian descent on his father’s side. He is caught between the model minority and the perpetual foreigner, he notes, always negotiating between these two identities. The tension of being part of the Lutheran Norwegian heritage but also being a stranger influences Coffman to look at biblical passages from a different perspective. Additionally, his background allows Coffman to more easily connect and engage in interfaith dialogue with students.
“In one sense, I have the ability and shared background to connect with students who are of upper Midwest, Lutheran background. But then I was also able to connect with students who were of immigrant backgrounds or were international students and had different relationships to coming to St. Olaf,” he says. “In the same way, having grown up in California where it’s not expected that you are religious in quite the same way as Minnesota, does give me the opportunity to connect with students who are not religious themselves but are wanting to figure out how to relate in a more religious atmosphere.”
He adds that he hopes St. Olaf’s relationship with its Lutheran faith tradition expands beyond the 20th century, upper Midwest expression of Lutheranism. “I would hope for St. Olaf that having a Lutheran identity means reaching out to Lutheran communities throughout the world and allowing their voices to be heard on campus,” he says. “That Lutheran identity is not simply a historical thing, but also part of the school’s engagement with the greater world right now.”
In her work with the Lutheran Center, Thompson wants to emphasize the importance of bringing together diverse beliefs for discussion of issues of faith and values. She acknowledges the increase of individuals identifying as nonreligious and the trend’s effects on peoples’ perceptions on religion, but says there is important work that can be done on campus.
Part of the goal of the Lutheran Center is working on language that can be seen as welcoming to people who say ‘I’m not personally religious, but one of my fundamental values is compassion for those who are oppressed.’Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson ’89
“Part of the goal of the Lutheran Center is working on language that can be seen as welcoming to people who say ‘I’m not personally religious, but one of my fundamental values is compassion for those who are oppressed,’” she says. “How can we bring people together to talk about some of the things that are most important to them? How do we get people who believe religion is negative, it’s for people who don’t think deeply about these issues to go ‘Oh, that’s something I want to explore more’? That’s a challenge we’re still working on.”