From John Bergen.
Can we talk for a minute about love? Not some disembodied false “Christian” love, but the kind that makes us want to get up and dance? The love that brought out over a hundred high school students and supporters in miserable weather earlier this week to stand with a student who was assaulted by the cop at his school? The kind where crowds of young black demonstrators chant “We gonna be alright” while marching for their right to not be killed by police? Can we talk about that sort of love?
We get told that love isn't political. We get told that celebration and joy aren't what really matters (or worse, that they're the only thing that matters, and that all that matters is cheap pleasure that can be purchased on credit). How convenient! The dominant culture wants to say that love, joy, sex, romance, partying and celebration - these are all outside of “politics.”
The domination system would really like you to only think of politics when you vote and the rest of your time just go about your life. But Jesus asks us to do the opposite.
Beyoncé fans had been on notice for a new album for several months, but we were unprepared for Lemonade. If you haven't seen it (the album comes with an hour-long piece of film poetry), I will get you a copy. Beyoncé, generally as fearless as any pop star, takes us deep into the emotional devastation of her husband Jay-Z (apparently) cheating on him. She throws wood on the fires of her rage, connecting Jay's actions to her family's history and black women's experiences of violence (one video includes cameos by a number of women whose sons were recently murdered by police). At the end, after walking through the fires of personal and intergenerational trauma, she finds in the ashes a continued love for her husband and her daughter. Lemonade is a pop album/film you can't play at parties because everything else has to stop; I have friends who called their therapists after the first viewing.
If you've missed the last couple years of pop culture, Beyoncé has become an influential black feminist voice. Lemonade connects violence against black women (whether by cheating or abusive husbands or by cops who torture and kill black women and their family members every day) with the abandonment and destruction of a black city (New Orleans during and after Katrina). A web of personal stories link the love of a parent to a commitment to protect herself and other women by any means necessary. Beyoncé lets us know that it is in seemingly small acts of care and intimacy, through emotional vulnerability, that black women make the world anew.
Lemonade often finds its vulnerability and its power through the language of faith. In words penned by Warsan Shire, she connects personal healing to healing from the curse of being born a black woman in this country:
“Baptize me, now that reconciliation is possible. If we're gonna heal, let it be glorious. One thousand girls raise their arms. Do you remember being born? Are you thankful? Are the hips that cracked the deep velvet of your mother, And her mother, and her mother? There is a curse that will be broken.”
The curse of living under patriarchal white supremacy is the exact point at which Beyoncé touches the divine. In this celebration of healing, Beyoncé finds God deeply embedded within herself. She claims this as theo-political practice, à la black feminist warrior poet Audre Lorde, who famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Jesus understood that loving and celebrating yourself was a political act, especially for the poor rural communities around him. Jesus embodied the Jewish ethic of celebrating the body and rejoicing in life, despite centuries of dis-embodied Christian interpretation. Early on in the Gospel of Luke, he recognizes that many understand what he’s trying to say, but not everyone gets it.
'To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.” For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
No doubt, we are living in another generation playing the flute and asking everyone to dance. If you've missed the music, check out the recent planet-wide protests against the fossil fuel industry, or growing movements against police violence and prisons, or Jewish young people standing up to institutional complicity in the occupation of Palestine.
It is little wonder that in times like these artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, or Chance the Rapper delve deep into their Christian faith to find the resources for resistance. On his recent album, Chance tells us,
“I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom Don't believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom…. Jesus' black life ain't matter, I know I talked to his daddy Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family.”
Kendrick Lamar's 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly is a Faustian story, where Lucy (Lucifer) and Uncle Sam team up to promise limitless fame and fortune in exchange for Kendrick abandoning his community. “Lucy gon’ fill your pockets/Lucy gon’ move your mama out of Compton/….And now you all grown up to sign this contract if that’s possible."
This is the devil’s Catch-22: Black artists can escape urban poverty and endless cycles of violence, they can attain white owning-class standards of respectability, but only if they will leave their friends behind. But Kendrick’s conscience lets him know: “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend/A friend never leave Compton for profit or leave his best friend.” Kendrick recognizes the violence in his community as a connection to the divine, and their joyful celebration and resistance as part of Jesus' call to dance in the marketplace.
May we all have ears to hear the call of the flute, and dance in the marketplace.