In the mind of Kanye West, enslavement for 400 years means choice. According to Bishop Carlton Pearson (the man portrayed in the recent Netflix film Come Sunday) and Pastor Greg Stamper of Celebration Spiritual Center in Brooklyn—Hell is not real. In a time of enlightenment or what astrologers call the New Age of Aquarius, there appears to be a rise of refurbished ideas that are surfacing into the mainstream, forcing us to question our systems of politics and religion as well as our place in the world.
New Thought, a practice with roots in Christianity and scientific thinking, teaches about universal principles that include a variety of spiritual paths and religions. Traditionally, a free thinker is a person who forms opinions away from tradition usually in regards to religion.
Come Sunday portrayed the life of the once Pentecostal—now New Thought preacher—Bishop Carlton Pearson. Pearson, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a renowned preacher in Oklahoma, who after the genocide in Rwanda had the revelation that hell was not real. He would make the announcement during a sermon that would eventually cost him his reputation, his followers and his church. The idea of hell being a false concept wasn’t new when Pearson declared it in the ‘90s. The idea of God having human characteristics such as anger, which could result in the casting of disease and misfortune, had been challenged previously. However, for a black man like Pearson who had so much orthodox influence, promoting such a concept was groundbreaking.
“Carlton Pearson certainly was among the handful of significant influencers. Between the relationship he had to television ministry to his annual conference, he gained a national following,” says Columbia University professor Josef Sorett, who teaches religion and African American studies. “The fact that he departed from orthodox teaching publicly was major. But they weren’t exactly new ideas. These ideas go back to the 19th century,” says Sorett.
Pearson was not only a dynamic preacher, but he held a powerful status being the only black senior pastor in charge of a multiracial ministry. This was a monumental image in the 1990s because before Pearson, multiracial churches were predominantly under white leadership.
Today, Pearson is now among those who preach the doctrine of New Thought, which teaches its followers how to use their minds to create their own realities. Unlike traditional Christian doctrine, the concept of heaven and hell are states of mind rather than a place one goes following death. There is also an acceptance of diverse denominations and beliefs, which doesn’t follow the traditional Christian order.
“I’m not exclusively Christian or any other religion, but I embrace all,” says interfaith minister Pastor Greg Stamper. “Wherever truth can be found, wherever spiritual wisdom can be found, I embrace it.”
There is so much historically about Kanye’s observation that is wrong, but at the same time, so much of what Kanye said is not a surprise both in terms of who Kanye is and the history of New Thought teaching.
“When I was attending New York Theological Seminary and being introduced to these ideas, a bunch of what I had thought about the Bible or the way I was taught to interpret the Bible was inaccurate. I couldn’t ‘unsee’ what I was now seeing, I couldn’t ‘unknow’ what I was now knowing. I remember sitting down with the Bible in my lap with tears in my eyes because I was fearful. I didn’t know what this would mean,” says Stamper.
The anxiety of being woke to a new reality is par for the course at a time when many are reconsidering their views of the world and where their faith aligns. Issues of spirituality as well as political alignment go hand in hand when looking at the philosophies and theologies that had the power to shape or colonize communities, such as the black community.
“What is the relationship of these ideas to the material conditions of the African American?” says Sorett. “If we embrace a new set of ideas, which is what Kanye is saying—as wrong as his reading of history is—and is what Bishop Carlton is partly saying, we might experience a new material reality.”
The past three weeks have been busy for Kanye in the media. In April, he made his return to Twitter where he announced his love for Donald Trump. He then took a picture wearing a MAGA hat. On April 27, he and rapper T.I. released the soundtrack “Ye vs. The People.” Then the comment heard ‘round the internet occurred soon after. He went on TMZ where he stated that for slavery to have continued for 400 years, it was a choice. He then promoted his stance for free thinking when he proceeded to ask the newsroom if they perceived him as thinking free. TMZ employee Van Lathan warned him of the danger of his words, calling his thought process an absence of thought. Kanye would later explain his reasoning via Twitter stating that his remark wasn’t about slaves literally preferring slavery but that the mentality of slavery remained present in our current society.
“There is so much historically about Kanye’s observation that is wrong. Kanye saying slavery was a choice in that regard is highly inaccurate, but at the same time, so much of what Kanye said is not a surprise both in terms of who Kanye is and the history of New Thought teaching,” says Sorett. “Whether we look at Kanye, Carlton or Christian Science, this idea that our mental state is determined of our material conditions is a part of a long tradition of American thinking.”
Pearson and West have something in common. They each hold radical ideas of how to look at the world, that in their opinion, allow people to be free and to unify. They also both bluntly stated their beliefs, shocking the world.
If we go to Kanye’s early music, even on ‘Jesus Walks,’ he says we are at war with ourselves. He lays out slavery as an internal condition.
New Thought and Free Thinking are not comparable to Kanye’s recent declarations in Pastor Stamper’s view. If anything, Kanye’s views are nothing more than a reflection of an ongoing issue of mental health.
“This is an opportunity to talk about how eccentric behavior is normalized and overlooked. What he is saying is completely irresponsible. This does not in any way align with New Thought. It reflects an absence of love,” says Pastor Stamper. “There are many who think Carlton Pearson lost his mind [or] is ‘full of the devil.’ In Christian/Pentecostal speak it is the same thing. However, the difference is that [Pearson] is not exhibiting the tell-tale signs of someone who is mentally ill.”
Monique Ruffin, a metaphysical studies expert and astrologist, believes Kanye is distributing a message that isn’t literal. “He has deep considerations about reality. He sounds like a person who understands alchemy and the mysteries of the universe, and he understands that thoughts create reality. So, he is willing to challenge his conditioning for the purpose of creating a new reality,” says Ruffin.
According to Ruffin, the choice Kanye is referring to is not from the conscious mind but the subconscious, which is the keeper of both positive and negative experiences and thoughts such as dreams, fantasies and trauma, which can be passed down for generations.
“We still carry a lot of wounding around slavery, we’ve got to work to heal as a community or as a country. To hear someone like Kanye say it’s a choice, when we haven’t done the work to heal the trauma would trigger people. Kanye’s done a lot of work emotionally, mentally and spiritually to even be able to come to that type of belief or consideration and most people haven’t. The Bible says be thee transformed by the renewal of your mind. To renew your mind you would have to have new thoughts that you haven’t had before. Unless people are doing work to transform their minds, they are just creating patterns from what they always done before.”
Kanye’s choice of words remains heavily scrutinized. Same thing with Pearson—many watch Come Sunday and believe his message is heresy. At a time when such things are in question, it’s tricky. Ideas have always been the blueprint to our society, having the power to create or destroy.
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