Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are right about God

The two artists rekindle this centuries-old conflict between a gracious God and a wrathful God.

Christian Schneider
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Chance the Rapper in Gulf Shores, Ala., on May 21, 2017.

None of us really enjoys feeling judged. Typically, if you're a person who frequently says things like, "Only God can judge me," other actual human beings have probably already judged you to be a nuisance.

Certainly, God's aggressiveness in judging the actions of members of his flock has been a theological question as long as humans have worshiped him. Many believe Christianity allows for both a graceful, forgiving God and the one who, speaking through Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, promises to execute vengeance upon evildoers.

But the conflict between gracious God and wrathful God — a debate that has taken place among religious scholars and philosophers for centuries — has suddenly been rekindled in modern hip-hop music made by America's two foremost artists.

As writer Miguelito at the website DJBooth noticed, recent albums by hip-hop titans Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper seem to be in direct contradiction with one another over the role God plays in shaping behavior.

While Chicago's Chance — an electric rubber band of optimism — uses his album Coloring Book to describe the suffering around him, he also praises God as the source of all of his blessings. Chance has been praised as a pioneer of "gospel rap," which explains why seeing him perform his exhortations about God's love in person is such a joyous experience.

Contrast that with Kendrick Lamar, whose recent album DAMN. portrays a God that imposes dire consequences for not following His teachings. Lamar's God is like the IRS — He's always watching, and punishment might be heading your way when He decides you need an audit.

"Our God is a loving God," Lamar told DJBooth in an email. "Yes. He's a merciful God. Yes. But he's even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God."

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"And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline," Lamar continues. "Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that's close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected."

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Not exactly a slogan one will find on a coffee mug at Target. But as Miguelito notes, Chance and Kendrick are "two sides of one coin, illustrating two separate but necessary ways for the religious believer to move through the world."

While that may be true, Lamar's conception of God is by far the more useful. Typically, people break down into three categories: those who don't believe in God, those who believe the Lord will punish you for your sins, and those who believe God is laid back, kind of like a divine camp counselor.

But what is the point in devoting your life to serving God if you just think His beliefs merely happen to track along with yours? Do you support the death penalty? Well, then God probably does, too. Think the Lord is cool with you abandoning your children? He probably wouldn't want you to feel bad about it! Do you secretly believe La La Land was better than Moonlight? Then so does God! (Just kidding — even a super chill God couldn't stand being lectured about jazz by Ryan Gosling.)

The main benefit of religious belief is to compel people to serve themselves and others. Worshiping a higher power is supposed to make you do things you normally wouldn't do. Without some sort of need to follow God's orders, you turn into one of those insufferable "spiritual but not religious" hippies that hopefully God is saving for lightning bolt practice.

The idea of a harsh, demanding God has a long tradition in American gospel music, particularly among the African-American Pentecostals of the early twentieth century — many of whom survived slavery.

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"Yes, He killed the rich and poor / And He's going to kill more / If you don't turn away from your shame," sings Elder David R. Curry and his congregation in the 1930 song Memphis Flu. God's vengeance is always lurking in songs like Reverend Sister Mary Nelson's Judgment, which counsels, "Well, all you hypocrite members / You wasting your time away / My God's calling for workmens / And you had better obey." As Matt Labash once wrote about Pentecostal hymns, "Holiness types didn't play around."

We have seen that when religious belief recedes, everyone else is left to pick up the pieces. In the early 1970s, nearly 70% of American adults were members of a church or synagogue; today that number has fallen to 55%. And when people stop practicing religion, government necessarily has to step in. Today, it is incumbent on public schools to feed kids and police officers to raise them. Less charitable church work for the disabled and poor causes more stress on public services. Even those who don't particularly care for religious people should be wishing we had more of them.

Of course, people can go too far in the name of religious extremism, and should be condemned when they do. But God isn't Donna from Parks and Recreation, constantly urging you to "Treat yo self."  And while He may be merciful and forgiving, that doesn't mean there won't be consequences for your actions. You're free to believe in God or not, but if you're just looking for someone to agree with your every decision, you're better off buying a cactus.

Christian Schneider is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where this piece was first published. Follow him on Twitter @Schneider_CM

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