When Kanye West set the internet ablaze with his hot (and misguided) take about slavery as a “choice” for Black people, he argued a perspective with some gaping holes.
In his TMZ interview, Kanye ignited passions and debates about structural inequalities, victimhood, the nature of “free thinking” and truth itself.
Yeezy’s tendency toward self-promotion (and self-importance) causes many to compartmentalize his latest public rant as part of a larger trolling strategy geared to get everyone talking about him. Most of Kanye’s statements on TMZ were inaccurate, misleading and damaging in ways he doesn’t understand. Yet other aspects of his perspective are significant in an era where people are growing in their tendency to shout down dissent and silence views considered antiquated.
Kanye was right about one thing. Today’s communication climate is increasingly polarizing. In his book, Winsome Persuasion, Communications Professor Tim Muehlhoff, identifies three behavioral patterns of the “argument culture” in the current discourse of the United States:
- Considering the viewpoints of others is the same as condoning them.
- Valuing monologue over dialogue.
- Demonizing those with opposing views we disagree with.
This argument culture cuts both ways for the Christian who seeks to uphold a biblical vision of righteousness and justice when political polarities often alienate voices promoting traditional views of morality (on “the Left”) or social justice (on “the Right”). For followers of Jesus, understanding righteousness and justice is possible by first beginning with the the imago dei —the fact we are made in the “image of God”. This foundational claim about the nature of our shared humanity empowers us to advocate for the innate dignity and worth of every human being.
On the surface, upholding everyone’s humanity seems like an uncontroversial position, but American history demonstrates that people draw tighter lines around who qualifies as fully human than God does. We see the limitations in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson’s words written in 1776 certainly reflect ideals that many of us still hold dear. At the same time, it is critical to note that Jefferson did not consider the indigenous, Native American population included when he penned “all men”. In the same document, he rails against them as “merciless savages” that needed to be forcibly removed from their own land. He also didn’t consider Black people endowed with these rights, and he participated in their continued enslavement. He definitely didn’t intend for women to be included in the group of “all men” who have unalienable rights, as they would not be allowed to vote for another 144 years after the Declaration of Independence.
The assertion that humanity is made in God’s image is foundational to the Christian call to advocate for justice and to advocate for those in the margins. The biblical standard of people as God’s image bearers led the abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, the suffragettes like Sojourner Truth, and the Civil Rights activists such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr to fight for a society that looked like the biblical vision. Each of these activists labeled as “too radical” and were attacked in their time for being outside of the mainstream.
At other times, the fight for the imago dei is disparaged as too conservative. In today’s culture, we still see controversy about who gets to say they are made in the image of God. Is he, the person who receives a fatal diagnosis and requires life support to live made in God’s image or should she be forced to end her early like Alfie Evans? Is she, a Black woman who takes a nap at a Yale study hall, like Lolade Siyonbola? What about Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two Black men waiting for a friend at Starbucks? Is she, an unborn child with a heartbeat and brain function also made in God’s image? Today, answering “YES” to all of these is sometimes unacceptable to “the Left”, and at other times to “the Right,” which is why another perspective is so necessary.
At the core of Kanye’s rant is something else that strikes at the heart of today’s argument culture is the fundamental question: What is the cause of this suffering? Are those who point to structural, systemic and institutional oppression simply wallowing in their victimhood, blaming their lack of progress on others, instead of working hard to make their own American Dream happen? Is systematic injustice the source of all of people’s bad choices? Kanye invoked slavery as a metaphor to describe what he believes is the cause: the current mental slavery which he identifies as Black people seeing themselves as victims and in bondage to a liberal agenda.
Like so many who celebrate Kanye’s perspective, his analysis of one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history is lacking an understanding of a crucial concept: corrupted power. The corruption of the world because of what Christians refer to as The Fall, offers a realistic, yet sobering understanding of corrupted power.
When humanity rebelled against God (Genesis 3), that rebellion distorted our relationship with God, each other, our environment and our own selves. So now those who were meant to be image bearers often want to be objects of worship. We who were meant to demonstrate God’s love for each other now tend to oppress and kill. The caretakers of the glorious creation are now its source of pollution, and extinction. Just as God is communal, his image bearers wield the power of community—for good or for harm. From the state sanctioned oppression of the Israelites we see in their Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago, to the transatlantic slave trade that displaced and oppressed millions, the collective impact of injustice has been evident in the biblical story as well as the American one.
While it is true that the psychological effects of bondage are a reality that must be addressed, the simplistic notion that slavery was a choice because it persisted as an American institution for centuries ignores the weight of power in human history. tweet
It ignores the full biblical teaching of The Fall, and the ways that an entity of power tends to use its influence to exploit at every opportunity.
In contrast to Kanye, Killmonger, the antagonist in the Black Panther movie, offers what he believes is the only choice for those under the yoke of oppression:
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
For the vast majority of those who suffered under the yoke of slavery, the choice was not between freedom and slavery but between life and death. Ironically, Kanye’s statements scorned those who chose life, and ignored those who chose to end their unimaginable suffering by jumping into the sea.
And yet, while the whole corruption of humanity is vast and wide, so is the hope of change. Between Kanye and Killmonger, and between “the Left” and “the Right,” there exists another option. We can choose not to be blown by the winds of the latest philosophies and ideas that feign to define who is made in the image of God. We can opt to hold on to the hope of the legacy built on both the resistance to injustice and on an advocacy of the imago dei. We can choose to commit to timeless convictions in an increasingly morally ambiguous culture. We can choose to advocate for life, holistically, from inside the womb, inside schools threatened by gun violence, overcrowded prisons, and hospice care centers where an elderly person is considered disposable.
We can also choose to advocate with holistic compassion—boldly advocating for the humanity in every human with a willingness to speak truth to power, recognizing the truth of Frederick Douglass’ words:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
The reality is that civil discourse, political action and social activism have always been necessary to make our world more just. We must engage in these arenas, which is why the And Campaign is so important. Its mission is to address cultural and political issues with the compassion & conviction of the gospel.
We must make a choice about what to do in the face of oppression. The And Campaign recognizes the urgency of the day. Those of us involved in the And Campaign choose to make meaningful change through discourse and social activism, compassion and conviction, righteousness and justice. We also seek to amplify the constructive power of community by adding you to the conversation. Will you join us?
The And Campaign Frontline Discipleship Tour’s next stop is:
Saturday, May 19
98 5th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Written by Rasool Berry
Edited by Christina Utley