Psalm 23: Living in a Gangster’s Paradise

This morning I woke up to a text from my ma that read: “Check out the protests in Hong Kong.” After reading the news, I sat down to read the lectionary for Sunday Oct 12 (because that’s the next time I preach), and saw that it includes Psalm 23.

I won’t be preaching on the psalm this time, however, considering it made me recall a sermon that I wrote while I was in seminary. It was called “Living in a Gangster’s Paradise.” So, I’m just going to leave it right here with some additional news links and images from Hong Kong:

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Hong Kong: Tear gas and clashes at democracy protest (click here). 

Psalm 23. A psalm of David. A psalm of promise. A psalm of praise!

To say that the 23rd Psalm is “beloved” or “well-known” is a bit of an understatement. The psalm has been set to music, to canvas, and to memory—ready to be recited upon request during prayer services, at hospital bedsides, funerals, and memorials.

Psalm 23 is not just popular among the pious pew-sitters, to be found only in dusty old hymnals, or in the lyrics of the next generation of Christian song-writers. Psalm 23 is equally popular among the popular—in songs you might actually hear on the radio or movies that aren’t released directly to DVD.

Some of you might recall songs by Duke Ellington from his album Black, Brown and Beige. Or perhaps something a bit more contemporary, Tupac Shakur, Dennis Brown, Megadeth, Pink Floyd, and yes, even Chicago’s own, Kanye West. From rap to reggae to metal to classic rock—psalm 23 certainly gets around. Even among the media, from radio to television, to movies that hit the big screen, psalm 23 seems to pervade. But what is the nature of the reference? How is the psalm being used?

In popular, mainstream media we do not typically find the psalm “as is” or largely unchanged. There is little presentation without re-presentation. In fact, to actually quote the psalm “as is” with some sense of authority seems to be the exception to the rule. Which is to say, when Psalm 23 is quoted, it is quoted and set in an entirely new setting, recontexualized—sometimes in an altered form—re-presented in remarkably atypical and surprising ways.

Some of you might recall the movie, Dangerous Minds. A movie that came out in the mid-90’s based on LouAnne Johnson’s autobiography, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. The movie featured Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, who took up a teaching position at Clarmont High School in Belmont, California, where most of her students were African-American and Latino teenagers from East Palo Alto, a then-unincorporated town at the opposite end of the school district. During the mid-80s and early 90s it was a city with an incredibly high crime rate. In fact in 1992, it had the highest homicide rate in the country.

The movie’s theme song, Gangster’s Paradise by Artis Leon Ivey, Jr. (better known by his stage name, Coolio) reflects this reality and starts with a line from the psalm,

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

I take a look at my life and realize there’s nuttin’ left

Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long that

Even my mama thinks that my mind is gone

But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it

Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of

You better watch how you talkin,’ and where you walkin’

Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk

I really hate to trip, but I gotta loc

As they croak I see myself in the pistol smoke, fool

I’m the kinda G the little homies wanna be like

On my knees in the night

Sayin’ prayers in the streetlight

I remember hearing this song on the radio while riding in the car with my mother. I don’t recall whether we made it through this first verse without her changing the station, however I do remember her not liking the song’s use of the 23rd psalm. “It’s too dark,” she said, “this song is too violent.”

Surely, my mothers concerns about lyrical content were not unfounded—I mean, I was only 9 or 10 at the time. However, something else seemed to bother her. It was the way the psalm was being used. It committed violence to the psalm she had known.

Traditionally, Psalm 23 is categorized as a psalm of trust, one that expresses a confidence in God’s care— The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The comparison of the care, which God extends over God’s people to that of a shepherd for his flock, is one that would naturally occur to those who were accustomed to pastoral life—to someone like David, perhaps.

Hong Kong: Tear gas and clashes at democracy protest
Hong Kong: Tear gas and clashes at democracy protest

David, in his old age would naturally recall the occupations of his early life; and the memory of the care of God over him would naturally recall the care, which he had, in earlier years, extended over his flocks. The idea, which the language suggests, is that of tender care; protection; particular attention to the young and the feeble, providing for their wants. All these things are found eminently in God in reference to God’s people.

I shall not want—this is the main idea in the psalm, and this idea is derived from the theological view of God as shepherd. That, as a shepherd, God would make all needful provision for God’s flock, demonstrating all proper care for it. The words shall not want, as applied to the psalmist, would include everything that could be a proper object of desire, whether temporal or spiritual; whether pertaining to the body or the soul; whether having reference to time or to eternity.

There is no reason for supposing that David limited this to his temporal necessities, or to the present life, but the idea manifestly is that God would provide all that was needed for ever—and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. However, when one hears psalm 23 quoted or alluded to in contemporary music and film, the psalm of trust is usually argued with, struggled against—presented as untrustworthy. There is suspicion of the trust that its writer so confidently offers.

A suspicion not unfounded, of course. The streets of East Palo Alto are a perfect example, where poverty, gentrification, and death often reside. These can make the experience of the powerful note of trust sounded in psalm 23 disorienting, disengaging, offensive even—where are my still waters?

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In situations or settings that belie the value of a faith in things being better or different than they really are, the psalm and its almost overwhelming trust are not readily accepted.

Look at the situation, they got me facin’

I can’t live a normal life, I was raised by the street

So I gotta be down with the hood team

Too much television watchin’ got me chasin’ dreams

I’m a educated fool with money on my mind

Got my ten in my hand and a gleam in my eye

I’m a loc’ed out gangsta, set-trippin’ banger

And my homies is down, so don’t arouse my anger, fool

Death ain’t nuthin’ but a heart beat away

I’m livin’ life do-or-die-a, what can I say?

I’m twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-fo’?

The way things is goin’ I dunno

In Coolio’s version, the psalm is met with distrust, skepticism even. And what’s more, this skepticism, sometimes outright disbelief, can express itself in anger or end up in despair. There is a disconnect from the givenness of the 23rd psalm—a gap in the memory of David and the reality of East Palo Alto.

In this way, our modern day psalmist can’t even begin to speak of green pastures and still waters! Instead, he finds himself in the valley.

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The serious problem of disconnection and tension—between the psalmists claim on its hearer to share in his song of praise and the listener’s distance from such a social location (let alone possibility)—may lead to a rejection of the original psalm’s promise. The promise, what Walter Brueggemann calls the “sacred canopy,” is rejected as in effect, a cover that is no cover, a guarantee that is void of surety.

The way things is goin I dunno.

So again, Coolio has rewritten the psalm. Unable to meld the context of the original psalm with his own, he has, instead, reshaped the language to name his own reality directly and unequivocally. His valley is not metaphorical—it is not someplace else or other; the valley of the shadow of death is actual; a real place with real problems and the real struggle of life and death.

Only the first portion of psalm 23’s verse 4 is quoted, leaving out one of the central theological claims, “for you are with me”. In this way, the confidence of protection and promise have been erased completely; only struggle and uncertainty remain. This aint no paradise! or is it? Our writer continues,

Power and the money, money and the power

Minute after minute, hour after hour

Everybody’s runnin’, but half of them ain’t lookin’

It’s goin’ on in the kitchen, but I don’t know what’s cookin’

They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me

If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me?

I guess they can’t — I guess they won’t

I guess they front; that’s why I know my life is outta luck, fool

The sacred canopy of money and power—in our society, money means spending power; a rich person can purchase a finer house, in a nicer neighborhood, in a “safer” part of town. They can afford protection. But who has the money and the power? And at who’s expense? Are we living in a gangster’s paradise?

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See, what at first glance seems self-reflective, a criticism of the violence and tragedy of the “gangsta” life, eventually begs the question, who are the real gangsters in this “paradise”? Is this self-criticism or social-commentary? A calling-out or a crying-out?

One theory about the origin and nature of the trust psalm is that it arises out of lament. As has often been observed, there is in every lament some element of trust and truth. In basic terms, the psalm of trust does two things:

First, it acknowledges that which is lamentable—it names reality and takes seriously the dangers that are very much a part of life: the valley of the shadow of death; the enemies that surround, even at the dinner table.

Second, such psalms express trust precisely in the face of reality. It is while at the table with those enemies that the psalmist trusts God to protect her. It is in the darkest reaches of death’s valley the psalmist maintains that God is with him. But where is God in our more modern psalm?

In almost every case where the psalm is taken seriously, contemporary films and songs wrestle with the interplay of lament and trust, the exhortation to confident faith in God’s promise and the argument of present day reality. In this way, Coolio has taken the psalm very seriously. And the way that he has used it is on point. He laments because he trusts. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s God that he trusts, but a system run by money and power—a system of institutionalized violence that will surely put him, and many others, into an early grave.

Death aint nuthin but a heart beat away.

Because the promise of David’s psalm does not fit Coolio’s reality, because it is an insufficient answer of insufficient comfort, it is met with violence, interrogation, and yes, with lament. This reference to and wrestling with this great psalm of trust is illustrative of, and in a sense committed to, the present realities of our world; realities that demand to be acknowledged, realities in which trust may not be the leading voice, realities in which the tension between trust and lament should tell us something about our own reality.

I believe we are living in a Gangster’s paradise. We have become much too comfortable in green pastures and beside still waters, while overlooking these valleys of death, waiting for them to restore themselves. Some of us use our unearned power to perpetuate systems of violence, using rod and staff against one another. What happened to goodness and mercy? Where did God’s anointing go?

We have lived so long in an unjust promise, dwelling in houses of money and power, while paths of righteousness have yet to be laid. We must begin again in the valley. Because truly truly…IF the Lord is my shepherd, I shall want.

Green pastures for everyone!

Still waters to share,

Restoration for every soul today—in this time.

Until then we must walk through the valley hand in hand, in the struggle together. Dis-assembling rod and staff. See, this is how we prepare a table without enemies. With Gods anointing and shared abundance. A place where goodness and mercy must precede our indwelling. Because until then, I believe there is no House of the Lord. Not now, not ever. Only valley.

Real T,

alli

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