In my lessons on Christianity and social justice, I always feature clips from J. Cole’s 2017 HBO documentary For Your Eyez Only. The film, directed by Cole and Scott Lazer, features interviews with residents of small black cities throughout the South and Midwest, and intersperses songs from his album with the same title. Though Cole may have an ambivalent relationship with organized Christianity, his film offers a vision of an authentically Christian approach to social justice. And although it was released 3 years ago, it comes as a breath of fresh air today as we approach the 2020 election season. Cole reminds us that true political change isn’t only in the hands of the person in the White House. Rather, it begins on the most basic level possible: in the heart, the home, and the local community.
Cole’s journey aims to give a voice to “regular,” everyday black people, whom he says are much more multifaceted than how the media paints them to be. His goal was not so much to “make a difference” in the communities he visited, nor to get a message across to them. He went, instead, to “just listen” and learn.
His conversations with residents, together with his songs, reveal the issues faced by black communities today. Take the Baton Rouge homeowner whose house is still in shambles over ten years after Katrina, who after being fed up with waiting for government assistance began fixing up the house herself.
Cole faces the ugly reality of black men being killed by police when he visits Ferguson, Missouri. At the site where Michael Brown was killed, he engages with mourners and activists, hoping to understand how the community is dealing with the aftermath of his death years later. He further explores police corruption and the killings of black youth in his songs “Neighbors,” which features security camera footage of a SWAT team breaking into his home after neighbors suspected Cole of drug dealing, and “Changes,” in which he raps about one of his childhood friends who was gunned down at the age of 22.
Where, then, does he find the solutions to these injustices? It begins on the simplest level, with an encounter, a conversation, amongst members of the community. The genius of Cole’s intention to listen rather than preach is that he gets to learn about the particular people that make up these communities–their particular struggles, passions, and stories. What are the real needs of the people, and what changes need to be brought about to foster a more dignified way of life for them?
From the homeowner in Baton Rouge, he learns the importance of resilience and determination. When those in power don’t do their job, individuals and their neighbors can use their own agency to create solutions. From a motel manager whose patrons include violent drug addicts, he learns that in some situations patience and compassion can settle problems more efficiently than “law and order” can. When visiting a community center with his father in his native Jonesboro, Arkansas, he discovers the role that local organizations can play in both offering opportunities for fellowship and support, but also in preserving the memory of a people. They maintain a sense of rootedness and belonging, legacy and identity, that gives dignity to the members of a local community.
This visit also speaks to the need for the healing of wounds and for being reconciled with one’s roots. In this scene, Cole is healing wounds that are both personal (Cole had tension with his father when he was younger) and social. This speaks again to the both/and logic of Christianity: the healing of wounds inflicted by sinful social structures must happen alongside the healing of wounds inflicted by the sins of individuals. This scene echoes the writings of James Baldwin who in his essay Notes of a Native Son writes about the moment when he recognized himself to be an ugly stepchild–both to his abusive stepfather and to his racist fatherland–his need for a twofold healing.
One of the most striking parts of the film is a spirited conversation that breaks out amongst a group of residents gathered in a park in Ferguson. Discussing the future of black youth post-Michael Brown, one man brings up the fact that in a city that is 67% black, the majority of elected officials are white. He then brings up the fact that 50 out of 53 police officers are white, and few of them live amongst the communities they are policing.
“What can we do as a people, to help ourselves?!” someone in the crowd shouts out.
“Remember how your mamma grew up?” replies another. “She used to think about the community, right? Everybody on the block used to know everybody, right? Don’t nobody know no one anymore. And that’s why everything is fucked up.”
Someone else pipes up, “but you’re not going out to vote, fam!” One person responds that he would go out to vote, but he can’t because of a felony charge.
“You can do something about that,” he replies. He suggests that he call his local politician to talk about the fact that felons can’t vote. J. Cole listens and watches intently, perceiving the potential that conversations like these among locals can have. Cole later laments how readily the media will reduce a black man to his felony charge, and totally overlook his desire to play a role in civic society, to support his community and provide for his family.
The film’s emphasis on inequality, injustices, and civic engagement are complemented by its more personal and spiritual moments, showing how justice and charity, solidarity and subsidiarity go hand in hand. In songs like “Foldin’ Clothes,” and “She’s Mine” parts 1 and 2, he raps about the simple yet awe-inspiring joys of married life and fatherhood. His valorization of family reminds us that the end goal of achieving social justice and equality is not just to have more freedom to live autonomously and to do as we please. Rather, we defend our rights so that we can be better able to fulfill our responsibilities.
Amongst the responsibilities of participating in politics and civil society, the most sacred responsibility is to respond to one’s vocation, bet it marriage or forms of ministry. It is within saying yes to this God-given calling that we begin to unveil the presence of the sacred within everyday tasks like “folding clothes” for one’s beloved, or changing a baby’s diaper. J. Cole raps in the aforementioned songs about being amazed by how fulfilling these mundane, yet essential tasks become within the context of the vocation of fatherhood.
Discovering his true identity in the call to make a gift of himself and generate new life brings tears to his eyes and fills him with wonder. This is precisely why systemic injustices like job and income inequality, unjust incarceration policies and police brutality must be corrected. They all inhibit us from responding to the call of God and to the needs of our families and neighbors, and it is this calling that constitutes the dignity at the core of the human person.
After Cole boldly asserts that “the only real change comes from inside,” in the clip for his song “Changes,” he has a chance encounter with a woman who is mounting her bike on her way to her third job. He asks her about her story, and finds out that two of her children were murdered. J. Cole is perplexed by how this woman is “glowing and beaming,” even after having suffered so much in life, and asks her how she maintains such a warm attitude. “I got a lot to live for…God has me here for a reason, so many of us are hurting… but God is the answer, yeah, Jesus is definitely the answer.”
This woman witnesses to the fact that God calls all of us to be “a light to the world.” And this change happens first by receiving His merciful embrace. Can we expect to have a just society when individuals choose to be self-seeking and cold-hearted in their personal relationships? And as much as we must demand a response to social injustices, can anything, or anyone, claim to fully give meaning to suffering, and to redeem the sinner, be it the corrupt politician or police officer, the petty criminal, or myself? True change doesn’t start from reorganizing political structures, but rather works its way from the inside out. But if this light, this change, is “hidden under a bushel,” if it is not carried out into the society and the political realm, then we reduce this light to a useless and sentimental distraction from reality. It must be brought out into the community and to the rest of society, changing both hearts and structures that block out God’s light.
His focus on the political and civic initiatives of these small communities shows what happens when justice and love are not seen as dichotomous entities, but rather when they “embrace” each other and serve as integral aspects of a healthy society. J. Cole paints an image of social justice born from charity–that is, from a life shared together, a life lived in communion with the Creator and the truth which he calls us to live out, in communion with our family, our neighbors, our fellow community and church members, extending to the greater political and global community.
As J. Cole shows us, change ought to begin at the most basic level possible–the interpersonal encounter–and grow from there, in a way echoing the evangelizational method set by Jesus himself. Changes that begin from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, are more effective because they take the concrete needs of real people as their point of departure. Expecting those removed from their daily realities to be able to solve their problems is unrealistic and likely to be counterintuitive.
The logic of encounter holds that the solutions to the real needs of the people can be best accounted for when it is the people themselves and the ones who know them best that are contriving the solutions. So though the stakes may look bleak for Christian voters in the 2020 Presidential election, let’s not forget the agency that we have in engaging our local communities and effecting changes from there. Regardless of who wins, let’s find hope in building up communities of justice for and communion with our (actual) neighbors.