Searching for the Promised Land

MLK, Tupac, Dave Chappelle, and the Gospel

Jason Thompson / 6.7.21

After more than 25 years, Tupac’s seminal album, Me Against the World, remains relevant as a prophetic tale consisting of prayers for help and deliverance, biting social commentary, and Tupac’s internal battle with the knowledge of imminent death. The opening track, “If I Die 2Nite,” articulates the despair inherent in the late rapper’s lyrics, resounding with a genuine cry for salvation:

I’m sick of psychotic society, somebody save me
Addicted to drama, so even Mama couldn’t raise me
Even the preacher and all my teachers couldn’t reach me.

As he continues, the lament-like aspect of his prayer intensifies,

Pray to the heavens, .357’s to the sky
And I hope I’m forgiven for thug living when I die
I wonder if heaven got a ghetto for thug n*ggas
A stress free life and a spot for drug dealers
Going insane, never die, live eternal, who shall I fear?
Don’t shed a tear for me, n*gga, I ain’t happy here
I hope they bury me and send me to my rest

Sitting on the precipice of death, Tupac reminds me of another visionary, namely Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his famed Mountaintop speech with the knowledge that he might soon be killed. Despite this, he was optimistic that “we as a people will make it to the Promised Land.” Years ago, when a friend suggested, “You know Tupac is our modern day MLK, right?” I immediately dismissed his assessment as absurd and invalid. Yet in light of the events that have transpired within the last year, I can’t help seeing the consonance between what Pac prophesied in the mid ’90s and what King was writing and saying in the ’60s — including such works as “The Showdown for Nonviolence,” “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness,” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” all of which can be found in the classic tome, A Testament of Hope.

Both men were voices for the voiceless, both were deemed controversial figures in their respective eras, both were murdered young — and both believed in the persuasive power of protest: King through nonviolent direct action, Pac through music — a tradition that isn’t new to the historic African American tradition of employing artistic expression as a pulpit for expounding on societal inequities and calling for social change. 

Implicit in the track “Lord Knows is a gospel-tinged exposition of police brutality and inner-city violence in which Pac presciently utters the line, “I can’t breathe,” in reference to the suffocating realities of life in the ghetto while simultaneously foreshadowing the provocative issues that have recently been brought to the forefront of our national consciousness:

I wonder if the Lord will forgive me or bury me a G
I couldn’t let my adversaries worry me
And every single day it’s a test, wear a bulletproof vest
And still a n*gga stressin’ over death
My memories bring me misery, and life is hard
In the ghetto, it’s insanity, I can’t breathe

The same year Dr. King delivered his best-known speech, James Baldwin published an essay, The Fire Next Time, in which he warned that we would perish as a nation if we didn’t choose love as the way forward. In response to the turmoil surrounding race relations immediately following the death of George Floyd, Dave Chappelle performed a somber yet comedic set. He closed out his Netflix special 8:46 by echoing Baldwin’s sentiment and warning that failure to listen to the voices of those who have long felt ignored could result in our undoing as a society. Dr. King, perhaps not incidentally, said something similar, 

There is an Old Testament prophecy of the “sins of the Fathers being visited upon the third and fourth generations.” Nothing could be more applicable to our situation. America is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of its black population. Now, almost a century removed from slavery, we find the heritage of oppression and racism erupting in our cities, with volcanic lave of bitterness and frustration pouring down our avenues. 

Black Americans have been patient people, and perhaps they could continue patient with but a modicum of hope; but everywhere, “time is winding up,” in the words of one of our spirituals, “corruption in the land, people take your stand; time is winding up.” In spite of years of national progress, the plight of the poor is worsening. […]

White America has allowed itself to be indifferent to race prejudice and economic denial. It has treated them as superficial blemishes, but now awakes to the horrifying reality of a potentially fatal disease. The urban outbreaks are “a firebell in the night,” clamorously warning that the seams of of our entire social order are weakening under strains of neglect. 

The American people are infected with racism — that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals — that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right. But they do not have a millennium to make changes. Nor have they a choice in continuing in the old way. The future they are asked to inaugurate is not so unpalatable that it justifies the evil that beset the nation. To end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play and creativity — all these are worthy of the American ideal. 

We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience. 

While King bore empathy for those who felt compelled to riot as their only recourse for being heard, he ultimately condemned the approach of violence on the grounds that it is ‘morally repugnant…and practically barren’. Furthermore, he contended,

Occasionally Negroes contend that the 1965 Watts Riot and the other riots in various cities represented effective civil rights action. But those who express this view always end up with stumbling words when asked what concrete gains have been won as a result. At best, the riots have produced a little additional antipoverty money allotted by frightened government officials, and a few water sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations. When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerilla warfare … Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and finally the army to call on – all of which are predominately white…What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don’t solve, answers that don’t answer and explanations that don’t explain.

King instead urged that nonviolence could end up being “the instrument of our national salvation,” as Chappelle also intimated in his SNL appearance, in which he offered solace and expressed compassion for an entire swath of the populace who for the first time were being forced to reckon with the realities of discrimination that the African American community has collectively experienced and endured since America’s inception. In a gesture recalling the grace Civil Rights veteran Ruby Sales extended to Whites (just prior to the Charlottesville incident) who felt their cultural identity was being threatened, Chappelle called on all Americans to find a way to forgive each other in a set that represented a return to true form for SNL à la their first few seasons, when the humor relied less on innuendos than it did on delivering social commentary with subtlety and nuance. 

Listening to prophetic voices from the past makes me realize that while the world hasn’t changed much, the grace of God is still saving the world. St. Paul, writing to the church at Colossae, speaks of the gospel as a word that is redeeming the entire cosmos and bearing fruit therein (cf. Col 1:6). We see implications of this in King’s final presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in which he profoundly considered, ‘where do we go from here?’,

I am concerned about a better world. I am concerned about justice. I am concerned about brotherhood. I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence, you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that. 

To further emphasize his point, MLK aptly invokes St. John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, 

If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit — One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying. He didn’t say, Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that. He didn’t say, Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery. He didn’t say, Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively. He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic — that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, Nicodemus, you must be born again.

He said, in other words, Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them — make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, America, you must be born again!

Yet what such a national revival entails for King doesn’t necessarily concern adopting the right political strategy, implementing the right policies, or even electing the right officials. Rather, King appeals to a higher, transcendent point of reference. Wrapping up his conclusion, he affirms that in asking the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’, we must simultaneously challenge the existing societal structure…namely, our economic system. While King sees some merit in the diametrically opposed ideals of capitalism and communism, he sees sufficiency in neither to bring about a more just and equitable world.

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised…I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism … What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

While many have accused King of communist sympathies, liberal theology, and Marxist ideology, what I see in his appeal to a “higher synthesis combining the truths of both” is ultimately embodied in the person of Jesus, whom St. John declared was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:16). Dr. King’s words are as relevant today as they were when he uttered them in their initial context.

Speaking in a manner that remains contemporary, yet timeless, Martin Luther King’s rhetoric articulated the despair of suffering people across generations while retaining the ability to allude to a hope beyond what the systems and kingdoms of this world can procure. In fact, what King, Tupac, and Chappelle point towards is the transformative power of divine grace reverberating across the generations, the ripples of waves produced by the wind. The problems they see are like immovable cliff sides on the shore, formed over centuries (if not millennia). Yet the wind still blows and the waves still crash against the jagged bluffs. And the persistent work of God will one day raise every valley and make low every mountain.