On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sparked a Reformation that forever split the Christian church to protest the abuse of power by leaders in the Catholic Church and to challenge heretical Christian doctrine and belief that had been popularized by 16th-century evangelists and vastly consumed by the masses.
As his namesake would later demand in a 20th-century speech, Luther called the Church to a “radical revolution of values.” He took a brave position, calling Christians to “question the fairness and justice of past and present policies” that had arisen from harmful Christian beliefs and practices. Moreover, he compelled the Church to look “uneasily” and “with righteous indignation” on “the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” as peddlers of the Christian gospel made exorbitant amounts of money by exploiting the suffering of the poor.
“Now more than ever the world needs a revolutionary Christianity.”
Today, more than 500 years after Luther’s revolutionary act, Christianity is split and splintered still. In the United States, this is no less apparent than with the recent release of Kanye West’s new gospel album, Jesus Is King.
Topping the charts in the weeks after its debut, the album has divided critics and Christians all around. Termed by some as “empty” and “trash,” the album was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “narrow” in scope, yet “filled with moments of undeniable brilliance.” Among Christians, the album has brought a mix of excitement and cynicism as questions surround a polarizing individual’s renewed claim to faith and his genuineness to further the Kingdom of God.
I am not interested in contributing to the public speculation and debate about the validity and honesty of Kanye’s renewed commitment to faith. There is already more than enough of that going around. However, when it comes to his new album and its reception, my thoughts turned to the prophet Amos:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them….
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:21-24, NIV)
The divide surrounding Kanye’s new album appears to capture the feeling in Amos that the music is drastically missing the mark. Likewise, begging the question for the Church and Christians: What good is our worship that does not reflect God’s demand for justice? What good is “gospel” music devoid of the gospel message that Jesus the King came to proclaim good news to the poor, liberation to the prisoners, provide free health care for the blind and emancipate the oppressed (Luke 4:17-18)?
What does Amos tell us should be our response when our worship does not reflect the ministry that we have been called to do? In a word: Reformation. When our worship causes us to lose sight of the practical, radical, revolutionary message and ministry of Jesus, then the Church needs a reformation of our theologies and our liturgies; and, if Kanye is an example, a reformation from “empty,” mainstream expressions of Christian faith profiting from indulgences of cheap grace, miscarriages of justice and deception paraded as sound devotion remixed over gospel beats.
In an interview while producing his latest album, Kanye discussed plans to construct low income housing with the intention to “break the barriers of class” and set him as a new, 21st-century face of real estate development. Could this desire to do justice by bridging the economic gap between the rich and the poor be the result of his public conversion and worship? There is no way to know for sure.
“What good is our worship that does not reflect God’s demand for justice?”
What I do know is that, as Martin Luther (the) King Jr. said at Riverside Church in New York City, “these are revolutionary times,” and now more than ever the world needs a revolutionary Christianity that supports the poor, believes Black Lives Matter, supports the autonomy of women’s bodies and the dignity of LGBTQ+ people and is divorced from the racism, materialism and militarism of white Protestant evangelical extremism.
Thus, my hope is that Kanye’s newfound and reinvigorated fan base will be inspired to do revolutionary justice that God vehemently demands.
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