Jesus is King: On Kanye and Kingdom Work
I don’t want to hide my bias: I believe Kanye West is one of the greatest artists of all time. On Friday, West released his highly anticipated gospel album, Jesus is King. And it brings me no greater joy to know that my favorite artist is making music for my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
In fact, it gives me the same joy as when that long lost cousin gets slain in the spirit during altar call at a revival they just so happened to attend, falling into the bosom of a church mother, weeping cleansing tears, and having an encounter with God. Will that cousin immediately pick up their cross, change their life, and follow God? Maybe not. But we rejoice because a seed has been planted.
When it comes to West, I have been in a deep state of rejoicing. But many others have not.
It’s deeply troubling to me that so many have had issue rejoicing in this moment for Kanye in the same way that heaven rejoices for the one sinner who repents over the ninety-nine righteous folks who don’t need to (Luke 15:7–10).
Kanye’s recent interest in the gospel reminds me of the story of the prodigal son in Luke 5:11–31. After squandering off his father’s wealth in a faraway land, a son makes his way home feeling unworthy and downtrodden, only to find his father welcoming him with open arms and rejoicing. Yet, his brother grows angry and resentful at the celebration.
He complains to his father: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” To which his father replies: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
As I’ve witnessed the backlash against West’s ‘Sunday Services’ and Jesus Is King, I can’t help but remember the angry brother in this story: plagued by comparison and bitter with resentment. Did he desire for his brother to receive a cold shoulder? Would he have rather his brother be turned away by his father at the door, punished for his time away squandering his wealth? And, if so, why?
I know why folks are mad at Kanye West.
He’s been accused of turning his back on “the culture.” He did an interview on TMZ Live and the takeaway was that he said slavery was a choice (he did not). He wore a MAGA hat and shook hands with Trump and folks have taken that as a radical endorsement and a sign of support of Trump’s racist rhetoric and life-threatening stances on policy (I do not). Then, he had the audacity to find Jesus, create a gathering designed for him and his loved ones to encounter Jesus, and produce an album to share this sort of encounter with the world.
The criticism that West has received not only echoes the anger of the prodigal son’s brother, but it speaks to a tension of my generation: one that struggles to balance life imbued with social justice and activism, liberated theology, and celebrity culture heightened by the constant notifications of social media.
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
In the roughly 96 hours since its release, Jesus is King has been commodified by white evangelicals in a way that is deeply disturbing. Spectacle Christians have emerged in droves, wanting to align their online presence with West’s spectacular moment without aligning their theology with the interests of Black folks, steering clear of social justice practices like calling out racial injustice, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Kanye is their “Black friend,” and it’s evident they believe bopping around on social media to his album gives them ‘street cred.’
Watching this all play out on social media is enough to make me want to pull my hair out while shouting, “YOU AIN’T WOKE!” But what white evangelicals do with Kanye’s music is not on Ye. Just think about all the ways they’ve manipulated the Bible.
On the other hand, there’s a great deal of Skeptical Christians, questioning if West is the appropriate person to be sharing the gospel; if the Black gospel tradition is the appropriate way of doing so; and debating whether or not he’s doing so with right motives.
With all that Kanye has said and done to the Black community, the Skeptical Christian asks: “Why should we be here for Ye?”
Even Kanye thinks this is a good question.
On the album, West is completely transparent about the novelty in his walk with Christ. In “Hands On,” alongside Fred Hammond, he talks about being called a halfway believer, proclaiming that he’s only halfway read Ephesians. As the song concludes, Ye confesses: “Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah, but I have a request, you see, don’t throw me up, lay your hands on me. Please pray for me, somebody pray for me.”
My heart lurched at the sound of Kanye begging for prayer. My guy’s been through a lot, dating back to the death of his mother. Since then, we’ve witnessed him being momentarily exiled from the music industry, his wife kidnapped at gunpoint, and a public meltdown that resulted in a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis. Who knows what other demons have been plaguing him. West seems like a prime candidate for any church’s list of prayer requests.
Yet, in this same song, West declares that Christians would be the first ones to judge him and make him feel unloved. It reminded me of something God pressed upon my heart this summer when I attended World Pride in NYC, and around the same time clips from West’s ‘Sunday Services’ started going viral online.
It was my first time attending Pride in support of a loved one who recently came out as bisexual. When he came out to me, he was trembling with tears streaming down his face, and he later told me he feared how I would respond because I was a Christian.
In the moment, I told him everything I knew about God’s love, reminded him that I didn’t have a Heaven or a hell to put him in, and told him that nothing could separate him from the love of Jesus (Romans 8). But, in that moment I also knew the world, and even some Christians, would not extend this same love to him. And it broke my heart.
At World Pride, there was an abundance of love. In fact, I have never experienced so much love, acceptance, body positivity, and a sense of belonging in one space. Ever.
When I returned home, I sat at Bible study and in prayer huddles and asked the question: What if the church felt that way? Which beckons us all to consider: Why doesn’t the church feel this way? Why should anyone — celebrities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, addicts, criminals, etc. — feel as though they have to create a counter-space to encounter love, or Jesus?
My only guess takes me back to that angry brother and his feelings of never having been celebrated in the way that the prodigal son was upon his return. Fortunately, for him, he had never needed a celebration because he was never lost.
Unfortunately, for many of us, we have needed something, and it wasn’t given to us. So many of us have never received grace in the way that we needed it and during the time that we needed it that, as a result, we fail to understand how monumental it is when grace is extended to others.
We selfishly want others to receive what we falsely believe we deserve, or at times, what we received: abandonment, rejection, condemnation, hate.
Use This Gospel for Protection
In our own self-righteousness, we get caught up in the things that we have never done or would never do (like squander all of our father’s wealth or flirt with the idea that slavery was a choice in a live interview), and we begin to assign consequences in our head, meditating on what sort of treatment people deserve.
Of course we do this.
In John 8:15, Jesus explains that we judge according to our flesh. And the truth is, our human standards for righteousness are so high, most of us would not pass the tests we set out for others. Isaiah 64:6 says that we are all as an unclean thing and our righteous acts are as filthy rags. But Glory be to God, we serve a Savior who does not give judgment according to what we (or people) think we deserve.
This is the definition of grace and the good news of the gospel: that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done (or said), no matter who likes you or accepts you or praises you or does not: God sent his son to die for you and through him you can be set free and have eternal life (John 3:16).
Jesus is for everybody.
In the true spirit of the viral phrase, “you hate to see it,” this is the hard truth that many would like to forget. Does this apply to murderers? Rapists? Racists? Kanye? Trump? Yes.
Time and time again in the Bible we see how God sets ALL the captives free, not just those with ‘good’ stories. When Ye boldly exclaims “John 8:33” in his song, “Selah,” I was warmed at the thought that he knows what the Bible says about his identity. Whether you and I (or even he) believes it or not, freedom is available in Christ. And because of his album, millions of people are hearing that truth — perhaps for the first time in their lives — while bopping their heads and declaring that Jesus is King.
Here, I must echo the Apostle Paul when he writes to leaders on the topic of those who preach with false motives or for selfish ambition. He says: “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:18)”
It would be one thing if West was manipulating the gospel. But I’ve listened to the album quite a few times and I can tell you — he isn’t. In fact, there is more scripture in those 27 minutes than I’ve heard at many a church service: John 8, Ephesians, Job, Luke. He even references the spirit of Jezebel. And one thing I know, for sure, is that once it goes out, the Word of God accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. It does not return void (Isaiah 55:10–11).
Not even Kanye can steal the mic or the message from the Holy Spirit. And whether you like him or not, Jesus is King is a trending topic doing Kingdom work. Isn’t that worth rejoicing?