(RNS) — Well, the new Kanye album “Jesus Is King” is all the buzz. It’s expected to sell 65,000 to 85,000 copies this week alone, and a quarter of a million by next week. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about it, even the people who are writing about why they don’t have an opinion about it. Kanye is a talented artist and a complicated one — touring with the Confederate flag, wearing a MAGA hat in his meeting with President Donald Trump and saying things like “slavery was a choice.”
But recently he announced that he has had a spiritual epiphany, a born-again conversion that is changing everything … or at least his lyrics.
In the spirit of repentance, I want to say that I am not going to be quick to judge Kanye or his wife, Kim Kardashian, or call their bluff on this religious conversion. I want to hold out the hope that the Holy Ghost really is moving.
Here’s why: Kim recently used her voice and platform to try to stop the executions of two people I care about, Rodney Reed and Julius Jones, both of whom I believe are innocent of the crimes for which they are facing execution.
Secondly, Kanye donated $1 million as a birthday gift for Kim to a bunch of groups doing a lot of good when it comes to criminal justice reform, including to the incredible people at the Equal Justice Initiative. To that I say, as my Pentecostal friends often put it, “More, Lord, more.”
Kanye’s income was about $150 million in 2019, according to Business Insider, so even the low-bar of a traditional tithe (and not counting Kim’s income) would be $15 million a year. Forbes magazine, meanwhile, says that Kanye’s net worth is around $250 million. So one does have to wonder how his new discipleship of Christ will affect his bank account. Is Jesus king of Kanye’s finances?
The same Jesus who said we need to be “born again” also commanded his disciples to “sell everything and give it to the poor.” This is the one who said it is easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
In the radical economics of the early Christian church, it was said that God doesn’t look at how much you give, but how much you have left. They went so far as to say that if a Christian keeps more than they need while their neighbor has less than they need, the Christian is a thief. If we have two coats, we’ve stolen one. Or as the apostle James put it in the New Testament, “True religion is caring for the widow and the orphan and keeping ourselves from being corrupted by the world.”
When asked by Jimmy Kimmel if he is a “Christian musician,” Kanye replied, “I’m a Christian … everything.” I’ve always thought the word Christian makes a bad adjective, so I like that answer. But Kanye went on to say that since his recent conversion, “We’re in complete service to God, and the business is thriving.” In fact, he even put it like this: “God is using me, and using the choir, using my family to show off.”
Wait … Did Kanye just grab the mic from Jesus?
I confess, I think a lot of “Christian music” is not all that good and is sometimes a poor imitation of its secular counterpart (with a few exceptions: I’m looking at you, Rend Collective). There are plenty of artists like Bono from U2 and Chance the Rapper who are Christians but not “Christian musicians.” You can see how their faith influences their art, but also how their faith influences what they do with their money and their power.
One of my favorite musicians, the late Rich Mullins, once noted that Christian artists often say, “God gave me this song.” Rich went on, saying with a laugh, “And then you listen to it, and you know why God gave it away.”
Mullins was a little dumbfounded by the Christian industrial complex, even though it helped him pay the bills. As his popular ’80s worship songs, such as “Awesome God,” generated millions of dollars, he began to make some courageous decisions. He lived on a Native reservation and capped his annual take at the average wage of those he lived among, about $20,000 a year. He gave the rest away.
Beyond the money, Mullins used his platform to advocate for LGBTQ folks before we even knew what those letters meant, and he used his voice to advocate for those whom Jesus called the “least of these.”
I don’t expect Kanye to move to a Native reservation to live off of $20,000 a year. Kanye and Mullins, who was white, have very different social identities and uniquely complex spheres of influence.
I do hope, however, that with rebirth comes repentance — which means rethinking how we live. It would be a beautiful thing if Kanye’s religious conversion also led to a political conversion, especially when it comes to his public embrace of Trump.
When the early Christians declared “Jesus is king,” they were also declaring that “Caesar is not.” You can hardly find a more outright contradiction of the values of Jesus than the lifestyle and policies of Trump, who turns the Beatitudes of Jesus on their head and regularly contradicts nearly every verse of the Sermon on the Mount. The “gospel” of Trump is very different from the Gospel of Jesus.
Whether or not you like Kanye’s album, there is something more important than the quality of the lyrics and whether we like the Chick-fil-A plug. What will have lasting significance is what he does with the money and the influence that goes with it.
Let us not forget, there was a wealthy man named Zacchaeus who had a transformative encounter with Jesus. The evidence was that he immediately gave half of everything he owned to the poor, then flipped the whole unjust system on its head. His conversion was so radical Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this whole household.”
What’s just as important as the lyrical content of Kanye’s album is what he does in the wake of it. The question isn’t simply: Do you like “Jesus Is King”? The real question is: Who is liberated from poverty and oppression because Jesus is king?
The Gospel of Jesus is always good news to the poor. In the end, according to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, all of us will judged by how we treat the “least of these.” The final test of our faith is how it affects the most vulnerable people in our society. Not just Kanye, but also me and you.
I am hopeful. It would be a beautiful thing to see Kanye become a prophet of resistance rather than a profiteer of the Christian market.
For now, when people ask me what I think about Kanye’s new album and recent conversion, my answer will be, “Ask me in a year.” A tree is known by its fruit. And some trees take a little time to grow before you see the fruit.
(Shane Claiborne is the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)