HOLY HIP-HOP CONTROVERSY: Rapper Propaganda’s blistering critique of Puritanism’s racist history has some Reformed listeners crying foul.
Rapper Propaganda created a tornado of criticism with the recent release of “Precious Puritans” on his new album Excellent (available here). In the song, Propaganda reminds his audience to increase their cultural intelligence by caring about the black experience in America and to recognize the fact that, like the Puritans, we all have blind spots and need to have our minds constantly renewed (Rom. 12:2) by God’s word. The song also challenges those who uncritically treat the Puritans as a protected class that stands outside of the Bible’s command to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
For those who may be unfamiliar, Puritanism was a Christian reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. The movement spilled over into New England well into the 17th century and had a significant influence on the mores of America’s founding. Theologically speaking, the Puritans were committed to the doctrines of grace that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, with their particular emphasis on the intersection of sound doctrine and personal piety. In recent years, many young white Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have been looking for substantive, theologically driven, analytic approaches to personal piety rooted in a tradition they found lacking in their own backgrounds. Thirsting for depth and history, these “new-Calvinists,” with the help of well-known pastors like John Piper, have found spiritual enrichment by studying the Puritans.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
The song continues to highlight ways in which the black experience in the Puritan tradition is mishandled within white conservative evangelicalism. However, instead of leaving it simply at critique and dismissal, like we might find among some black liberation theologians, Propaganda ends the song by confessing that he is no less flawed than the Puritans, as his wife can attest, and offers praise to God because “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” That is, Propaganda is calling for humility in recognizing that, in the end the noetic effects of sin are present in the Puritans, in himself, and the rest of us. As such, what is to be praised is not any class of men but the providence and sovereignty of God that He fulfills his mission through messed up people. (Check out the video for “Precious Puritans” below.)
What’s been so odd to me is the tribalist attacks from those who fear that Propaganda is in some way throwing the Puritans under the bus to never be read again. A lamentable example of this is a blog post by Professor Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. In his post, Strachan suggests that the song might be dangerous because he wonders “if Propaganda isn’t inclining us to distrust the Puritans. He states his case against them so forcefully, and without any historical nuance, that I wonder if listeners will be inclined to dislike and even hate them.”
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.
The largest concern is the seemingly tribal nature of many of Propaganda’s Puritan-loving critics. Could this be an example of confirmation bias? As Jonathan Haidt explains in the book The Righteous Mind, confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (80). In general, according to Haidt, we are good at challenging statements made by other people but when it comes to one’s own presuppositions facing opposition the tendency is to protect it and keep it. Therefore, “if thinking is confirmatory rather than explanatory … what chances is there that people will think in an open-minded, explanatory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?” (81). In this sense, Propaganda broke a tribal code: never critique anyone within the tribe.
Strachan considers the Puritans “forefathers” and in a tribalist way, some would argue, seeks to protect their legacy. Had Propaganda dropped a track critiquing Roman Catholics, Jeremiah Wright, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or preachers of the prosperity gospel, he’d be called a hero. During my seminary years I was rebuked once for mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon because of his sins. Why? Because King, like the others, are outside the tribe and are fair game to be critiqued in any form. Since they are not “one of us” there is no expectation of extending grace. Grace is reserved for those with whom we agree.
RHYTHM AND POETRY: Propaganda’s latest album, ‘Excellent.’
I experienced this tribal protectionism when I challenged Doug Wilson’s poor historiography of the antebellum South. Theologians Carl Trueman and Scott Clark experienced this recently when stating that complementarianism is not a “gospel issue.” The bottom line is that the Bible provides a model for the importance of confessing the sins of our fathers (Neh. 9:2) and testing everything (1 Thess. 5:21). Why? Because if we do not hold those in the past accountable to God’s Word we will repeat their sins. “Precious Puritans” is the iron that sharpens us. It keeps us from making the Puritans a golden calf. Racism and white supremacy is the other Reformed tradition so we need regular reminders to hold God and his Word in high esteem over the works of mere men.
After reading Strachan’s post I was left wondering if he had ever read Joseph Washington’s books on Puritans and race (Puritan Race Virtue, Vice and Values, 1620-1820: Original Calvinist True Believers’ Enduring Faith and Ethics Race Claims, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500-1800, and Race and Religion in Early Nineteenth Century America, 1800-1850: Constitution, Conscience, and Calvinist Compromise). In light of Washington’s research, what Propaganda did in this song is minimal. Candidly, it is difficult for me to see why Propaganda’s song stands out in light of the thousands of pages of published writings of Puritan white supremacy that seems to have had no effect on people treating them as a protected class. In the new Calvinist world, there seems to be a growing trend that you can have “hard-hitting exhortation” as long as it is directed at those who are not beloved within the new-Calvinist tribe. The best critique of Strachan’s tribalism comes from Pastor Steve McCoy, so I will not repeat his excellent points here but McCoy concludes that Strachan completely misses the point of Propaganda’s song.
Lastly, it seems that as a rapper himself, Strachan would not expect much “nuance” in a genre that normally uses hyperbole as a rhetorical device. After all, it is a rap song. Since when does anyone expect “rhythm and poetry” (a.k.a. RAP) to have nuances and qualifications? I wonder why Strachan is not treating the song according to its genre.
Strachan’s defensiveness of his forefathers, who get it right, demonstrates exactly why Propaganda needed to produce this song. In fact, perhaps we need more rhythm and poetry to help us test and confess. If artists like Propaganda are not given freedom to call us to critique our theology and culture, we cannot achieve true racial solidarity in the kingdom. Songs like “Precious Puritans” keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
One of the realities of being a white Protestant in America is the historic freedom from needing a theological framework to confront structural and institutional forms of injustice due to race. Race continues to be a heavy burden for people of color in America. As such, a theological framework primarily oriented toward issues of personal salvation and morality is sufficient to address the questions of the dominant white culture. However, for blacks and Latinos, who not only have to wrestle with personal questions regarding sin and salvation but also evil from the outside because of their race, they need the Cross to provide hope that God intends to relieve the burdens and liabilities of being a subdominant minority. These burdens range from stereotypes and racial discrimination to issues of identity in light of Anglo-normativity and sociopolitical wellbeing. Blacks and Latinos need a comprehensive theology that deals with the cosmic scope of God redeeming every aspect of the creation affected by the Fall through the work and person of Christ.
Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and an UrbanFaith contributor, presents a comprehensive theological framework in his chapter in a new book I edited titled Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation. Bacote introduces the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal (CFRR). CFRR reminds us of the following: God created the world good, it was corrupted by the Fall introducing sin and brokenness into the world, but God has a unique plan to renew the entire creation through the work and person of Jesus Christ. That is, the entire creation formed and shaped by Christ will also be renewed by Christ and reconciled unto Him (Col. 1:15-23).
CFRR not only tells us who we are, it also gives Christians a vision of the implications of the kingdom of God. Christians are not passive bystanders but are called to be leaders in the business reconciliation until Christ returns to bring finality to the renewal process inaugurated at his death and resurrection in ways never before realized in human history (Rom. 8:12-25).
For those seeking to preach the Good News of what was accomplished in the work and Person of Jesus Christ to blacks and Latinos, the application of biblical texts cannot be limited to personal issues of salvation and sanctification. Subdominant minorities who are immersed in a world of white privilege need to hear hope that God also intends to relieve them of the complex burdens of being a minority — burdens that whites do not encounter in their day-to-day lives in America. This is one reason why minority teachers are vitally important in ethnic church contexts. Otherwise, applying the gospel to the realities of white privilege will likely not be addressed regularly. Now, by white privilege I simply mean the privilege, special freedom, or immunity white persons have from some liability or burden to which non-white persons are subject in America.
A team of authors led by Fordham University psychology professor Celia B. Fisher provides an excellent list of issues that blacks and Latinos need to reconcile with the Truth. In an article titled “Applied Developmental Science, Social Justice, and Socio-Political Wellbeing,” Fisher and her team remind us that when evil entered the world it created a context for the following burdens experienced by Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos in America: (1) societal structures, policies, and so on that limit access to minorities, (2) the persistence of high-effort coping with the reality of marginalization that produces high levels of stress, (3) psycho-political wellbeing and validity concerns which address the ways in which minorities apply human dignity to themselves within a context of Anglo-hegemony, (4) communities that accept dysfunctional behaviors as behavioral norms in the shaping of one’s personhood, (5) institutional racism which examines the “institutional structures and processes passed on from generation to generations that organize and promote racial inequity throughout the culture,” (6) proactive measures intended to dismantle racism, and (7) contexts to provide healing for those who have experience major and minor encounters with racist attitudes, beliefs, or actions.
The revivalist impulse by many evangelicals rightly understands that ultimate social change comes when members of society become followers of Christ. However, American history has clearly proven that personal salvation does not stop people from being racists nor from setting up social institutions and policies that deny others access to the means of liberty and human dignity. If evangelism alone were effective for social change, Christians would never have participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, been slave owners, created apartheid in South Africa, or allowed Jim Crow laws to come into existence.
Theologians like Abraham Kuyper remind us that, because of God’s common grace, evangelism is not necessary to persuade people to treat others with dignity and respect — after all, the law of God is written on the heart (Rom. 2:15) even though it merits them no favor with God. Therefore, work at both. We must morally form individuals and dismantle cultural norms of racism that become structural.
I suspect this is one of the major reasons why many whites are unsuccessful at reaching blacks and Latinos. If the gospel is not being applied to issues of the heart and issues that require outside, structural justice, we will miss areas in need of biblical application. Blacks and Latinos in America do not have the privilege of not talking about the issues addressed in the Fisher article, because all minorities experience aspects of those issues in various ways.
If we believe the Bible speaks to the questions of the day, then we have to do a better job of developing the cultural intelligence that applies the Truth to issues of the heart and to the cultural spaces minorities inhabit as subdominant races.
Inner-city life is hard. The complexities of life in “da hood” should encourage those seeking to serve inner-city youth to approach individuals with humility and long-term relationships. For years, I have been bothered by drive-by “mercy ministry” approaches by those who pull up in vans from outside low-income neighborhoods to “do ministry” as if those complexities do not exist. Granted, intentions are good and many are thankful that real concern is evidenced, but drive-by ministries are under the delusion that spending a few hours with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances is actually helping them in the long-run. The truth is that “making a difference” in the life of youth from difficult circumstances takes years of personal care and discipleship, not just a few hours of games, Bible stories, and listening to testimonies every month. Many of the problems in “da hood” are systemic and generational because the chain of child trauma has not been intercepted and healed.
Child trauma is devastating and is one of the ways in which sin and evil destroy the lives of many people early in life, igniting a life of self-destruction and hurting others. Children who experience trauma become teens who present typical reactions like impaired cognitive function, impaired academic performance, feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, despair, apathy, irrational guilt, easy and frequent crying, increased feelings of insecurity, social isolation, sleep difficulties, and acting out or anti-social behaviors that may lead to juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, fatigue, hypertension, psychosomatic and somatic symptoms, and the like.
In Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency, from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Kristine Buffington, Carly Dierkhising, and Shawn Marsh offer a highly informative perspective that I argue is just as needed for those working with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances. The authors make the following points trauma exposed children:
(1) A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being. Trauma can include a direct encounter with a dangerous or threatening event, or it can involve witnessing the endangerment or suffering of another living being. A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Traumatic events include: emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; physical assaults; witnessing family, school, or community violence; war; racism; bullying; acts of terrorism; fires; serious accidents; serious injuries; intrusive or painful medical procedures; loss of loved ones; abandonment; and separation.
(2) Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rates of PTSD in juvenile justice-involved youth are estimated between 3 percent to 50 percent making it comparable to the PTSD rates (12 percent-20 percent) of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq.
(3) Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation. Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to lower IQ scores for children. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues.
(4) Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency. In fact, about 72 percent of youth that enter the juvenile justice system have diagnosable psychiatric and psychological disorders. Moreover, research shows that youth who experience some type of trauma of any kind are at elevated risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Even worse, about 50 percent of the male victims of child maltreatment later became juvenile delinquents.
(5) Traumatic exposure, delinquency, and school failure are related. Success in school requires confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate, the discipline to complete assignments, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and the skills to understand and negotiate social relationships. When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of anxiety and paranoia often expressed through “abnormally increased arousal, responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats,” according to the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers.
(6) Trauma assessments can reduce misdiagnosis, promote positive outcomes, and maximize resources. Often trauma exposed children are often misdiagnosed as hyperactive, having attention deficits, or general behavior disorders when, in fact, there are deeper issues present.
(7) There are mental health treatments that are effective in helping youth who are experiencing child traumatic stress. As much as I believe in biblical counseling, because of the physical damage done to the brain of trauma-exposed children, there needs to be more openness for some youth to get clinical help.
(8) There is a compelling need for effective family involvement. Youth who do not have helpful and consistent family support are at higher risk of violence and prolonged involvement in the court system.
(9) Youth are highly resilient. Resiliency is the capacity for human beings to thrive in the face of adversity like trauma. Research suggests that the degree to which one is resilient is influenced by a complex interaction of risk and protective factors that exist across various domains, such as individual, family, community and school. Research on resiliency suggests that youth are more likely to overcome adversities when they have caring adults in their lives.
(10) The juvenile justice system needs to be trauma-informed at all levels — and so should church youth workers serving kids from difficult circumstances.
What Buffington, Deirkhising, and Marsh present above is the beginning to changing how we think about urban ministry. Low-income children from broken families living in rough inner-city neighborhoods are at risk of exposure to multiple traumas in ways that middle-class youth are not. To not understand the pervasiveness of trauma is to not take “da hood” seriously as a potential trauma zone.
The inference should not be that all inner-city kids are trauma victims, but that trauma must be a variable in considering how to help those in need and assessing whether or not current programs are capable of dealing with root issues. I am guilty of making this mistake in the past. I could have been far more helpful and patient had I been a trauma-informed inner-city church worker.
In the final analysis, I would argue that only healthy local churches are capable of bringing the kind of holistic community required to address urban pain and dysfunction. Only a committed community of believers can provide the long-term care, compassion, and discipleship needed to increase resilience and heal trauma-exposed communities.
While drive-by mercy ministry is great for PowerPoint presentations and fundraising brochures, holistic liberation driven by the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-40) requires a long-term commitment to loving relationships.
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