Originally published at Pastor Jennifer Preaching
I Hope You’re Somewhere, Praying
A Meditation on Kesha’s “Praying” Music Video
“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest…
Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?”
“Am I dead?
Or is this one of those dreams?
Those horrible dreams, that seem like they last forever?
If I am alive, why? Why?
If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere,
why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything
I’ve ever known, I’ve ever loved?…
God give me a sign, or I have to give up.
I can’t do this anymore.
Please just let me die.
Being alive hurts too much.”
A victim’s story is only theirs to tell. No one else—not the victimizer, not a judge, not a jury, not the court of public opinion—can tell it. No one else can tell a victim how to react, how to move forward, how they should or shouldn’t behave.
Unfortunately, all too often, we do just that. We blame victims for what was done to them and refuse to hold victimizers and abusers accountable. And then, when we have collectively decided it’s ‘over,’ we demand that victims forgive and forget, that they move on. We expect them to fit a specific, saint-like mold of infinite patience and beatific smiles. We don’t want them to be angry. We don’t want them to show us their scars, physical or emotional or spiritual. We don’t want to be reminded of what happened—even if they are unable to forget.
Last week was completely upended for me when Kesha released her new music video, “Praying.” I will be honest and say I never expected a music video to have such an impact on me. My first reaction when I saw the link was, “Oh, she’s back! I’m so glad she’s finally able to make music again.”
Then I started watching the video. If you haven’t watched it yet, if you’re not sure what the buzz is about, go watch it. Right now. This piece will wait ‘til you get back.
It begins in a twisted parody of a funeral, no music. Kesha asks, “Am I dead?” Floating on debris in an empty ocean, she says, “If I am alive, why? Why? If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned?”
I don’t know if Kesha meant to create a lament in the ancient tradition of the Hebrew Bible, but that’s what it sounds like. It is a voice that cries out from the deepest, darkest places in the human experience. Like Job, like the lament Psalms, she questions God and begs for an end to her suffering. “Please just let me die,” she says. “Being alive hurts too much.”
There is a reason the ancient laments still resonate in our modern ears. We know suffering. We know darkness. We know what it feels like to cry in the dead of night “Why God, why?” and mean it as an accusation.
On the cross, Jesus cried out in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He died a death of pain and humiliation and injustice. His body was laid in a tomb. His disciples grieved. This was not the end of the story.
In “Praying,” Kesha does not stay in that desolate, black-and-white ocean. She does not stay in the hellish funeral. She wears a feather boa and angel wings and a veil of butterflies, and covers her face with brightly-colored paint.
It’s a resurrection story. An Easter story. Or in the words of the Psalms, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Kesha moves from death to new life. She starts out in lament, but she finds her voice and sings (and my God, does she sing). 
This is a resurrection story. It’s also a reconciliation story. Not in the simplistic, simpering way we want victims to reconcile with their victimizers. Kesha doesn’t forgive and forget, she doesn’t move on, she doesn’t make nice with the man who tormented her. She doesn’t apologize to us, her audience, for making us uncomfortable or for not being a ‘perfect’ victim (as if there were such a thing). She is beautifully, brutally honest, and it’s powerful to watch.
How do you forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness? How do you forgive someone who is unrepentant, who perhaps would deny that they’ve done anything that needs forgiving? How do you reconcile with someone who abused you and could abuse you in the future? There are no Bible-school answers for these questions.
Kesha sings, “You brought the flames and you put me through hell. I had to learn how to fight for myself. And we both know all the truths I could tell. I’ll just say this as I wish you farewell—I hope you’re somewhere, praying. I hope your soul is changing. I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying.” This is probably the kindest message she could possibly send to her abuser. She’s not interested in making him feel better. She’s certainly not interested in sharing the burden of guilt. But she hopes that someday, he realizes he needs to repent. She hopes that his soul changes. And when that day comes, it’s not her whose forgiveness he should seek: “Some things, only God can forgive.”
In the depths of hurt and betrayal, it may be impossible to offer forgiveness. Our culture tells us “forgive and forget,” and if we can’t forgive, can’t forget, it seems like a personal failure. Yet even Christ on the cross didn’t tell his murderers “I forgive you”—he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When we are unable to forgive, the only thing we can do is turn forgiveness over to God. When we cannot forgive and forget and move on, maybe we can move forward by handing the responsibility of forgiveness over to God.
What is so powerful about “Praying” is that it’s not about the abuser. It’s about Kesha. It’s about her healing, her new life. She hopes he’s somewhere praying. But what we get to see is Kesha, praying. Standing up, breaking free, clothing herself in color. Moving from death to life. Walking on water, looking towards the sun.
A Postscript on Religious Imagery
I could go on and on about the religious symbolism in this video. In addition to what I’ve already said, I’ll just add two more observations—one in the form of critique, and one in the form of appreciation.
I love this music video. I think Kesha misstepped, though, in appropriating elements of Hinduism. I’m assuming Kesha is not Hindu. But the font she uses for the title card and at the end of the video is an anglicized version of Hindi. And the multi-colored dust she throws looks like the dust from a Holi festival. I’m not Hindu, either, but as a Christian in the United States, I think we need to be very careful about using cultural and religious markers that aren’t our own. The bigger our platform, the more careful we need to be. As of this writing, “Praying” has over 12 million views, so that’s a pretty big platform. (Bigger than any audience I’ll ever preach to!)
I’ll end with one last image that spoke to me powerfully in this video. It’s the scene shot at Salvation Mountain (it’s a real place in California). This is where Kesha is wild and free and alive. It’s her Easter garden. Over this rainbow-colored monument rise the words, “God is love.” In a world where Christianity serves to abuse and enable abusers, this is the message we need to come back to again and again. God is love. If we need new life, then we need to turn to God who is Love. If we need forgiveness, then we need God who is Love. If we seek reconciliation or peace or a world where we don’t inflict violence on one another, then there are worse places to look than Salvation Mountain.
 For further reading, check out The Message of the Psalms by Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman identifies three types of Psalms: Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of new orientation. They trace a movement from a comfortable status quo, through a crisis, and to a new equilibrium. The Psalms of new orientation reveal the Psalmist coming to a new understanding of themselves in relation to God and the world. After a crisis, a new life is rebuilt. As Kesha moves from lament to finding her voice, she is re-orienting herself and her identity.
The Rev. Jennifer Chrien
Pastor Jennifer is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She served her first call at Our Saviour’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oxnard, CA, before being called to serve Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Simi Valley.