As many people have written much better than I ever could, Beyoncé didn’t write her amazing new album LEMONADE for or about me. She wrote it for Black women. And for herself. And for the victims of racist police violence and their families, and the movement to end racist police violence.
She didn’t write it for me. I think of how the authors of the Hebrew Bible didn’t write it (the Hebrew Bible, not LEMONADE) for Christians, either, and how we Christians still read and appreciate it and (sometimes awkwardly) project Jesus into it. The Bible is a work of art and each person who reads it does so through a lens colored by their experience and their tradition and what they’ve been taught and what they want to see. Isaiah 7:14 wasn’t written to refer to Jesus, but sometimes we read it that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, it makes us happy. Ruth and Naomi probably weren’t really a couple, but sometimes I read it that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, it makes me happy. Beyoncé probably didn’t write LEMONADE in response to this podcast host‘s wish to remember her own birth, but she can sure feel that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, and it makes her happy. It’s great to find meaning in stories but it’s important to be aware and to be able to admit that we interpret through a lens, our perceptions are not reality, and we don’t have a monopoly on the truth of any story (though some people have a better claim on the truth, like how Beyoncé has a much better claim on the truth of LEMONADE than I do). Caveat: when the meaning you find in the Bible or LEMONADE or other great stories hurts other people, that’s not great.
LEMONADE is like the Bible. I hear it through the lens of my experience and I read particular messages into it.
The most striking message that I draw from LEMONADE is from a line in the middle of the third song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” After a first song that describes coming to the painful understanding that a partner has been unfaithful, and a second song of accusation and assertion, this is the song of subsequent rage. Beyoncé sings:
When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Try not to hurt yourself
When you play me, you play yourself
Don’t play yourself
When you lie to me, you lie to yourself
You only lying to yourself
When you love me, you love yourself—
Love God Herself
I think of two things. I think of this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.
And I think of one of my favorite scriptures, Matthew 25:34-40:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.’
The lyrics of Don’t Hurt Yourself tell a cheating husband how foolish he is for his actions, how his infidelity in the big picture hurts him just as much as it hurts his wife. All three of these quotes get at the idea of the connectedness between human beings and the connectedness of human beings to God. From the point of view of “the least of these,” Jesus’ lesson is “When you love me, you love yourself— love God Herself.” And if you read past verse 40 in the scripture, you see that it’s also true that when you hurt me, you hurt yourself— hurt God Herself.
My lens is colored by anticipation of General Conference, the quadrennial global meeting (this time in Portland, OR) of the United Methodist Church, where I will be volunteering for the next two weeks with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. When I hear “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” I think about the Church policies and cultures that blatantly hurt LGBTQ people and more perniciously hurt women, people of color, poor people, and other marginalized groups, as well as creation itself. I wonder if the Methodists promoting those policies and perpetuating those cultures realize that they are hurting themselves, hurting God Herself. I think about how many in the church have turned from seeking God’s justice and love in favor of idolizing individualism, security, purity culture, nationalism, white supremacy… Like Beyoncé’s cheating husband and scripture’s unfaithful Israel, does our Church not realize that its infidelity rots away at the souls of the oppressors as well as the oppressed? That the UMC is cheating on God Herself?
Over the course of the album, Beyoncé’s lyrics describe the painful but ultimately rewarding process of a relationship shattering and then being healed. In scriptures about unfaithful Israel, God never stops calling Her people back to faithfulness. At General Conference, the work of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition will be to attempt to call the Church back to right relationship with God and Her people, free of abuse, oppression, and discrimination.
How I long for the day that our message to the Church can move from “What are you doing, my love?” to “How I missed you, my love.”