Why a perfect world is no place on this earth
Me, I wasn’t taught to share, but care
In another life, I surely was there
Me, I wasn’t taught to share, but care
I care, I care
After the first verse of “PRIDE.”, we now hear the chorus a second time. The first time we heard this chorus we were unsure what location “there” referred to. However, with the context established by the first verse, it seems most likely that Kendrick is referring to a the concept of a perfect world. If this is true, Kendrick’s statement that “In another life, surely I was there” seems to reflect his hope that he was not always as imperfect as he is now. Maybe in some other realm or existence Kendrick knew how to share with others and thus could live in a state of delight. This fragile hope seems to echo the way in which the Garden of Eden functions in the biblical narrative. While many people try to interpret Eden to be a place, the author of Genesis seems to be using the Garden as a way to speak about a state of being in which humans live in peace with each other and nature.
God blessed humanity. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food. To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
- Genesis 1:28–31
Here on the very first page of the Jewish and Christian Bible, the author depicts God as a life-giving force who takes a dark, chaotic world and transforms it into a perfect world. God brings about this transformed world by issuing ten commandments — e.g. “Let there be light”. The last of these ten commandments is itself a pronouncement of blessing upon humanity to be fruitful so that they can rule over the land and animals on God’s behalf. This rule was not meant to be an exploitation of the environment, but rather a critical responsibility to maintain a just world in which all humans and animals benefited from the resources of the earth. To help ensure that there would be enough resources for everyone, God provided an abundance of plants to bring forth herbs and fruit. All that the humans had to do was share the produce with the inhabitants of the earth and be satisfied with their divinely-provided vegan diet.
Up until giving this last commandment, God had on six occasions declared that the world was “good.” However, it is only after setting humanity in their role as guardians of creation that God finally declared that the world was “very good.” Unfortunately, the world did not remain “very good.” Humanity became dissatisfied with the food that God had provided them. They wanted more. They wanted the right to decide for themselves what was “good.” They chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of their decision was proliferation of different ways of defining what was “good” and an inability to trust anyone who ruled by a different standard. Now that humans could not trust people enough to put their faith in man they were forced to abandon their childlike innocence along with their ability to learn how to share. They no longer lived in a perfect world.
Maybe I wasn’t there
Maybe I wasn’t there
Maybe I wasn’t there
Maybe I wasn’t there
After giving more thought to what it would take for a perfect world to exist, Kendrick now doubts whether he ever lived in such a state of delight. This is likely the reason that this second instance of the chorus adds an additional section in which Kendrick and Anna Wise repeatedly sing “Maybe I wasn’t there.” This growing thought that Kendrick has always lived as a complex and compromised person may connect all the way back to “DNA.”, the track where Kendrick rapped, “I was born like this, since one like this.” After considering the imperfections of his inherited nature, Kendrick goes on to explain how his environment failed to nurture warmth in his heart.
Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive
Cold as December, but never remember what Winter did
I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid
Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays
Smiles and cold stares, the temperature goes there
Indigenous disposition, feel like we belong here
In these opening bars of the second verse, Kendrick establishes a parallel between his physical and mental environments. He does this by using a common metaphor of coldness to compare frigid exterior temperatures to his interior emotions. Just like a winter chill that freezes one’s fingers to the point that one can no longer feel, Kendrick has become numb to the emotions of others and thus cannot love them. His imperfect psychological disposition matches the imperfect world in which he resides.
Given that his interior world is identical to his exterior world, Kendrick concludes that he must have been born on this earth and is meant to continue living on this earth. Any thoughts of escapism have proven void. If the earth is to become a perfect world, God will need to transform the world into one where God’s will is done on earth as it is in the heavens. Additionally, if Kendrick is to ever become part of this perfect world, God will need to transform him into someone who is born from above — i.e. someone who is indigenous to heaven.
In the minds of the Gospel authors, one can only become indigenous to heaven if one’s earthly life is humbled to the point of death beneath the waters — much like Jonah. For those who acknowledge that salvation is from the Lord, the process of being immersed in water actually becomes the mechanism of being immersed in God’s Spirit. One can see these parallels between death by the water below leading to rebirth by the Spirit above if one examines a conversation that Jesus had with a Judean religious leader named Nicodemus who secretly considered following Jesus.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
- John 3:3–5
In the same way that the author of Genesis used the Garden of Eden to describe the nature of the perfect world that had been lost, Jesus used the kingdom of God/Heaven to describe the nature of the perfect world which he was inaugurating. Jesus claimed that those who wished to enter into his kingdom need to be born again. However, if they were born again on the earth of a human mother they would still be indigenous to the earth and alienated from heaven. Thus, all those who wished to enter the kingdom must be born from above by the life-creating power of God’s Spirit. Before this new life can begin, the old life must die and be buried in a watery grave.
As we have already discussed, the current track “PRIDE.” is a poetic depiction of Kendrick’s life being humbled to the point of death at the bottom of the sea. It thus points forward to a reality in which Kendrick is immersed in the Spirit. However, at the moment Kendrick’s internal struggle continues to overwhelm him as he remains trapped inside the grave.
The Echo of Past Hurt
I know the walls, they can listen, I wish they could talk back
The hurt becomes repetition, the love almost lost that
While Kendrick’s psyche absorbs thoughts and emotions from his environment, his environment also absorbs all the actions that Kendrick takes as well as the actions others has taken before him. The walls around him act as a feedback loop. If they absorb good actions, they will inspire more good actions. However, if they absorb evil actions, they will later inspire more evil actions. For instance, if one person steals from another, the relational environment will inevitably be ruined between the two people. Moreover, the physical environment will soon become ruined as the victim decides to cut down trees and erect walls to protect his possessions and the lives of his family. If such breeches of trust happen continue, he may then have to add barbed wire. If these hurts repeat long enough for a whole nation of people, they may even even decide to lay down land mines. Once the physical environment begins to resemble a battlefield, the people begin to act like soldiers.
One of the most challenging results of this negative feedback loop is that it eventually becomes impossible to know how the world fell from perfection into its current state. The environment is the only witness to all of the events, and it is not capable of explaining the tangled history which has led to such pollution. Kendrick can only hope that the walls find a way to talk. Thus, Kendrick has returned back to TPAB during his cocoon stage — an enclosed structure similar to the grave he is currently in. During that stage Kendrick rapped about what the walls would reveal if they could talk.
If these walls could talk, they’d tell me to swim good
No boat, I float better than he would
No life jacket, I’m not the God of Nazareth
But your flood can be misunderstood
Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment
Need someone to live in them just to relieve tension
Me, I’m just a tenant
Landlord said these walls vacant more than a minute
These walls are vulnerable
- Kendrick Lamar from “These Walls”
Ironically, the walls referred to on TPAB actually refer to the vaginal walls of a woman who Kendrick is having sex with in order to take revenge against her significant other. Kendrick was misusing his influence to ruin the emotional environment of the woman and any men with whom she tries to have an intimate relationship. Those men may have then inspired other gang members to take vengeance upon men from Kendrick’s neighborhood and continue to escalate the gang wars in Compton. “These Walls” thus depicts Kendrick as one who has poisoned the social environment out of spite for others.
Who Shall We Overcome?
Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride
As Kendrick wonders what came over him and caused him to act so selfishly in the past, he concludes that the deadly force in question must be pride. Ironically, if one listened closely to “Alright” from TPAB one could already see evidence that those who yearn to retain their pride may be tempted toward violent retribution.
Wouldn’t you know
We been hurt, been down before
Nigga, when our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”
Nigga, and we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
Nigga, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright
- Kendrick Lamar from “Alright”
From a cursory listen to TPAB, one might think that Kendrick’s proposed solution to the problems of the black community involves inspiring black people toward greater degrees of pride. Most likely it is this very interpretation that scares conservative critics like Geraldo who ignore the narrative development of Kendrick’s work. However, here in DAMN., Kendrick makes it clear that pride is the lethal force which conquers humans and transforms them into venomous snakes. Jesus used this same analogy when he criticized the religious leaders who were plotting ways to kill him.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and decorate the tombs of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we wouldn’t have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you testify to yourselves that you are children of those who killed the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of the Valley of Hinnom?”
- Matthew 23:29–33
Jesus pointed out that the religious leaders of his day were the children of the more ancient religious leaders who killed the prophets that God sent to confront the kingdoms of Israel and Judah about their societal injustice. Unlike the king of Nineveh, the ancient leaders of Israel and Judah refused to turn from the violence of their hands. Instead, they handed God’s prophets over to be executed.
The religious leaders who Jesus confronted thought they were more ethical than their forefathers, but Jesus saw that their hearts were just as crooked. Moreover, as we discussed in Part 6: The Complete Commandments, Jesus redefined the concept of offspring to refer not to biological descendants but only to those who emulate the deeds of their father figure. By claiming that the religious leaders were offspring of prophet-killers, Jesus was predicting that these current leaders would seek to kill him. By calling the leaders the “offspring of vipers” Jesus was claiming that their spiritual father was a snake or — more specifically — the Snake who first led humans into rebellion against God’s commandments.
The man and woman in the Garden of Eden narrative are themselves the prototype of all humans who have been overcome by the snake. The Snake convinced these humans that they should rise up and seize the opportunity to create their own perfect world by redefining good and evil. Unfortunately, this attempt to create a perfect world quickly turned into a nightmare.
Humanity’s desire for individual autonomy led directly to unchecked selfishness. The humans then lost the ability to love. Having delivered a venomous bite to Humanity, the Snake straggled them to death by preventing them from receiving the breath of God and bringing about the end of Life. With their hearts deprived of God’s Spirit, their exterior environment began to resemble their interior state of being. Thus, the Snake succeeded in strangling the entire world.
A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies
Promises are broken and more resentment come alive
Race barriers make inferior of you and I
The Snake’s conquest of the world was made possible only because Humanity believed the Snake’s lies. The Snake made a false promise that humans could be like God if only they had the knowledge to define good and evil. The great irony is that they never needed to become like God. The first page of the story makes it clear that Humanity — both men and women — were already made in the image of God from the beginning. The Snake knowingly made a false promise. Worse still the Snake invoked the name of God and used the positive connotations ascribed to God’s name to manipulate and control humans. Humans thus learned from the Snake that they could use God’s name to advance their own purposes. It is for this reason that God gave Moses the third of ten commandments.
You must not make use of the name of the LORD your God for empty purposes, for the LORD will not exonerate anyone who abuses his name in that way.
- Deuteronomy 5:11
Even though this was the third out of 613 commandments, Israelites soon found clever ways around it. Rather than making an empty vow using the name of God, the would make an empty vow using something associated with God such as the heavens or the temple. While such a pattern of speech might seem strange to modern readers, it is not too different from how Americans frequently misuse words such as “natural”, “green”, “healthy”, “charity”, “equality”, “freedom”, “love” or “great” to advance their own purposes. Some might just call this clever marketing, but Jesus condemned invoking any good thing to make a false promise.
“Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not make false promises, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’ but I tell you, do not swear vows at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear vows by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.”
- Matthew 5:33–37
One can see just how destructive such lies are if one considers the various 20th century attempts to create a perfect world. Movements such as Fascism and Communism invoked the words “great” or “equality” to justify their consolidation of power. These movements eventually led to the most violent century in history in which these two ideologies led to the deaths of over 100 million people.
Democracy-minded Americans may be quick to point out the track record of these failed systems. However, they normally fail to acknowledge that their own system of governance is based in part on using the name of God and the concept of equality to make the empty promise that all men are ensured the right to pursue happiness.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence
Much like the Snake, the founding fathers of the United States invoked the name of God in order to convince the humans around them to join their rebellion and declare their independence from any king who would rule over them. By seizing autonomy, the fathers of America — along with the snake — offered a promise that all men would be able to have life and the liberty to pursue their own happiness. However, what these fathers offered were empty promises. Aside from the fact that this first page of America’s canon neglected to mention women — something the first page of the Bible had done thousands of years earlier — the fathers of America falsely promised equality even while they upheld the racial inequality which allowed them to define slavery as something good for the nation’s economy. The hypocrisy of America’s fathers led to relation ruin between black and white citizens which would permanently undermine the creation of a more perfect union.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Even if one could somehow look past the false promises of equality, one would then find a more subtle and pernicious falsehood: the claim that God supports all humans in pursuing happiness. This claim which has no scriptural support has been notably dissected by psychiatrists such as British author Iain McGilchrist and Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl as well as by women neglected such as U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
- Victor Frankl from Man’s Search for Meaning
With all due respect to the American constitution you can’t pursue happiness. The more you pursue it the more it runs from you. Happiness is a by-product of forgetting yourself. I think that that mental set of pursuing happiness is a mistake. I don’t think it necessarily makes people ill, although, it can make people very dissatisfied because they wonder why are they not happier. I’ve got this and perhaps if I had that or was that person. This is a path to folly.
- Iain McGilchrist from Depression and the Depths of Hell
See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches
I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison
Kendrick seems to have also come to the realization that if he wants to become the kind of person who can live in a perfect world he cannot continue to directly pursue happiness. Hence, Kendrick will need to go against his intuition of pursuing bitches, riches and acts that will increase the prison population — a.k.a sex, money and murder. Kendrick knows that he should instead seek to serve others by maintaining his faith, doing the work for which God called him and providing education for the next generation.
I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service
Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world
In the closing lines of the verse, Kendrick imagines a scenario in which he gathers representatives from all of the current world religions into one inter-faith service. However, instead of offering pleasantries and lifting up the positive attributes that they all share, Kendrick instead focuses on the negative attribute that they all share — namely that each one of them ain’t shit. He then ends by declaring that only God has been perfect.
Many modern listeners who are spiritual but not religious may take Kendrick’s words as a confirmation of their biases against “organized religion.” The problem with such an oversimplification is that if religion is understood to mean “reconnection” as it did in the ancient understanding almost all humans engage in some form of religion. Religion need not be centered around a shared belief in a deity. Religion can alternatively be centered around shared music, shared entertainment, shared meditation, shared exercise, shared ethnicity, shared drug use, or a shared disdain for the things that another group shares. There are many things which modern Westerners are religious about. Thus, much like the Communist movements of the 20th century, those who think that they could create a more perfect world if only they could persuade others to abandon or at least care less about theistic-centered religions may be in danger of offering empty promises.
Still it is important to remember that while Kendrick seems to be demeaning all people he is not saying that humans lack worth, value or dignity. Humans clearly have worth which is exactly why Kendrick knows he must be loyal even to his enemies. Rather, Kendrick’s exaggerated language seems to be for the sake of emphasizing how imperfect humans are compared to a perfect God. The fact that God is the standard of perfection is a point that Jesus makes at an important juncture of the Sermon on the Mount.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Yet again, Jesus commandment seems either impossible or impractical to follow. We may wonder how humans who ain’t shit can ever be perfect? Part of the challenge in understanding this commandment may be the meaning of the word “perfect”. In English describing someone as “perfect” implies that the person consistently avoids committing any moral failure. However, the underlying Greek word, telios, means “complete” in the sense of being finished or mature. More precisely, the root word, telos, means “the point aimed at as a limit.” So then to be “perfect” is to be at the limit of a given measurement.
In Jesus’s worldview, God’s character is the limit to which all humans fall short. Humans will curve while God remains upright. However, from a mathematical perspective, as the curve approaches infinity it becomes ever closer to the limit until it is appropriately equal to the limit. Similarly, humans who have an eternal life can grow toward maturity and become like God.
If it is possible for humans to become more like God, one might then ask what characteristics a human would need to develop toward maturity. The answer to this question seems to lie just a few sentences before the commandment.
But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in the sky. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
- Matthew 5:44–45
According to Jesus, God’s distinguishing characteristic is God’s love for his enemies. God routinely blesses all people including those who curse God. To illustrate his point, Jesus reflects on the fact that God the Father is in the “sky” — which is the literal meaning of the Greek word ouranos, normally translated into English as “heaven.” Since the sky symbolizes God’s interactions with the earth, Jesus looks to the sky to understand God’s character. What Jesus observes is that the sky provides a sunrise every day whether those living in earth are evil or good. Similarly, the sky sends down upon the earth on various lands regardless of whether people in that land uphold justice or pervert justice. For Jesus, these observations are proof that God loves those who do not love him. Hence, for humans to become children of God, they must learn to love those who do not love them. By doing so, humans become stars who shine light into places of darkness and open skies which rain blessings upon humanity.
By the end of the track, Kendrick seems to have come to a pivotal revelation about his need for humility. However, as we listen to him rap the concluding lines we are reminded that he has just rapped the entire second verse in his low-pitched voice which we earlier associated with Kendrick’s more prideful tendencies. There seems to be a conflict between the spirit which has inspired Kendrick’s message and the spirit with which Kendrick is presenting that message. Since we don’t know which way Kendrick is going to go from here, we have to move on to “PRIDE.”’s antithesis track, “HUMBLE.”