Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive.
– Kesha Rose Sebert (2017)
There is catharsis in finding art that helps you cope with your struggles. One of the most powerful functions of Christianity is that it attempts to provide powerful coping skills that enables practitioners to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God and one another. But as a queer theologian, I don’t always get the privilege of finding solace in the preferred artistic mediums of the Church. Rarely do I see myself, or my relationships, in the stained-glass windows. Rarely are my communities of concern lifted up as desired bodies worthy of prayer. Rarely does the liturgy welcome my community. The doors of the church regularly feel as if they were closing before us with a simple phrase,— “brothers and sisters.”While houses of worships are really good at putting rainbow flags on their doors, they do so without providing in gender neutral bathrooms, teaching queer-affirming bible studies, or choosing hymns that break down binaries of gender instead of reifying the rhetoric that alienates me and my community.
So, I have learned to hear the sacred speaking through the secular. One song that has become a personal and sacred anthem, rivaling the excellence of Cher’s “Believe,” is Kesha’s “Praying.” I hear in this song a theology crafted for part of my community; a community of those struggling with mental health issues; a community of survivors of sexual assault; a queer community, finding refuge in the lyrics of an openly bisexual artist; a community often left bitter towards the failures of Christianity, left in the resounding silence of the Church, or left traumatized by the ways a majority of Christian Churches harm under the guise of “love.” They find themselves in the heart of Kesha’s music. Not just specifically “Praying,” but one can turn to her songs “Hymn,” or “Rainbow,” and even wander their way back to the autotuned classics of “Warrior,” “Crazy Kids,” “We R Who We R,” and “Animal.” In Kesha’s music, we have found a spiritual home and solace in auto-tuned dance beats, and soulful pop melodies that span her discography.
What I find particularly powerful in “Praying” is how Kesha’s concept of prayer is distinctly not Christian. Kesha is not praying for her perpetrator out of a place of eschatological necessity. In fact, Kesha isn’t praying for her perpetrator at all for most of the song. There is no “love your enemies” message here; there is no “turn the other cheek.” Throughout the song she repeats the words “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’.” She hopes that her perpetrator is praying, thus making the perpetrator responsible to actively engage in their own redemption. In fact, the only time she actively prays is in the bridge when she writes,
“Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night/ Someday, maybe you’ll see the light/
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give/ But some things only God can forgive.”
Now these lines are complicated and require some careful exegesis. It is easy to misinterpret the bridge through a traditional Christian redemptive lens, but, I think what is actually happening is that she is shedding light on an important tension. The act of praying for one’s perpetrator that they “might see the light” stands side by side with the statement “some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give.” Holding in one hand, she prays that the perpetrator holds themself accountable, on the other hands she names that “some say,” indicating a voice of another, would rather offer up a punishment equal to the violence enacted by the perpetrator. Yet, both statements are negated with the final line of the bridge where the forgiveness (and retribution, one can assume) is handed firmly to God. Leaving the survivor free from the responsibility to forgive, a coercive responsibility that often requires survivors to engage with their perpetrators. While also subtly condemning retributive justice. Leaving the listener alone, for a brief moment, with the perpetrator, their actions, and a sense of divine judgement.
The power of Kesha’s “Praying” is its roots in Kesha’s own experience, but provides others with a nuanced vision of how one copes with the horrific e/affects of sexual trauma. To my knowledge there is no Christian hymn explicitly written to aid survivors in reclaiming their bodies, their narratives, and their lives. Kesha’s “Praying” echoes in its second verse with the line “I’m proud of who I am,” which is where I always start to cry. She beautifully articulates not only the complex relationships between survivors, perpetrators, and the Divine, but she does so by inviting the listener into (re)cultivating a relationship with oneself. Pop songs, in my opinion, are written to invite the listeners to situate themselves. And in Kesha’s “Praying,” we are invited to situate our relationships with ourselves, with our perpetrators, and our God in a way that enables us to stand firmly and say “I’m proud of who I am.” And that act does not require any redemption of the perpetrator.
I think many people hear this song and hear a song of forgiveness, and it’s not in the Christian sense. Christianity consistently reminds us to forgive the other, and more often than not it fails to remind us to forgive ourselves. Kesha, in this song, opens the door to the forgiveness of the self for survivors of sexual assault. It’s by unholy coincidence that this song finds itself nestled firmly in a year distinctly marked by a growing awareness of sexual violence. As the list of men accused in Hollywood continues to grow, the country is growing aware of a problem that feminists, womanists, disabled people, people of color, and queer people have been screaming about for decades. And while I could get into an analysis of where I think this issue stems from, getting into the depths of Christianity’s failure to cultivate a consent-centric culture. I, instead, want to lift up the underappreciated fact that secular music holds within it the possibility to be a powerful source for healing. At least, for me and my community as we heal from sexual violence.