Growing up, I developed a love for rap music. Yep. Many of you are shocked. I don’t fit the stereotype. I also used to be heavily involved in skateboarding. Some of my best memories include solo sessions on my board popping kick-flips to the rhythms of a smooth hip-hop track. It’s probably the closest I ever got to dancing with confidence – and that’s pretty good for a Mennonite boy.
Naturally, I gravitate towards the musical stylings of Lupe Fiasco. He skates. He raps. And… his message connects to many of the things I write and preach about on a regular basis such as: nationalism, war, drones, poverty, and injustice. Although I’m a white middle-class dude, Lupe’s prophetic voice for the black community resonates with me. I like to think that although we are different in several ways, that if we hung out, we would probably become good friends, conversation partners, and skate bros.
Lupe is not without his controversy considering he called Obama a terrorist (inspired by one of his favorite thinkers, Howard Zinn). Yet, if we think about it, wouldn’t any of us refer to any person who orders the killings of men, women, and children as a terrorist? Just check out my friend Ian Ebright’s work of exposing drones (here and here) and perhaps Lupe’s claim wasn’t as absurd as we might initially think.
One of my favorite Lupe Fiasco songs, “Unforgivable Youth” (feat. Jason Evigan) comes from his latest album: Food and Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album. I invite you to listen to the song below and to pay close attention to the lyrics:
The central claim of the song is that America’s past is unforgivable. Our past begins as settlers murdered Native peoples as though they were less than human. The first verse gives the first scene of this song’s story:
Now along the shore and so aware of their arriving.
Other children of this land prepare to share in their surviving.
A pageantry of feathers stands his majesty with treasure.
Now the material things that kings that could never last forever.
But secrets of the spirit world and how to live in harmony together.
Unbeknownst to him his head would be the first that they would sever.
And stuck up on a pike up along the beach.
Kept up as a warning to the rest to turn away from their beliefs.
And so began it here. And for 500 years.
Torture, Terror, Fear til they nearly disappear.
The genius of the lyrics speaks without commentary, but it may be helpful to unpack them a bit. When the settlers arrived in what would eventually be called the “Americas,” they had a choice: embrace native peoples or view them as an inferior race. The overwhelming majority of colonists “settled” (as if this land needed us) in North America bringing their guns, germs, and steel with them. Guns murdered. Germs spread. Steel built. Lupe Fiasco invites us to be self-critical as a nation in these rhymes, which reminds me of his oft quoted political mantra: “You should criticize power even if you agree with it.”
Lupe also invites us to imagine North America as it could have been – a place where Europeans chose to mutual edification – the sort of give-give that could have been beautiful. Rather, in the name of Christianity and progress, early American settlers inflicted “torture, terror, fear until they nearly disappear[ed].” What was “settling” for the early “Christian” colonists transcends any categories of “unsettling” for the first nations people of the past – and into the present.
As the song slides into the second verse, Lupe’s prophetic lyrical genius proceeds to expose the unforgivable youth of this nation:
Ways and means from mistreated human beings.
A slave labor force provides wealth to the machine.
And helps the new regime establish and expand.
Using manifest destiny to siphon off the land.
The “ways and means” of settling in this land was driven by myths about the biblical justification of slavery. The Bible, throughout its history, too often justified/s the agenda of the ones with power. Whenever the Christian religion leads to dehumanization we can be assured that nothing about it is genuinely Christian. The cries of colored people in the colonies reached the ears of God in the same way that the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt did. God liberates slaves and morns when people commits such evils. John Wesley called out the American church’s hypocrisy during the unjust war for independence in the following way:
Look into America… see that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there ‘no difference’ between him and his master? Yes; the one is screaming ‘Murder! Slavery!’ the other silently bleeds and dies! ‘But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery?’ Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruits of our labours: This is liberty. The Negro does not: This is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?
Although dissenting voices in the Americas, such as Roger Williams, spoke out at various times against the evils of slavery and the murder of Native peoples during America’s early youth, countless “Christian” culprits perpetuated such injustices. Regarding forced labor, colonizers captured our African sisters and brothers to create “a slave labor force [to] provide wealth to the machine.” What exactly was this “machine?” The answer is clear: manifest destiny.
Manifest destiny was the belief that God had given the land now called the United States to the settlers. Check out this sermon that justifies early American expansionism. The following is a quote from a sermon entitled Comforting the Soldiers, Preached by Puritan Preacher Cotton Mathers, in 1642:
We are the New Israel and the natives are the Canaanites, just as Jehovah commanded Israel to slaughter the Canaanites, so God is calling us, by Divine right, to take this land and to slaughter if necessary.
Speaking of trees, the “native caretakers” couldn’t understand how land could ever be “owned by another man.” In the active voice of the ancient peoples of the continent now called North America, Lupe says: “Warns one can not steal what was given as a gift. Is the sky owned by birds and the rivers owned by fish?” He then describes the tendency of American consumerism that finds its roots back in the days of Manifest Destiny:
But the lesson went unheeded, for the sake of what’s not needed.
You kill but do not eat it.
The excessive and elitists don’t repair it when they leave it.
The forests’s were cleared, the factories were built.
And your mistakes will be repeated by your future generation doomed to pay for your mistreatments.
Foolishness and flaws, greed and needs and disagreement. And you rushed to have the most, from the day you left your boats.
You’ll starve but never die. In a world of hungry ghosts.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve set the world up in a way that glorifies death. Whether we look at the way our lands here and abroad continue to be destroyed or how we care more about productive techniques than stewardship, the American Dream continues to leave us unsatisfied.
Unforgivable Actions Lead to an Undesired Future
Empires rise and fall. This is the rule of history. I believe exceptions are possible if American Exceptionalism (an extension of the philosophy of Manifest Destiny) is recanted by the United States. This probably will never be the case. The question for those of us who follow Jesus is: Will we be tied to the empire or will we bind ourselves to a King whose realm transcends borders?
Lupe imagines a future, perhaps hundreds of years from now (or more), when “archaeologists dig in the deserts of the east.” If that language is evoked today we might think of a dig in the Middle East somewhere. But, in this excavation project, a city is discovered with a “culture so advanced” evidenced by “the condition of the teeth.” Clearly, this mysterious culture was “a society at peace… not barbaric in the least.” Lupe continues:
They would doubt that there was any starvation at all.
That they pretty much had the poverty problem all solved.
From the sheer amount of paper, most likely used for trade.
Everything’s so organized. They had to be well behaved.
Assumed they had clean energy, but little to no enemies.
Certainly, a society as civilized and advanced would have to be peaceful and good caretakers of both the land and her people. Lupe’s prophetic lyrics pierce to the heart of the American way of life. It’s doubtful that he would say that all Americans are evil or set on the agendas he lists, but collectively our nation is guilty of injustice and war-mongering. All of this looks the opposite of the way of Jesus who called us to love our enemies and to give our allegiance only to him – our true King. But such is the way of nationalism. The song closes with what might be the most potent lyric of all:
Religion’s kinda complex. Kinda hard to figure out.
And this must be the temple.
This White. House.
The religion of the United States of America has never been Christianity. We don’t inhabit a Christian nation. The temple in D.C. might just need its metaphorical tables overturned by Christ. We shouldn’t be surprised that America usually fails to look like Jesus. All nations are ultimately under the control of the evil one with one exception – the Kingdom of God. Although Lupe wouldn’t extend his lyrics to this length (he may even call out Christianity as much of the problem), the song benefits us when it’s heard in this sort of radical, Jesus-focused tune.
What Lupe Fiasco can Teach the Church
So, what can Lupe Fiasco teach the church? He reminds us that the more we collude with the ways of the American empire, the more we perpetuate injustice. He calls us, no matter our philosophical or religious perspective, to expose evil and seek the greatest good. Our American youth is unforgivable, but perhaps the people who inhabit this land can subvert the systems of oppression to create a better future.
For those of us who follow Jesus, we have the opportunity to look different than many of our predecessors who claimed the label of Christianity. We can become an alternative to the systems of this world. The challenge is in how we discern the ways in which we opt into the system we find ourselves in and how we opt out. Even so, our way doesn’t have to play by the political polarities bequeathed to us. May our new “manifest destiny” be only that of reconciling, enemy loving, peacemaking, justice seeking, poverty alleviating, oppression liberating, feet washing, Jesus-looking love.
 For a fascinating look at this, check out either the Guns, Germs, and Steel documentary or the book.
 Quoted from: Gregory A. Boyd, Sermon: Poverty and Generational Sin [29:03ff] (Series: Compassion by Command), November 15, 2009. Sometime I will ask Greg for the original source.