I used to hate Christianity. I grew up Jewish, and on rides to the synagogue every week, my dad would rail against the Christians that massacred our ancestors. Mention of the pogroms—when Christians would ride out after Easter and slaughter Jews for sport—still sends a shudder through some old-timers. In my grade school in Ohio, a white girl named Cheyenne spun around in a hallway. “My daddy says your family is going to hell because you killed Jesus,” she told me.
When Kanye announced Jesus Is King, I scoffed a bit. My idea of Christianity was a derivative religion that used heaven and hell to control the masses, fused with European folk rituals—like the spring equinox and summer solstice festivals, which correspond to the dates of Easter and Christmas—to appeal to the pagan wretches of medieval Europe.
In the years preceding, I had drifted towards the study of the other great Abrahamic religion, Islam. Here in America, it was Muslims, not Christians, who shared my Jewish customs: we both abstain from pork, are commanded to pray multiple times a day toward the Middle East, hold traditionalist views, even call our God by a similar name—the Proto-Semitic appellation “Alah” is the linguistic root of both Elohim and Allah, the names of God in Judaism and Islam respectively.
I still listened to Jesus Is King when it dropped. I understand that Kanye is an imperfect messenger for any Godlike message. He’s been contradictory, confusing, and possibly even hypocritical—just like the rest of us. We all have Kanyes in our life. Mine is the Hispanic dude at the boxing gym who loves Trump and makes off-color jokes about me being Asian, or someone being Muslim, then gets in the ring with us and trains us for endless rounds and charges nothing for it. He’s volunteered his whole life to helping poor folks and people of color.
I know people with the “right” politics who are terrible people. I know people with the wrong politics who’ve devoted their lives to helping others. When Kanye effuses about giving jobs to Americans and performs for prisoners, when Kim uses their White House connection to free the wrongfully imprisoned, when Dame Dash vouches for Kanye’s character and loyalty—how can my soul “cancel” or condemn his?
Although I won’t join the mob marching towards the crucifixion, my trepidation about Christianity or Kanye aside, Jesus Is King deserved at least one listen. When the “Hallelujah” chorus on the second song, “Selah,” seared in, chills shot through my spine. These were holy words. An incantation with an imprint in ancestral memory, like humanity’s footprints on the moon. I felt open for the revelation.
In the second verse of the song, Kanye implored: “If you woke, then wake up / With Judas, kiss and make up.” Those were pretty radical things to say. Too often, “wokeness” is conflated with casting stones at others’ ignorance. Too often, forgiveness is forgotten in modern-day justice. Kanye forgave the plastic surgeon accused of killing his mother. Could I not forgive the anti-Semites? Some of my favorite authors, including Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Roald Dahl, were anti-Semitic. People oppose what they are ignorant of.
As the album went on, I replaced every mention of Jesus with “God,” just like how, when studying Islam, I replaced “Allah” with “God.” I could dig it. I can worship a metaphorical Jesus to avoid a metaphorical hell. Hell, of course, being real. Not as some fiery pit—I believe a compassionate God would never condemn any of His children to burn for all eternity—but right here on Earth. I know, because I’ve been in Hell before: when I’ve succumbed to addiction, when I’ve practiced wickedness, when I’ve followed my ego into an abyss.
These days, I think a lot about spiritual warfare. To me, spiritual warfare is the war against ourselves. It’s conquering our lower nature and working toward a higher purpose. For me, it’s mastering my emotions, appetite, sexual desire, ego, pride, selfish nature, and so forth. The greater Jihad, as Muslims call it. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why I try to connect to a higher power. That could be Jesus, or it could be God, Elohim, Allah, Rah, the universe, the sky, or your friends.
Since it dropped, Jesus Is King has been the soundtrack for my spiritual warfare. As I go about my day, its lyrics resurface in my head to remind me to do right. When I get impatient with my father, I remember “argue with my dad and he told me it ain’t Christlike.” When my neighbors invite me to their party, and I don’t want to go because I think they’re basic, I remember “love thy neighbor / thou shalt not divide.” I try to hold down my friends in prison, or those who just got out, because “to all my boys that’s locked up in the yard / you can still be anything you want to be.” When I struggle with addiction, I remember “every man, every woman / there is freedom from addiction.” Sure, I could learn the same messages by studying holy texts, but these are Kanye beats—they’re delicious and digestible.
After thirty front-to-back baptisms in Jesus in King, I feel like I understand Christianity more. At its best, it’s the “Love Everyone” message Kanye has been saying for years. That message is still radical today as it was two thousand years ago. We revere the historical figures who preached it, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., but criticize the people who say it today, like Kanye.
Judaism and Islam are more warring religions—our holy books are rife with examples of us slaughtering whole populations in the name of God. But the New Testament is all about peace. I recently learned the story of Jesus on the cross. As the crowd jeered and mocked him at his crucifixion, he looked up and said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” That’s the kind of love that can save humanity.
I know Kanye’s album is just an introduction to the gospel or gospel music. But after the last song on the project, “Jesus is Lord,” concludes, TIDAL has been autoplaying actual gospel for me. I’ve discovered a few artists I like—Travis Greene and William Murphy—and have been listening to them a lot. Just like Judaism commands us to pray three times a day or Islam five times a day, gospel music is a reminder to do right by God: to act always from a place of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.
Kanye is an imperfect person. Jesus Is King is an imperfect album. Christianity is an imperfect religion. But in their greatest moments, they can inspire us to do better. And you know what? I forgive the Christians, even for what they did to the Jews. Nowadays, I do my best to love everyone—Christians, Muslims, Jews; Abraham, Muhammad, Haile Selassie, Alexander Bedward, Marcus Garvey, and all the great prophets of yore. I, too, love Jesus Christ.