“The finality of death, which is the logic of all suffering, is itself contained in a more comprehensive finality of God himself.” — Howard Thurman
The fact of evil’s persistence is perhaps the most readily apparent truth in the world. A brief perusal of news headlines provide the picture: A terrorist truck attack, migrants fleeing robberies and starvation, a famous personality announcing cancer, and an imprisoned journalist. History is rife with holocausts, genocides, unjust wars, and conquests. Murder and injustice are as old as Genesis 4. Nearly as old is the question of God’s role when it comes to such instances of evil. The first book of Scripture written was Job, which is entirely devoted to understanding how God is involved in the suffering of the innocent.
Various versions of the “problem of evil” struggle to understand how a good God could allow history’s litany of atrocities, and many have attempted to answer the problem in defense of God. These attempts at justification are called theodicy, and according to Fleming Rutledge, among others, they all fail when scrutinized in light of the actual reality of horrific evil. Take any number of natural disasters, genocides, violent killing sprees, disease, or starvation and try to line up a proposed “good” alongside the evil. Any comparison is beyond human comprehension.
What can a Christian say in response to the problem of evil and questions of suffering, justice, and God’s goodness? As a young Christian in high school, I began to awaken to these questions concerning egregious evils, but at church, the answers seemed to circumvent the reality of the question. “Suffering” was the possibility of being made fun of for your faith at school. We weren’t talking about the egregious suffering people experience in some war torn land. Instead, I found sustained theological reflection on these questions I was struggling with in an unlikely source: hip-hop music. When I turned on Flobots’ “Stand Up,” they were rapping about both “a child with no socks and shoes” and “a freedom fighter bleeding on a cross for you.” I wondered what Jesus’ blood had to do with suffering.
While rap music has taken over the mainstream, stereotypes of rappers persist, particularly in white evangelical circles. They are violent, misogynistic, sexual, and worldly. They most certainly can’t be Christian when Christian is defined largely in terms of avoiding select behaviors and political affiliation. Thus, when rappers speak about God, they are often relegated to the realm of the unserious. Their faith is considered fake, or at least, misguided. However, even a cursory look at the history of hip-hop reveals ongoing interaction with religious themes and ideas. Hip-hop music has often struggled to reconcile faith in a God with the very apparent evil and suffering that lines its lyrics. While evil and suffering always seem distant to me, almost otherworldly, rappers engage it personally, intimately. When we approach hip-hop’s wide range of theological query on its terms, on its turf, we find something approaching the biblical witness of God and human suffering.
God, Can You Feel Me?
This summer was what would have been rapper Tupac Shakur’s 50th birthday. Tupac (stylized 2Pac) has only grown in legend in the 25 years since his death, beloved for his honest lyrics and his ability to intertwine his intellectual and revolutionary ideas into his street persona. This ambiguity came through in his lyrics, which were often laced with religious themes in what Michael Eric Dyson called a “thug theodicy.” However, 2Pac’s lyrics are not anything like a traditional theodicy. They make no attempt to give rational justification for the problem of evil. In fact, they provide very little in the way of answers at all. With more depth than most systematic theologies, they articulate the question itself.
On “So Many Years,” he raps: “And Lord knows I tried, been a witness to homicide / Seen drive-by’s takin’ lives, little kids die / Wonder why as I walk by.” Why is a common refrain in the face of evil. When one endures significant suffering, there’s no explanation that can make sense of it. In the hook, 2Pac sums up the problem clearly in a prayer devoid of request: “Lord, I suffered through the years / And shed so many tears / Lord, I lost so many peers / And shed so many tears.” More than an attempt to understand the metaphysical origins of evil, 2Pac is trying to make contact with God, to receive an acknowledgment of his suffering, and hear some kind of answer from him. In the middle of the first two verses, he breaks off his rising voice to ask quietly, “God, can you feel me?”
This year, another hip-hop legend suffered death. DMX’s divine struggle in life was even more intense as he more openly and frequently talks to God, including a prayer on every album. These prayers are heartfelt calls to God, clearly indebted to the Psalms. He ranges from worship and gratefulness to expressing pain and loneliness, and an overwhelming desire to follow God despite his shortcomings. On his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, he prays, “Lord, why is it I go through so much pain?” That question resonates through the entirety of his catalogue, all the way to his posthumous Exodus, where he wonders why God would send suffering his way on “Walking in the Rain”: “Found out the source of the pain, God-given / He left me with no shelter in the rain.” Here he comes close to traditional theodicy: Pain and suffering are meant to help us grow. “Everytime you go through something, there’s something to gain.” DMX, more than all the rappers we’ll look at, is hungry for God’s presence and believes everything should lead us closer to him. However, even in this, DMX’s faith is exactly that—he often cannot see how his current suffering can be redeemed. His “Lord, Give Me a Sign” is a request for answers when “the walk has been hard” and “I feel like I’m alone.” He asks God to “let me know what’s on your mind” because he cannot comprehend how what he knows to be true about God could align with the suffering he feels.
Death, suffering, and oppression are some of the most common themes in hip-hop. When this focus is combined with religious devotion, it mirrors biblical poetry. It’s not far from 2Pac and DMX to Job and David. David questions God in Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This question is repeated in various ways throughout hip-hop music, where the overwhelming presence of suffering and lack of opportunity are interwoven with questions and references to God, Jesus, and the possibility of escape.
Recent songs like Joyner Lucas’s “Devil’s Work” and Kendrick Lamar’s “FEAR.” struggle with the same issues. “Devil’s Work” is almost explicitly an imprecatory Psalm. The opening expresses the tension simply: “Dear Lord, I got questions and I need answers / Tryna understand your vision, all I see is damage / Just a bunch of dead bodies in the street camping.” While the name-calling imprecations of the central motif of the song make me uncomfortable, I feel a similar discomfort reading Psalms 58 and 59. The Psalmist and Joyner together cry out to the God of justice in an attempt to understand the injustice surrounding them. Regardless of what one thinks of the individuals Joyner lists throughout the song, the fundamental backwardness of righteous suffering and wicked prospering is derived directly from Scripture.
Kendrick has said that “FEAR.” is the most honest song he’s ever written. Before the first verse even starts, its three openings all confront God and suffering head-on. The first words are a sample declaring, “I don’t think I could find a way to make it on this earth,” setting up immediately the near impossibility of enduring the evil of the world at large. It then transitions to a voicemail from his cousin, a Black Hebrew Israelite, explaining the origin of suffering for Kendrick specifically and people of color in general — they are a “cursed people,” referencing Deuteronomy 28, and the curses laid upon the people of Israel for failing to follow the commands of God. The song then shifts to the third opening that repeats: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?” This refrain matches David’s “why have you forsaken me?” For Kendrick, like Joyner, 2Pac, DMX, and many other rappers, suffering is both personal and incoherent. Who can explain it? What matters is to be freed from it.
The first death I was aware of was my Pop — my mom’s Dad — who died when I was 16. What surprised me was how much he didn’t look like himself in the casket — like something from a wax museum. It somehow gave me the impression that maybe he wasn’t really dead, and I’d see him a few days later. The second death I encountered was Papaw. So many people spoke at his funeral; how interesting his life had been. How I wish I’d known more about him when he was alive.
In America, we try to distance ourselves from death as much as possible. It is the subject of numerous industries to stave off death, while funerals are fertile ground for deflective platitudes, such as being “in a better place.” Try as we might, we cannot escape death’s reach. It is the reminder that suffering comes for all. Theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman calls death the “logic of all suffering.” All suffering is a form of death. All death is suffering. While many try to cordon it off, sterilize it, dissect it intellectually and academically, it cannot be contained.
Hip-hop music has always understood this. It does not shy from death, but grapples with its meaning fearlessly. We began in 2Pac’s So Many Tears, the entire theme of which is the death of his friends. Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, considered by many a modern hip-hop classic, is a story centered on the death of Kendrick’s friend. Noname sings on the hook in “Casket Pretty”: “All of my n — s is casket pretty / ain’t no one safe in this happy city” and later laments: “too many babies in suits.” While death at the end of a long life might be relatively celebratory, these deaths — babies in suits — are an unmitigated evil. When Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin were killed, when children die around the world of preventable disease, when children and teens experience the “death” of family and get bounced around foster homes, evil is manifest. Suffering has a face. Suddenly questioning God’s plan seems the most reasonable course of action.
However, it’s unclear what kind of answer is sought. Those who try to provide answers, like Job’s counselors, often make matters worse. Evil is nonsense; death is absurd. Ecclesiastes is oriented around this absurdity. “Everything is meaningless,” because death comes for all. What does anything matter as long as the finality of death hangs over us all? While the book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t have much of an answer beyond “fear God,” it sets the stage for the possibility of hope in Jesus. The Preacher asks: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward?” Death is nothing but meaningless suffering, unless God — and only God — could imbue it with some kind of meaning.
The Death of God
It compels me that, at the apex of history, the death of God, Jesus was crucified alongside two criminals. That is, he was not alone, but literally suffered with the men beside him. Thurman explains that suffering endured begins in isolation. The impersonality of suffering, or its absurdity, separates the sufferer from others. However, Thurman continues, one of the consolations of suffering is the companionship found in the darkness, if one can find it. The suffering Christ, then, is the ultimate companion, and his presence is “the resource and the discipline that comes to their rescue under the siege of pain.” James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree makes this connection explicit in terms of the historic evils inflicted upon Black Americans, which is a major theme of hip-hop.
Rappers often allude to Jesus’ death in relation to suffering, especially Black suffering and police violence, such as Chance the Rapper’s “Jesus’ black life ain’t matter” or Killer Mike’s “Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.” One of the starkest examples comes, surprisingly, from Christian hip-hop, in Swoope’s knockout line: “Jesus died in the blackest way possible / with his hands up and his mama there watching him.” However, it is not solely related to policing and racism. Saba points out the nonsensical nature of his friend’s death by saying, “Jesus got killed for our sins / Walter got killed for a coat.” It is a wonder that the death of Jesus could continue to have such an effect. It betrays an underlying belief in the cosmic significance of Jesus’ death — significance translated into every seemingly insignificant death throughout history.
Jesus, God incarnate, knows what it is to be rejected, abandoned, unjustly arrested, and murdered. He is well-acquainted with the consequences of evil; He endured their logical conclusion. Isaiah 53 depicts this suffering Messiah in detail. Here is a sampling:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
This is a God who identifies with the sufferer, not emotionally or empathetically, but viscerally. The “meaning” to be found in suffering and death is simply the presence of Jesus in it. God, the meaning-maker, is with us even in death. DMX raps about the “darkest night” and finally comes to the conclusion: “All I have is God in me.” When God identifies with the sufferer, He brings divine meaning into the experience of pain. He is all we have.
Hope of Heaven
In Philippians 2, Paul recites an early Christian poem that traces the incarnation of Jesus down into humanity’s experience of suffering—but ultimately Jesus moves beyond that suffering through resurrection and exaltation. After identifying with our suffering, Jesus overwhelms it in the resurrection. The identification of God with humanity means that He understands our suffering, but also that Jesus brings us along to glory. There is a place of rest, of respite, of reprieve from the overwhelming awfulness of the earth. That’s why Kendrick includes the motif “what happens on earth stays on earth” throughout his album DAMN. He is looking for a place where he can leave behind fear, injustice, wickedness, and weakness.
Joey Bada$$’s “Babylon” is one of the clearest examples in hip-hop of this hope. In this song, “Babylon” is America and all the suffering it has inflicted on the Black community, from slavery to today, and Joey is trying to get out of it. In the chorus, he sings: “But lately I’ve been talking to God / He told me Heaven is a way better place / So I’m taking everything that I’ve got / And I’m running away, I’m running away.” The hope of Heaven is an obsession of the sufferer. In fact, Joey wants heaven so badly, he’s willing to “break off the hinges” if the gate is closed. It’s the only place that makes sense when surrounded by evil.
These rappers are in the lineage of old negro spirituals, the themes of which Howard Thurman explores in an essay on life and death. The old negro spirituals viewed “the true home of the spirit” to be “beyond the vicissitudes of life with God.” They speak of going home to freedom and wanting to live “yonder” in God’s mansions and a day soon when all the world’s troubles will be gone. While some have rejected these otherworldly songs, they misunderstand them on an important point — they are witness to the enduring hope that what is now will not always be. While the language of “leaving” fails to account for a theology new creation, Thurman’s negro spirituals and hip-hop have in common the biblical truth that the heavenly city will be radically different from this current world. Suffering, evil, and pain will all be left behind. What happens on earth stays on earth. The resurrection of Jesus is the hope that death is not the end of the story. That is not necessarily to say that a future place of peace makes the current suffering “worth it.” The reality of suffering has no explanation or origin that makes sense to the sufferer. What it does have is an expiration date.
In the end, when encountering the real suffering of the real world, perhaps it is more Christian to ask questions about suffering than to answer them. Job asked. David asked. God’s answer was not a philosophy, but a person. In the end, like DMX, all I have is God in me—the God of suffering and resurrection.