Jay-Z and Kanye West’s lavish “Watch the Throne” tour is in effect and may soon be coming to an arena near you (if it hasn’t already). A review of the tour’s recent Madison Square Garden show prompted me to once again reflect on how overinflated and over-the-top our pop-culture heroes can be. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s aspirations of grandeur. Like Whitney Houston and countless others, I do, in fact, believe the children are our future. Our children can grow up to do great things and be great people.
But friends, we need to know that there is a hidden cost to greatness, especially greatness as defined by our culture.
And I’m not just talking about the moral hazards along the way.
I’m sure every June there are many commencement speeches that draw from the lesson of Mark 8:36, where Jesus famously asks, “What does it a profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” It’s become cliché to warn our young people about the dangers of living life on the fast track to wealth and notoriety.
The fact is, some moral hazards are more obvious to certain people than others.
That’s why it’s easy to take Mark 8:36 and aim it at obvious targets, like Jay-Z and Kanye. The duo, of course, is touring in support of their popularly celebrated album collaboration Watch The Throne. On that record, the multiplatinum-selling, image-conscious, superstar rappers-turned-global-icons aim the spotlight at themselves, illustrating in great detail the extent to which they’ve made careers out of unabashedly reveling in their own celebrity. The title refers to their efforts to protect their perch at the top.
You can see this in one of their more controversial songs [EXPLICIT LYRIC WARNING], “No Church in the Wild,” where each emcee uses religious themes and imagery to justify his own moral code, which of course, includes copious amounts of cocaine, fast cars, and unashamed so-called “ethical non-monogamy.” (If the rumors are true about Will Smith having a similar marital stance, then the rampant rumors of his divorce would make sense.)
So, like I said, it’s an easy target.
As someone whose job it is to comment on pop culture with a biblical worldview, Watch the Throne is low-hanging fruit because any young person with her head on straight knows intuitively that most of this stuff is bad for you.
The Missing ‘If’
Moralistic therapeutic deism is a term coined by sociologist Christian Smith that summarizes the popular spiritual beliefs of teens and twentysomethings circa 2005, a set of beliefs that endure in today’s popular culture. The idea is that good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, and that God generally exists to help me do good things and therefore have a good life.
It is because of the pervasiveness of moralistic therapeutic deism that Watch the Throne, specifically, and both Jay-Z and Kanye West, in general, are easy targets for cultural criticism. As much as people might be impressed with their business and marketing acumen, it’s generally understood that Jay-Z has a tremendous ego (why else would Beyoncé write a song about it?) and Kanye West, despite being incredibly talented, is also a huge douchebag.
You could chalk that up to bias against hip-hop culture, perhaps.
But no one would use these terms to describe a true American hero, someone whose contributions to our nation’s struggle for freedom and overall heritage are unquestioned and unassailable.
Someone like, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memorial was recently unveiled on the national mall in Washington, D.C. No one would ever think of him as an egotist.
That is, unless you happened to read the inscription on the statue.
The recent controversy, as covered by UrbanFaith’s own Christine A. Scheller, is over the words “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” a paraphrase of a longer quote taken from a famous sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” According to Maya Angelou, the design process that led to those words being chosen ignored the subtle nuance of what Dr. King was trying to say, and instead cast Dr. King as an arrogant, self-promoting figure.
The key is in the missing “if.”
The famous sermon in question, which really ought to be read in its entirety, was the final sermon delivered by Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The message, delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, explores Jesus’ response to his disciples John and James after their request for priority seating in Jesus’ kingdom. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory,” the sons of Zebedee said. Reflecting on this moment, Dr. King implores his listeners not to judge James and John’s ambition too harshly. There’s some James and John in all of us, he says. “And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct — a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
Dr. King goes on to conclude his sermon with a now ominous-sounding request that at his funeral people not fuss over the trivial stuff, but that they remember him for the right reasons:
Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody….
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
The sad irony of the recent controversy is that Dr. King forecasted the way his words would be eventually used to promote a vision of his life that was larger-than-life, and in this sermon he tried in vain to prevent it from happening. Four decades later, we should not be surprised that popular culture would retrofit the image of Dr. King in a manner befitting of itself, a culture that continues to be either indifferent toward or hostile to the Christ Jesus about whom King so passionately preached.
And therein lies the true hidden danger of being great in our world.
Once someone reaches a certain level of stratospheric influence and notoriety, either in their lifetime or posthumously, their legacy is constantly up for interpretation. People with selective memories and hidden agendas can appropriate their words and actions to suit their own objectives.
Approaching the Throne
I say all of this not to demonize Jay-Z and Kanye and lionize Dr. King, because even Dr. King had his own moral hazards.
The point is that as Christians, especially if we are church leaders, our life’s work isn’t ultimately judged on the specter of public opinion, but on whether or not we received Christ and how well we lived out his gospel. If our work is built on anything else, it will not last.
But if we build on the foundation of the gospel, we will receive a reward that no one will be able to take away. We won’t have to worry about others taking our words out of context, because the only words that will matter to us will be, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant.”
In his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, Dr. King also said this:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it … it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
So I say, please … watch the throne. Better yet, approach it boldly, so that you can receive grace in your time of need.
Because Dr. King was right about what Jesus said.
The true mark of greatness is not found on a statue but on our knees.
Does the King Memorial Make Him Sound Arrogant?
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was unveiled last week came under fire first for appearing too Asian. Now poet and author Maya Angelou says a quote inscribed on the statue makes the humble pastor sound too arrogant.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told Ebeneezer Baptist Church two months before he died in 1968. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
“The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader,” The Washington Post reported today, but a design change led to a paraphrase instead. The inscription on the side of the statue reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said Angelou, who consulted on the project. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.” Ever the wordsmith, Angelou added, ” The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Angelou isn’t the first writer to make this observation. Last week, Washington Post editor Rachel Manteuffel voiced a similar complaint. “An ‘if’ clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best,” she wrote. “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out. Let’s remember the words he chose and not let this be one more way we’ve failed King.”
Should Rev. Billy Graham Get a Statue Too?
“Not now,” wrote Charlotte Observer journalist Tim Funk at his Funk on Faith blog, but after Graham goes to his heavenly reward “a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist — pastor to presidents — would be a popular addition to Our Nation’s Capital,” Funk said. But the U.S. Capital would be a more appropriate location than the National Mall, which he said should be “reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.”
Funk chose the capital building because each state is allowed to donate likenesses of two of its native children and he thinks two former North Carolina governors have had their day under the dome. There’s precedent too. Hawaii, California, Utah, and Illinois have all donated statuary of religious figures, said Funk.
What do you think? Does the King paraphrase make a humble preacher sound arrogant? Should Rev. Graham be similarly honored?
Enola Aird of the Community Healing Network believes too many Black youth have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable as the lives of others — and it’s leading them to act out in destructive ways. She’s out to change that.
The horrific beating death of Chicago teenager Derrion Albert has revived the national discussion about the moral and spiritual collapse of America’s urban communities, and its Black communities in particular. But in our shock, are we asking the right questions?
From her home in Connecticut, Enola Aird watched the Derrion Albert coverage with the rest of the nation. But she was not surprised by Albert’s killing, just sadly reminded of how broken our communities are. Like many activist leaders working on family and community issues in America’s cities, Aird is familiar with the kind of societal breakdown and dysfunction that leads to violent crimes among young people. As the founder and director of Mothers for a Human Future, she fights against society’s “commodification of children” and works to empower mothers to raise responsible, emotionally healthy kids.
In 2006, Aird led the launch of the Community Healing Network (CHN) at her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the oldest predominantly African American parishes in the United States. Though still young, the CHN is already sparking a movement of community renewal in the New Haven area and beyond.
Aird, who’s also the wife of author and fellow Yale Law School graduate Stephen L. Carter, recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the CHN initiatives that she hopes will catch on nationally, including this weekend’s second-annual Community Healing Days.
URBAN FAITH: How did you develop the vision for the Community Healing Network?
ENOLA AIRD: I was privileged to serve on my church’s New Beginnings leadership team and had long been interested in finding ways to help Blackpeople work to overcome the myth of Black inferiority — the myth created centuries ago to justify the enslavement and subjugation of Black people. It says that Black people are not as smart, not as beautiful, not as lovable, and not as valuable, as other people. It is still undermining us.
I approached our then-Senior Warden, Jill Snyder, with the idea of expanding the church’s ministries to create a “community healing” initiative to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people in the Greater New Haven area. Ms. Snyder and I presented the idea to our rector, Rev. Dr. Victor Rogers, who took up the challenge. In October 2006, the Community Healing Network sponsored its first Community Conversation and Healing Service in association with Christian Community Action, a local inter-faith service agency. We followed that first gathering with additional community conversations and healing services in 2006 and 2007.
How did this local initiative evolve into something that’s now getting national attention?
I was inspired by the wisdom of Dr. Maya Angelou, who has said we need to “take a day to heal from the lies you’ve told yourself and the ones that have been told to you.” Taking that to heart, we issued a “Call to Healing and Renewal” that includes an annual celebration of Community Healing Days to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people everywhere.
In 2008, I was blessed to renew an acquaintance with Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher and to meet Janice M. Jones, and share our plans with them. Betty is a graduate of Tuskegee University, a senior mentoring consultant, and the presidential spouse at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and Janice is a human resources consultant in Montclair, New Jersey. Through their good offices, the idea began to spread — and people in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Montclair joined in the first annual celebration of Community Healing Days.
What are the primary goals of the network?
First, we want to raise the Black community’s awareness of the destructive, present-day effects of the myth of Black inferiority. Second, we want to share the resources of faith to help people in our community free themselves from the burden of this myth, once and for all. Third, we’ve got to create safe spaces for popular education, community dialogues, and story sharing workshops and trainings to help people work together toward healing and wholeness. And finally, we want to foster the development of a nationwide Community Healing Network, a diverse group of individuals, faith communities, and civic organizations working together to promote healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, so that our community can be renewed.
What kind of Community Healing Network events will be taking place this year?
Well, this weekend people in more than 15 cities will join in the celebration of the second annual Community Healing Days. We have chosen the third weekend of every October for the annual observance.
Also, we have a huge event planned for November. After hearing about our Community Healing Days last year, through our board member Janice Jones, Dr. Maya Angelou agreed to serve as chair of CHN’s Board of Advisors. Together with hip-hop artist Common and national radio personality Tom Joyner, Dr. Angelou will lead what we believe will be a groundbreaking intergenerational gathering on Saturday evening, Nov. 7, at the Riverside Church in New York City. The event will introduce CHN nationally, launch a global movement for intra-racial healing, and call the world to interracial reconciliation.
UrbanFaith is based in Chicago, where Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student, was literally beaten to death by other Black students. And, of course, Chicago isn’t the only place where youth violence is happening. What does this kind of incident say about the state of our communities?
It says that our communities, our people, are urgently in need of healing. Joseph Walker, Derrion Albert’s grandfather, told reporters, “I don’t know where all this anger comes from [in] these people today. That’s just too much anger for someone to have in their heart.”
Where does that kind of rage come from? At CHN, we believe that a lot of it comes from living in a world that devalues the lives of Black people. Too many of our children have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable and worthy as the lives of other people — and it is causing them to treat themselves and each other carelessly and violently.
How do you speak hope into disheartening situations like the Derrion Albert tragedy?
We can speak hope into seemingly hopeless situations by declaring that it is time to get to the root of what is ailing too many of us and our children. It is time for us to deepen our understanding of the impact of our history on our emotions. We need to come to terms with the fact that our past as a people has a powerful effect on our present. As psychologists Brenda Lane Richardson and Brenda Wade have put it, “our history didn’t just happen to a group of anonymous people. These people were our ancestors and, in many respects, they are part of us.”
So, you believe our African and African American ancestors’ legacy is having a direct effect on our situations today?
Many of the feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of our enslaved ancestors have been handed down to us — like family heirlooms. Much of what they passed on to us is good. Their legacy has enabled the Black community to make extraordinary strides in the 40-plus years since the official end of segregation. But many of the beliefs and attitudes we have inherited continue to hold us back. Even in the year 2009 it is not unusual for a Black person to let slip some statement about “good hair,” or a remark describing light skin far more favorably than dark skin, or some self-deprecating comment about what Black people cannot do intellectually. These and other negative beliefs will not disappear by themselves. We must be intentional about working to free ourselves — and our children –from them.
At this late hour, it’s probably too late for an all-out celebration, but how can people reading this interview participate in this year’s Community Healing Days?
Individuals and churches can visit our website at www.communityhealingnet.org, and click “How?” for ideas on celebrating Community Healing Days. Your celebration does not have to be elaborate.
For individuals, the key is to take the time to take care of themselves — by nourishing their bodies, minds, spirits — and relationships. Faith communities can celebrate by praying for emotional healing and renewal in the Black community, sponsoring special Scriptural studies on healing, and holding special healing services or musical programs. They can launch a community healing book club or movie club with a focus on one of the books or movies listed on our website. We also would be happy to consult with pastors, youth workers, and Christian leaders seeking further information. They can contact us at [email protected].
A growing number of people in communities across the country and the world (Panama, Togo, Burkina Faso, for example) are expressing interest in the celebration of Community Healing Days, and we expect many more communities will join the movement in 2010.
About Community Healing Days
Community Healing Days is an annual observance held on the third weekend of October [Oct. 16, 17, and 18 of this year] to celebrate healing for Black people and to focus on the work needed to overcome the myths keeping them from reaching their full potential. The celebration of Community Healing Days is about putting “time for healing” on our calendars. It is about doing the work of “seeing ourselves in a whole new light.” What began in 2008 as a call to Black people in the Greater New Haven community has led to celebrations in more than 15 communities in 2009.
“People can celebrate Community Healing Days wherever they are in the world. All they need to do is to acknowledge the need for healing — and start by engaging in simple acts of healing,” says Community Healing Network founder Enola Aird. She offers these suggestions for the observance of Community Healing Days:
• Pray for healing for you, your family, and your community.
• Focus on eating right and exercising.
• Pay close attention to your thoughts. Try to substitute a positive thought for each negative one.
• Make a commitment to say more encouraging words to those around you.
For more information and celebration ideas, visit the website for the Community Healing Network.