Every age needs visionaries and in the divine economy of the Kingdom of God we are given prophets on a regular basis. The challenge of the church is to be aware that these prophetic voices may not come from within the fold of the faithful nor be clad in the vestments of the ordained.
I am a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District. When I was a high school student in the late 70’s and early 80’s I would get up early in the morning and drive my old VW bus to swim practice. After parking, I would walk up the big stairs to go through the main entrance where a large mural of past notable alums such as Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, and Jazz artist and producer Quincy Jones would greet me. Garfield has been an important school in Seattle’s history – the site of annual May Day marches for the Socialist Worker’s Solidarity Movement, a student body that has struggled with racial and economic diversity through much of the past few decades, and a hot house for creative artists who turn up the questions of a generation so that those who are distracted have no option but to listen and learn. Hendrix did this and changed rock and roll forever. Bruce Lee redefined not only martial arts but the role that the Asian American artist has in moving from stereotypical roles in media to becoming a prophetic voice. Quincy Jones’ vision in producing Michael Jackson’s music, most notably the multi-platinum “Thriller” album, broke through musical genres that separated music and found a space where rock and R&B become transcendent. Every age needs visionaries and in the divine economy of the Kingdom of God we are given prophets on a regular basis. The challenge of the church is to be aware that these prophetic voices may not come from within the fold of the faithful nor be clad in the vestments of the ordained. As is the case with Garfield High School’s latest prophet – the Hip Hop artist Macklemore who attended Garfield as well as Nathan Hale High School in Seattle – sometimes the voice for the church comes straight from the thrift shop, wearing your granddad’s clothes, and challenging the idolatry of morality that excludes God’s children from community.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have had a number of big hits regionally here in the Pacific Northwest and have acquired a growing following in the Hip Hop community. Their slow release of a few singles and well-produced videos led to their debut full-length release The Heist on October 9th, 2012. The duo have been building a reputation for taking on challenging topics that sometimes get overlooked in the Hip Hop genre. Their earlier work was fairly standard fare – digging on women, running after cash – but with songs like “Wings” which takes on Nike and the dangerous consumerism of aggressive marketing to teens, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis found their prophetic voice.
“Wings” has Macklemore remembering his youth as being framed by the siren call of consumer identity formation – the drive to get Air Jordans so that he could be “Just Like Mike”. Backed by a child choir in the end which sonically binds the themes to the Church both musically and lyrically, Macklemore calls out to the listener to consider the ways youth will kill each other just for a pair of shoes so they can find meaning and belonging. Consider for a moment that issuing a prophetic indictment of a major potential sponsor such as Nike takes guts in a business like the music industry, where money matters in ways that artistry often does not, and you will have some respect for the direction this duo has taken.
Two years ago I had been working on a series of reflections on the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. As I worked through the various major and minor prophets, I saw a continued thematic, framed by three Hebrew words that summarize the prophetic call to action: to acknowledge the call to justice (mišpāṭ), to righteousness (ṣedāqâ), and a continued plea to turn (hāpak) away from sin and fully face the God who formed us, nurtured us, and has sustained us through times of exile and oppression as well as joy, and who will continue to do so for generations to come.
Yet as testimony to their craft and prophetic call, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have stepped up the call for justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ), and turning (hāpak) away from that which keeps us from the life we have been created for with their newest single and album.
While “Wings” is a great song, I believe “Same Love” is something of a heartbreaking, joyous masterpiece that will quite possibly do something great art has always done: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The song takes on the question of same-sex relationships and equal rights in ways that is both provocative and quietly graceful in both tone and content. Like “Wings”, Macklemore takes us from youth to adulthood as a sonic bildungsroman. A young boy questions whether he is gay – “When I was in the 3rd grade/I thought that I was gay/Cause I could draw, my uncle was/And I kept my room straight” – yet finds that he is straight. But as he realizes how much harm name-calling was for him as he was teased and tormented for being seen as effeminate for loving to draw – he realizes that he needs to speak out for the margins of society and especially those who live in hiding due to their orientation. In the wonderful video that accompanies the song, we have continued references to the church in both positive and negative ways. But what is perhaps most surprising is that Macklemore never leaves the church behind. As the discussions of human sexuality have polarized communities of faith, he remains in the church both sonically and visually by calling the church back to its prophetic witness:
When I was in church
They taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service
Those words aren’t anointed
And that Holy Water
That you soak in
Is then poisoned
When everyone else
Is more comfortable
Rather than fighting for humans
That have had their rights stolen
The video draws us to a celebration where confetti as a manifestation of Grace continually flutter down from the ceiling akin to pure white communion cards falling on everyone announcing that the sacraments are now open to all as Macklemore sings:
Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up.
St. Paul’s grand call to Christian virtue in his epistle to the church of Corinth is now bound up in this Hip Hop song that calls a generation to take seriously justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ), and offers a challenge to turn (hāpak) away from anything that prevents another human being from experiencing the grace and mercy God desires to rain down on all creation.
As the song fades out, Mary Lambert, who sings with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on “Same Love,” repeats the refrain from 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, Love is Kind,” over and over as an echoing mantra so that the last words we hear are not merely song, but scripture. In this Macklemore and Ryan Lewis truly take on the role of prophet. St. Paul’s grand call to Christian virtue in his epistle to the church of Corinth is now bound up in this Hip Hop song that calls a generation to take seriously justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ), and offers a challenge to turn (hāpak) away from anything that prevents another human being from experiencing the grace and mercy God desires to rain down on all creation.
What Macklemore and Ryan Lewis offer the church is a bold-faced reminder that the face of love will never, ever be turned away from those who have the Imago Dei burning within them.
As many states wrestle with the question of legalizing same-sex union, “Same Love” has been a timely reminder that while committed Christians will disagree as to whether what constitutes marriage can be aligned with the current legislation, the fact does remain that whether the people of God are called to ask “who is my neighbor?” is never an option. What Macklemore and Ryan Lewis offer the church is a bold-faced reminder that the face of love will never, ever be turned away from those who have the Imago Dei burning within them. As the Gospel of Mark boldly reminds us, the enemy of faithfulness is not ignorance as some would assume, but fear. It is the fear of change, the fear of a new thing happening in our midst that we don’t have control over, the fear of new voices, new communities to whom the future of faith has been given and entrusted that doesn’t include our way of singing, our way of thinking, our way of worship or even our way of delimiting what constitutes family, faith, hope and yes, love. It is this fear that is called into question by this former Garfield High School student in his thrift shop clothes and it is this call to love drawn from the very pages of holy Scripture in 1 Corinthians 13 that is now before us all as another generation of faith takes seriously justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ), and is offered a challenge to turn (hāpak) away from idolatry and face once again a living God for the sake of people living for the sake of love.
Without a deep, localized, passionate embrace of the people and place that constitutes the 24/7 lives of the people God has called us to serve, what is the point of ministry?
A deep theology of Love needs a new fresh articulation in our time in a similar way that Jurgen Moltmann renewed a generation’s call to find anew a theology of Hope. What artists like Macklemore are doing is what the early followers of God did: looked in the hedgerows and alleyways for those who want to come to the banqueting table and offer them a seat.
I don’t often tear up when listening to a song for the first time and rarely on repeated listens, but there is something so stirring in this simple, Gospel-tinged plea for another vision of humanity, of love, and of God that I continue to be challenged to pray, to rethink my witness in the world, and who I am inviting into my life as friend and who Jesus challenges me to consider as “neighbor”. As a model for ministry in the Pacific Northwest, I wish more pastors took a page from Macklemore’s prophetic artistry and were willing to take on critical issues germane to the people who walk the streets of our cities rather than speak of merely far off generalities with abstracted sermon analogies that could be delivered at any time and in any place. Without a deep, localized, passionate embrace of the people and place that constitutes the 24/7 lives of the people God has called us to serve, what is the point of ministry? In Washington state the question of same-sex union is a very real question with real people who have real names and the “same love” as many who sit in the pews of congregations up and down the I-5 corridor. Ministry that is incarnational has to be more than moral pronouncements of “this is what Scripture says” if it is to cut to the heart as those gathered in Jerusalem during Pentecost experienced in Acts 2. Remember that the people gathered at Pentecost experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit prior to their listening to the prophet Joel: what is happening in the streets is what will lead us to the Scriptures, not always the other way around as some exegetes might have us believe. A deep theology of Love needs a new fresh articulation in our time in a similar way that Jurgen Moltmann renewed a generation’s call to find anew a theology of Hope. What artists like Macklemore are doing is what the early followers of God did: looked in the hedgerows and alleyways for those who want to come to the banqueting table and offer them a seat. As the research in the Pacific Northwest shows us, millennials are seeking communities where the question of God and what it means to live out faith with prophetic passion are larger than the ‘build it and they shall come’ theology of the church growth movement. It means that what Macklemore is calling for – and millions of people who are his fans are agreeing with – is that there is a need for reconciliation, a lifting up of love beyond fear, and a desire of belonging that still turns to I Corinthians 13 as a road map as we hear in the ending strains of “Same Love”. If this isn’t what the Church is about, I don’t know what is.