by Danielle Bernard | 18 June 2018 |
I stared at the screen of my phone in utter shock at what I had just seen. “Disturbed” is the only word that even comes close to articulating how I felt on that Sunday morning in early May after I watched American rapper Childish Gambino’s latest music video “This Is America.”
You might think to yourself, “Of course, rap music videos are misogynistic, and as a Christian woman, of course you were offended by the scantily clad women gyrating before their male purveyors.” But, what disturbed me about this video was not that. What disturbed me was the reality it communicated about American life and—dare I say—a near indictment of American Christianity.
So I watched it again. And again. And again.
The video takes place in a warehouse, opening with a single chair (like one you’d find in a church fellowship hall), and a guitarist. The camera zooms into the warehouse and there stands Childish Gambino, shirtless and in dress pants, with two simple gold chains around his neck.
The beat of the song overlays the acoustic guitar as he moves toward the man, now no longer playing the guitar, but sitting in the chair with a white sack covering his face. As Gambino moves behind the now faceless man, he pulls out a handgun and shoots him saying, “This is America.” Seeing a young, school-aged boy then come and cradle in red silk cloth the gun just used to kill a nameless and faceless black man disturbed me. Seeing that man dragged haphazardly away by two pre-teens disturbed me.
Gambino continues to dance into another part of the warehouse with five uniformed school children, flawlessly hitting some of the most popular dance moves. The children dash away and Gambino now is accompanied by an eight-person choir. Clad in their robes the choir echoes “You go tell somebody/Grandma told me/Get your money, Black man/Get your money.” This scene ends with Gambino being handed a rifle, spinning on his heels and shooting the choir members (a nod I’m sure to the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC). As these black bodies lie lifeless and uncared for, another child comes to reverently take away the rifle, cradled again in a red silk cloth.
Gambino continues to rap, the lyrics lighthearted and reflective of much popular rap today, interspersed with the striking line, “This is America.” The video ends with Gambino running in a darkened hallway, his face terrified as he is being chased by a mob. It was an eerie ending, to an overall disturbing video.
I’ve used the word “disturbing” several times to describe what happens in the foreground of this music video, but what is also of interest is what happens in the background. In between the senseless killings, the cutting edge dance moves, and Gambino’s minstrel-esque antics (which could be an article in itself), the background is full of money falling from the sky, kids dancing on cars, police raids, suicides, riots, children in masks, fires—and about two and half minutes into the video, a faceless rider dressed in black on a pale, white horse.
Yes, that’s right. A rider on a pale, white horse emerges. With a police car in its trail, this pale horse quickly dashes behind Gambino and the dancing children. It’s easy to miss. I missed it the first time I watched the video, but the second time the theologian in me recognized this horse as the fourth seal from Revelation 6:7-8 [ESV]:
“When I opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”
After the enthronement of Christ as described in Revelation 5, Revelation 6 provides a snapshot of life on Earth in the time “between the cross and the Second Coming,” or the time in which we are currently living. When the rider of the pale, white horse emerges, Death and Hades come with him. The culmination of the four horsemen ends with a world marked by war, famine, disease, and death. This world in Revelation 6 is terrifying, volatile, and I would say, disturbing.
Like the world of Revelation 6, Gambino shows us vignettes of American society that are terrifying, volatile and quite disturbing. His refrain, “This is America,” points to the context of black life in America. A land where guns are cherished over the bodies of other image bearers, a land where the government justifies the detainment of families seeking asylum and the separation of children from their families at our borders, a land where black lives don’t matter, and where immigrants are seen as disturbances to the “American dream,” a land where health crises (like mental health and drug addictions) are treated as crimes, and crimes by important people are treated as childish mistakes, a land where over 20 million families live in food deserts and the most many children eat is their lunch at school, somehow this is America.
This is Revelation 6. This is the result of the plagues of the horsemen. This is the world in which we live as Christians.
But, what does this mean? What is our responsibility in this time between the cross and the Second Coming? Do we even have one? I believe we do. Just because we know Christ will return does not mean we should abandon the kingdom work in this world.
- In an America touched by war, famine, disease, and death we should steadily work to create peace, fullness, health, and life.
- In an America where our government attempts to keep out and ostracize the “foreigner in our midst” we should be the ones to take them in and provide safety.
- In an America where black, brown and LGBTQ+ bodies are seen as less than and at times almost inhuman, we should be the ones to affirm the image of God in all.
- In an America where our churches sit in communities where children go to school hungry and there are more convenience stores than grocery stores, we should be the ones to provide healthy foods.
- In an America where our prison complex dehumanizes men and women and creates a cycle of incarceration, stripping image bearers of the ability to be restored into society, we should practice restorative justice and advocate for restorative techniques in our communities.
As Gambino portrays our society and says “This is America,” we should be of an alternative consciousness and say, “But this alternative way of living, this is the Kingdom. This is what we hope for.” In this time before the Second Coming, if we are not providing true hope, true restoration, and true life in the spaces we are in, then we fail to live effectively in this Revelation 6 time. Our eschatological hope should not stop at our congregations, but should fuel action and a sense of responsibility for the world we live in now.
While I live in this America, I want the spaces I influence to be touched by the Kingdom now while I wait for the not yet.
Danielle is currently studying at Andrews University where she is completing her dual masters degree in Divinity and Community and International Development (MDiv/MSCID). When she’s not studying, she can be found in reading in local coffee shops, cooking, or enjoying a good show on Netflix.