Jesus Walks? The Theology of Kanye West in Light of Scripture
I made “Jesus Walks” so [I’m] never going to hell. –Kanye West, “Otis”
Nothing says “fresh” like analyzing a subject of pop culture seven years after its release. But unfortunately, I didn’t have a blog seven years ago, and since Kanye West delivered the line above in a song from his new collaboration album with Jay-Z, I’m taking this as an opportunity to discuss the theology of “Jesus Walks.”
At the time of its release, the song was a bit controversial. Kanye expected as much (as we’ll see shortly when we dive into the lyrics), but perhaps not for the reasons he anticipated. Many conservative Christians were offended by the song (especially when seen in the context of his entire The College Dropout album), and even more so by the article that appeared subsequently in Rolling Stone.
Kanye identifies himself as Roman Catholic, occasionally making reference to this fact in his music. Twinges of the Catholic influence emerge in “Jesus Walks,” but I’m not sure the Catholic Church would endorse the song or it’s message.
The song begins with an introduction in which Kanye declares, “We at war with terrorism, racism, and most of all we at war with ourselves.” As the song unfolds, it would appear that the war we’re at “with ourselves” is a struggle with the sins, the lifestyles, the decisions we make that we realize are wrong. The introduction concludes with a refrain that he repeats throughout the song: “God show me the way because the devil’s trying to break me down.”
The first verse of the song picks up on the theme of being “at war with ourselves.” It’s in this verse that he describes some scenes out of the lives of a few of the sinners he’ll later list in the second verse. He describes the actions of thieves (“restless n****s might snatch your necklace, and next these n****s might jack your Lexus”) and drug dealers (“we ain’t going nowhere but got suits and cases / a truck full of coke, rental car from Avis”).
When he gets to the chorus he gives voice to the desperation of the sinner: “And I don’t think there’s nothing I can do now to right my wrongs / I wanna talk to God, but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” It is here that we would hope to see the sinner cry out to God in repentance, to echo the words of the tax collector in Luke 18 and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v.13).
Unfortunately that’s not what we see in the second verse. This verse is where we see most clearly what Kanye believes about God and how we relate to him, so let’s break it down Fire Joe Morgan style (warning for those who click on the link: some of the language may be offensive, and its inclusion does not represent a full-scale endorsement from me or any of the contributors to this blog):
To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers
(Jesus walks with them)
In what sense does Kanye mean that Jesus walks with hustlers, killers, et. al.? Christians often describe their Christian experience as their “spiritual walk.” Enoch (Genesis 5:22, 24) and Noah (Genesis 6:9) were said to have “walked with God.” In both of these cases, walking with God means they were in close fellowship with and were obedient to their Lord. I don’t think that can be said of those whose lives are characterized by murdering, drug dealing, or stripping. Certainly, before we come to Christ, many of our lives could be described as such. Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. After chronicling a laundry list of the sins of those who “will not inherit the Kingdom of God,” he states, “And such were some of you” (emphasis mine). The point in time when one could rightly be described as a “drunkard,” a “thieve,” or an “adulterer” was before that person came to Christ. But is that what Kanye has in view here? I’m not convinced.
To the victims of Welfare, for we living in hell here, hell yeah
(Jesus walks with them)
I’m not sure who the “victims” are that he has in mind. Is it the taxpayers who are supporting the welfare system? Doubtful. Perhaps it’s the people who were denied benefits that he believes should have received them. Regardless, this isn’t central to his theology.
Now hear ye, hear ye, want to see Thee more clearly
I know he hear me when my feet get weary
In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This is probably what Kanye has in mind, and if the weariness being felt is over the burden of sin, and this causes the sinner to cry out to God for forgiveness, then once again we have reason to rejoice. But if these weary cries are not those of a repentant sinner, in what sense will God “hear” him? Proverbs 28:9 states, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” As we’ll see shortly, I don’t think the sinners described in this song (murders, drug-dealers, etc.) are those who have trusted in Christ for salvationas.
I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers,
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis,
That’s the way I need Jesus
Very true. One is hopeless without the other.
So here go my single, dog–radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything, except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played—Huh?
This is the controversy Kanye imaged would accompany the release of this song. He must’ve been releaved when it became a Grammy-winning hit.
Well if this take away from my spins
(Meaning airplay. I apologize if I sound condescending to those versed in hip-hop language, but my Mom will probably read this.)
Which will probably take away from my ends
(Money received from record sales, royalties, etc.)
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I’m dreaming about
Next time I’m in the club everybody screaming out
The final verse concludes with the crux of his theology. To summarize, Kanye says that if this song he’s written causes him to lose out on airplay, and consequently, money, then he hopes it will take away from his sins. In other words, perhaps his financial sacrifice will help tilt the balances of some divine scale in his favor.
However, Scripture is clear that God’s favor and salvation are not earned by any good works that we do (even if we assume for the moment that this song is one such good work). Titus 3:5,7 states that God saved us “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Further, in Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul proclaims, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” A host of other passages can be used to support the point: God’s favor is not earned. Our good works cannot be used to offset our bad.
The message in “Jesus Walks” seems to be, as far as I can tell, that one’s lifestyle of sin can be overlooked by God in the grand scheme of things if one simply acknowledges that sin and acknowledges God. Unfortunately, Kanye, that’s not the message of the Bible. Having made “Jesus Walks” will not keep you from going to hell. Only being covered by the blood of Christ when we repent and trust in him can do that.