Monday, December 20, 2010

Re-Thinking Mary’s Song

Christmas is coming, and most of us are busy getting ready for a joyous time with family and friends. For weeks now we have heard the music of Christmas, including both the sacred carols and the secular songs that have become so much a part of the season. And we have seen the Christmas advertisements urging us to buy and buy for our loved ones.
The Christmas season has surely been engulfed by consumerism, and Christmas has largely become something far different from a religious holiday. Many who have little appreciation for the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth use Christmas as an excuse for marketing their wares, publicizing their entertainment, and enhancing their income.
Even in Japan, where fewer than 2% of the population are Christians, Christmas is widely celebrated. Department stores are filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas carols are heard almost everywhere. Years ago I even saw a sign in front of some dive advertising “Christmas Nudes.”
There is another side of the Christmas message that is not emphasized so much, especially in this country. This side of Christmas is expressed by Mary’s song as recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. That song has long been called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation.
Numerous composers have written music for Mary’s song. For example, “The Magnificat in D Major” is a major vocal work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mozart, Vivaldi, and others wrote shorter musical pieces titled Magnificat. It has been said that there is no single passage of Scripture more frequently set to music.
Still, the content of Mary’s song has often been overlooked, although it has been widely emphasized in recent decades by many South American Christians. In his engaging book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984), theology professor Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) wrote about the political and economic significance of Mary’s song, which includes the words, “God has . . . brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53, NIV).
(Drawing by Dan Erlander; used with his permission.)
To those who are suffering from hunger and humiliation, those are hopeful words. And since there have been so many hurting people there, Brown wrote that in Latin America, “there are few biblical passages more widely used than Mary’s song.” He also declares that “Mary’s song is a call to revolutionary action.”
Several years earlier, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-97) wrote a book titled The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (1971). That original revolution, he states, is expressed in Mary’s song. The desired and decisive change, though, is not brought about by violence. Jesus, after all, was born as the “Prince of Peace.” Still, the central message of Mary’s song—and the central message of Christmas—is that Jesus’ birth was intended by God as good news for the poor.
How are we helping, how can we help, make Christmas what God intends for it to be?


  1. Leroy, members of our society are likely unable to relate to Mary's song due to the way we blithely accept the stratification of our own society. We acknowledge the validity of having people on "top and bottom" based upon their merits (wealth, health, education, etc.) even if obtaining those merits derives from work one has not done himself. When's the last time you heard the gospel proclaimed or the Torah taught as assertions of YHWH's establishment of a truly egalitarian socity? Not once in my church that I can remember (over the past 25 years). Our normative expression of Christianity is much more idealized and transcedental (spiritualized)than that. What you propose, rightly to my mind, is a salvation that has material implications. Spirituality has its place, indeed, but there is a material (and systemic) reality to feeding the poor as well as taking up a cross.

  2. I appreciate these good words from MPH--especially since I received an e-mail this morning (prior to today's posting) that included these words:

    "I'm really hoping that you'll leave the politics subject to the news media and get on with other more pertinent subjects. I don't think you intended for the blog to be a political soapbox, but it has become just that, in my point of view.... get off it!

    "Blindly whacking at Republicans and blindly condoning Democrats is silly and pointless! How about some good theological discussion instead?"

  3. Thinking Friends (a couple), whom I have heard from only seldom, wrote,

    "The failure to pass the dream act is a tragedy and a blot on our record. The circumstances of the vote just emphasizes thet we do not live in a democracy."

  4. Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central, put it better than I could ever imagine wording it:

    "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition... and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

  5. Since when is generosity, charity, etc. defined by how much wealth is appropriated by the state and redistributed by the state after taking a sizeable "cut" of the original "donation"? This is more of an extortion racket than a charitable organization. The biggest proponents of this charade are often the least monetarily charitable individuals in the country (see Al Gore's and Joe Biden's public disclosures). Additionally, these proponents are not willing to pony up anything but the minimum tax bill due each year. If they really thought that government was the greatest charitable/social good in this country, then they could contribute to the government in excess of their minimum tax bills. Charity needs to begin at home.

    Every country that has tried to make every one equal (i.e. equal outcomes) has succeeded in impoversing the vast majority of the citizenry at the expense of the minority ruling class (see almost every third world country on the planet and in particular the old Soviet Union). The ideal in this country has been striving for equal opportunities for each person not equal outcomes. It is in the opportunities afforded the people of this country that has lead to many of the benefits that are enjoyed by so many people in this country. Hernando de Soto (not the conquistador) of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru is now advising multiple third world countries in the development of wealth (hence a middle class) by noting that those countries that have developed wealth through the years also have strong property rights for all the citizens. Instead of trying to drag every down into poverty which every egalitarian utopian system does, this is an approach that is trying to raise others up.

  6. Watching "The Nativity" again last night did give a good perspective on the Magnificat for the time it was written - perilous times for that family.

    To keep perspective, I do like to consider the works of the early church fathers as well as the apostalic scriptures for an orthodox perspective on theology and philosophy - early Church tradition.

  7. I would simply jump in here to suggest America's emphasis on equal opportunity is first of all an ideological cover for inequality. At the beginning it was not meant for anybody but white males. Every step towards equal opportunity has been hard fought, by women, African-Americans, and now gays and lesbians. There still remains the fight for the poor and working-class children. The idea that the children of America's working class and poor have equal opportunity in competition with the middle-class and rich is to ignore the severe handicaps such children have in a competitive system like ours. Advantages, wealth, opportunity, connections--all are highly correlated with class.
    In addition, in a competitive, class stratified system like ours, it's logically literally impossible for everyone to succeed.
    Eliminating inequality by fiat is, as one writer pointed out, self-defeating. However, a great deal more can be done to have less inequality. Unfortunately, since we began the path of conservatism with Reaganism, we've been becoming even more unequal. It appears that we've chosen Third-World countries as our model for the future.

  8. Social stratification in these posts is treated like the government handles accounting--statically. Social classes in this country have always been very fluid and even remain so to this day. Individuals and families move between the standard quintiles with regularity due to individual economic circumstances. While this last recession has been severe for the working classes, the impact on the self-employed in the construction industries has been even worse. Many of these individuals and families were in the top 40% of income earners and now are in the bottom 20%. Shifts like this are common and to the individuals involved in the downshifts very frustrating at a minimum. It is because of opportunities though that these same people may find themselves in other quintiles in the not too distant future. A dynamic class system like this has provided and continues to provide opportunities in the future. This can be seen against more static systems in Europe and Asia. As a side note, what reason do so many individuals and families still come to this country if not for the opportunities. If it was just for the social welfare benefits, the pipeline should lead directly from Mexico to Canada not the U S as the end destination.

    The irony concerning the poor in this country is that when the government treats its people as little more than teenagers, expecting people to act in ways other than like teenagers should not be expected. Again the static mindset of government agencies in dealing with poverty has lead to most of these unexpected consequences. While wealth, opportunity, and connections may highly correlate to lack of opportunities so do social outcomes such as parental status (married, single, etc), age of parents, attitudes toward work and education, etc. When government programs monetarily reward not working, single parent households, and other "non-traditional" choices, then the beginnings of a permanent underclass are being developed by the institution that is expected by the average American to "fix" the problem. Unfortunately, bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves not to solve problems which would render the need for the bureaucracy unwarranted.

  9. I have read with interest the above comments, especially those by DHJ and Anton. Next month I am planning to make a posting on "The Role of Government."

  10. Two responses:

    As for the theological verses the political: The two are essentially inseparable. Leroy’s blog begins with Mary’s song, which is as political as it is theological. The gospels, indeed all of the New Testament, is as political as it is theological; the overwhelming majority of the Bible is as political as it is theological. The book is meaningless without understanding the social/cultural/political context in which its texts were written and originally read; and, it is irrelevant if we are unwilling to name our own social location(s) as the lens through which we interpret it today.

    So, I applaud you, Leroy, for the audacity to call out political realities and reflect theologically upon them. Theological reflection is the “critical conversation between context and tradition, leading to revised theological understandings and ways of being in the world” [Willows and Swinton, Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care (2000), 13-14]. We need more thinkers like you helping us navigate “ways of being in [this] world.”

    As for social stratification: I would agree that uncritical acceptance of hierarchies is THE problem in society. Our blithe acceptance of categories (and our own tendencies to label people and put them in “boxes” or categories) is our attempt to control the other. My new favorite quote is: “All evil begins with this belief: that another’s existence is less precious than mine” [Tony Hendra, The Messiah of Morris Avenue (2006), 91]. The problem with social stratification is that this is either/or thinking. Instead, we need to recognize that we live in a both/and world.

    Conflict transformation theory often uses the language of “privileged” and “marginalized” to describe stratification or hierarchy. But we must recognize that we are not simply one or the other, privileged or marginalized. We are all always both/and. [This is often a difficult concept for some of my students to recognize; they are all African American and some are most comfortable self-identifying as a marginalized or oppressed people.] I explain, “I may be privileged by being white and male, but I am often marginalized by begin gay. You may be marginalized by the color of your skin, but you are afforded privilege by the fact that you have a penis. You may be marginalized because you are a woman, but you are privileged by having enough money to afford a seminary education. And so on...” When we recognize our “both/and-edness”, we realize there is no “other”--no “another’s existence” to believe “less precious than mine.” It is one of the more transgressive, and therefore appealing, aspects of the Gospel.