How legitimate is the "Sankofa!" rally cry of the "Afrikania" movement, from a Christian perspective?
Sankofa--Back to our African Roots!
What's wrong with that? In considering this issue, let us consider first that roots can sometimes be very long. Think about what happens if you try to pull out a dandelion plant or a young mango tree. If you don't carefully dig way down deep to the end of the root, what happens?
It starts growing again. So--which is the root--the little short stub you pull out? Or the long root that you have to really dig deep to get to the end of it?
It has become very fashionable to cry, Sankofa! Back to our African roots! We see the Sankofa symbol, the bird looking backwards, carved into official buildings and stamped into cloth. We find websites and read newspaper articles calling for a return to our African roots.
This cry, Sankofa, is legitimate, AS FAR AS IT GOES. Every people needs to understand its heritage. We all need to value the good that has been handed to us by our ancestors. The Bible in several places talks about getting back to our roots. So far, so good!
Examples of the Bible taking us back to the root of things:
Jesus, divorce and marriage: When Jesus was asked a difficult question about divorce, when He wanted people to really understand marriage, He took His questioners back to the roots of marriage. The Pharisees thought they were going back to their cultural roots when they quoted thier ancestor Moses, but Jesus focused their attention on God's purpose for marriage by going deeper down the root--by following the root of marriage back to God's Creation (Mark 10:2-9).
The book of Genesis: The Bible begins with the book of Genesis. Do you know what Genesis means? It means ORIGINS, which is just another word for ROOTS. The Bible does not begin with the birth of Jesus Christ. In a sense the whole Old Testament is a collection of books of ROOTS, or preparations for the coming Messiah. God begins to tell us His story of His love for us by taking us back to our roots, to the origin of humanity.
The Biblical priesthoods: Most of the Old Testament gives an accounting of God's dealings with Israel. Israel had a priesthood, described in the Bible book of Exodus. Most Jewish people thought they were going back to their roots by remembering how God chose their ancestor Aaron and his sons to be the first priests for their nation (Exodus 28). Jesus was also a priest, but to understand His priesthood, we have to go back past Exodus, back past the ancestors of the Jewish people, to the very first book of the Bible--the book of Genesis (roots or beginnings) (Genesis 14:18-20. This passage is also referred to in the New Testament book of Hebrews in 5:6 and 7:1-17). We have to go past the levitical priesthood that had been handed to the Jews by their immediate ancestors. God said that the priesthood of Jesus had deeper roots than that. They had to go back past their ancestor Moses, back to the time of their earlier ancestor Abraham to understand those roots. Those roots went way back to the ancient priesthood of the order of Melchesidek.
An important question: Why do we settle so often for such short roots, when we could go all the way down the root and get back to our real origins?
It's great to get back to our roots, and not at all a wrong idea or an unbiblical idea in itself, as we have already seen. But why do we so often stop so short? Why are we satisfied with such a short section of root?
An important example of settling for short, broken-off roots:
Here's one example. Many defend the worship of the so-called "lesser gods" on the basis that our African ancestors did it, so it must be right. Yet, the Apostle Paul, in his definitive treatise of Christian doctrine (the Bible book of Romans) condemns the world for its idolatry, and proclaims that before the world turned to idolatry, our ancestors knew God (Romans 1:21-25).
Some say, "Let's go back beyond the time of the colonial masters--back to the time of the black African Kingdoms. So we have some groups proposing that Africans go back to the gods of Egypt. From the immense Egyptian pantheon of gods, one group arbitrarily chose the god Amen-Ra to worship, while others prefer another of the gods.
This cry is heard both on the African continent and in the diaspora. Alex Haley, in his well-known book ROOTS, tells how he sought to go back beyond modern Christian influence to Islamic tradition. Others urge us to go back beyond Christianity to African traditional religions.
A PLEA to dig deeper, to go back farther:
So, let's find our roots. In this, the Christian faith asks only one thing of us--to DIG DEEPER. Get back to the END of the root. Dig up the whole root. Find that TAPROOT--that growing point that pokes its way further and further down into the soil. Only then can we really say that we went back to our roots.
Back to Egypt--
If you go back to Egypt as Afrikania would like you to do, don't go back only as far as the history recorded in the Bible book of Exodus, where idolatry dominates the nation and ultimately brings great judgment from God (Exodus 1-12). Go back further down the root. Go back nine chapters earlier in the Biblcal history, back to the book of Genesis, 45 and 46. There we read that Pharaoh welcomed the family of Joseph and honored Joseph, a man who worshipped the Creator God. Then go back to Genesis 12, where we read how an earlier Pharaoh easily recognized and obeyed the hand of God working in his life.
Back to Ham--
Go back to Ham, the original ancestory of large parts of Africa, our ancestor who heard God speak and saw Him act, our ancestor who experienced God's grace and loving care at the time of the worldwide Deluge, our ancestor who was blessed by Noah his father (Genesis 9).
If we follow the root down to the time between Noah and Abraham, we find what seems to be a transitional time when many then-young nations of the world were headed toward idolatry, yet they were not totally hardened in its path. There were also at this time in history many exceptions to the idolatrous trend. Some worshipped the Lord.
Even in the Holy Land that God gave to the Hebrews and their descendants, in early times God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants. Yet He did not give the Holy Land to Abraham immediately, because, as God explained, "the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full" (Gensis 15:16). Melchesidek, priest of the city of Salem, was not idolatrous. The Bible describes him as "priest of the most high God", and uses him as a picture prefiguring and preparing us for Christ (Genesis 14:18). In the same period, Job acted as a priest for his family before God (Job 1:5), and was also a priest to God for others (Job 42:7). Although we don't have specific examples cited from Africa, we believe there must have been true priests in Africa, too, during this period who knew God and worshipped Him faithfully without idolatry.
Some of the ancient Andrinka symbols of the Akan people, including the most famous of the symbols, the Gye Nyame (By God alone) seem to indicate this. Then, too, there is the fact that long after other parts of the world had turned totally to idols, virtually all traditional Africans continued to acknowledge the existence of a Creator God. He may have gradually been pushed to the side as far as worship is concerned in favor of idol gods the people could see or so-called "lesser gods", but the fact that all Africans still recognize His existence shows that they must have at one time worshipped Him.
Go back to Creation, the ultimate end of the taproot, where all people find their origin and their ultimate meaning. We are more than creatures of our ancestors, however much we respect them. We are ultimately creatures of Almighty God, created in His image (Genesis 1:27).
This bird looking backwards is an ancient Andrinka symbol for the idea of Sankofa--looking backward to learn from our past and to appreciate our identity by going back to our African roots. This is a popular modern symbol, too, amongst the Akan people of Ghana.
Back to our African Roots!
Read all the Bible has to say about Africa and her people. You can find prophecies of judgement on African nations because of their idolatry at different periods of history (interspersed with prophecies of judgment on other nations). Isaiah chapter 19 is an example, a prophecy against Egypt. "Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt. The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst (Isaiah 19:1).
Yet the purpose of the judgment is not ultimately to destroy, but to restore. "And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike it and HEAL IT; they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them" (Isaiah 19:22). Even in judgment, God shows His love, His mercy, and His good plan and purpose for Africa!
So yes, SANKOFA! Let's return to our African roots. But remember, our African roots are long. Let's not break off our roots halfway down in the ground. Let's return all the way. Let's go back past the so-called "lesser gods". Let's return to the Creator of Africa and African people groups, the Creator of this great continent and all its beautiful families.
Let's return to the One, True and Living God, the Creator. The land is sick to its stomach from eating short roots running just under the ground. IF WE FOLLOW OUR ROOTS TO THE TAPROOT, WE WILL FIND THAT THE CREATOR OF AFRICA IS WAITING TO HEAL US!
Sankofa, Africa! Sankofa!
Return to your roots in your God!
Oh leave all your small, small, lesser gods behind,
Oh, return to the One who created you,
Yes, return to the God who created you!