Lecrae, Ferguson, and the Limits of Respectability
Religion & Liberty Online

Lecrae, Ferguson, and the Limits of Respectability

AnomalyWith Lecrae’s Anomaly album claiming number the one spot on Billboard’s Top 200, the rapper has come under fire for his recent comments about the inconsistency of those who rightly protest police abuse yet do not protest forms of rap music that glorify violence in general. The critique comes, in part, because some people believe that to call blacks living on the margins of society to moral virtue, in the midst of their protests about injustice, is “blaming the victim.” However, when we pay close attention to the Judeo-Christian tradition, what Lecrae’s comments represent is a model of a prophetic witness, a witness that speaks the whole truth to error and sin.

Lecrae is a highly skilled and creative rapper whose music has developed in recent years to contain the type of poetry that we might find in the wisdom (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and prophetic (Isaiah, Amos) literature of the Bible. Lane Whitaker over at Billboard.com reports Lecrae’s comments on the Mike Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri:

“Dear Hip Hop, we can’t scream ‘murder, misogyny, lawlessness’ in our music & then turn around and ask for equality & justice. . . ”

“I’m not saying that if you do rap about lawlessness, you’re not qualified to ask for justice,” he explains. “I think that’s how people took it. What I’m saying is, that kind of inconsistency, when the majority of your songs talk about killing people, and then you are screaming for justice, that inconsistency in people’s minds creates apathy and says, ”Why should I care about what you’re saying, because I just heard 10 songs about why you don’t respect the law, and now you want the law to work on your behalf?'”

Lecrae makes an incredibly insightful and truth-telling observation. If we are going to care about violence against black life then such protests need to also be reflected in art forms and never celebrated. What Lecrae is doing here is calling hip hop culture to pursue higher moral virtues in the midst of their protests. Many progressives tend to reduce calls to those on the margins of society to pursue higher moral values as “blaming the victim.” This is a variation on the theme of “respectability.” The “respectability” category is now being used by black feminists and progressive evangelicals to talk about Ferguson, Missouri. Paisley Jane Harris nicely explains the origins of respectability:

In Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first coined the term “politics of respectability” to describe the work of the Women’s Convention of the Black Baptist Church during the Progressive Era. She specifically referred to African American’s promotion of temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity. The politics of respectability entailed “reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform.” Respectability was part of “uplift politics,” and had two audiences: African Americans, who were encouraged to be respectable, and white people, who needed to be shown that African Americans could be respectable.

Respectability theorists might charge Lecrae with making the case that hip hop artists need to produce “respectable” music if they seek credibility in their protests against social injustice and police brutality, in particular. However, this charge would be misguided. Perhaps the Women’s Movement has been completely misunderstood. What if the call to moral virtue was not about being respectable to white people so much as it was simply the call to pursue a life of moral “uplift” and virtue because moral virtue is an intrinsic good that prevails in a universe that is ordered by a righteous Triune God. In other words, what if the call to “reform individual behavior” was the wise awareness that ultimately what leads to true human flourishing is the practice of ordering one’s life according to what God designed humans to be and to do, even if you are poor and oppressed. In fact, the Women’s Movement may have been calling blacks to shame oppressive and racist whites by living more consistently and virtuously in accordance with God’s design than many of those in positions of power.

Respectability as a tool of Christian social thought raises a helpful caution about blaming the victim. But respectability is ultimately inadequate for Christian social thinking because it does not call those on the margins to allow God to use their morally virtuous living to bring about social change. Many Christians employing respectability seem to have little to no interest in calling either residents of Ferguson or the hip hop community to pursue personal moral virtue in the midst of protesting a likely police injustice. For Lecrae, not to call the hip hop community to moral virtue would be surrendering to the bigotry of low expectations.

As a Christian, Lecrae gets the “both/and” nature of having a prophetic voice. What he does is not new. Lecrae simply applies prophetic principles outside of the church. In the Bible, the marginalized and oppressed Israelites were called to personal moral virtue (Jeremiah, Ezra, Amos) as their social circumstances were being protested. In the New Testament, Christians in the book of Hebrews, for example, were experiencing profound oppression yet they were called to personal moral virtue (esp., Hebrews 13). In the Christian tradition, Pope Pius VI in, Populorum Progressio (1967) calls on the poor to take personal responsibility to live as God intended. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae says that before the demands of morality the poor and the rich are equal. That is, the “poorest of the poor” are not excused from the expectation of moral virtue. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr simultaneously protests cultural degradation while calling people to deal with their anxiety-driven pride, regardless of social status. We get no such movement toward moral virtue in the midst of protest with respectability when it is used to make principled application to social issues outside of the church by Christians.

In the end, Lecrae and others, are among some of the best representatives of the church’s historic pattern of protesting injustice in and outside of the church by calling people to moral virtue not because of a desire to be acceptable to those in power but, rather, because the call to moral virtue is an intrinsic good that God has always used to properly direct, order, and sustain social change concurrently with needed structural change.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.