A Song of Defiance

Luke 1:46-56

Fortunate Son by Credence Clearwater Revival.  Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.  The Times They Are a Changin’ also by Bob Dylan.  For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield.  Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley and the Wailers.  Redemption Song, also by Bob Marley.  What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye.  This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie.  Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday.  Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney.   Imagine by John Lennon.  Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen.  Talkin’ Bout a Revolution by Tracy Chapman.  A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke.  Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell.  9 to 5 by Dolly Parton.  

What do these songs all have in common?  They’re all protest songs.  If you type “Protest Songs” into your search engine, you’ll find every one of these songs on at least one of the many lists that will pop up.  

You might be surprised that some of these are regarded as protest songs.  9 to 5, for instance, has such an energetic, positive-sounding melody that it’s easy to just bop along to the music.  Yet because of the way its lyrics addresses the inequities of the workplace, it has become a kind of worker’s anthem, especially for women.  

If you don’t know the context, Blowin’ in the Wind sounds like just an innocuous 1960s folk song.  “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” sounds like a universal philosophical question until you remember that when Dylan wrote this song, African-American men were marching in the streets carrying signs that said “I Am A Man” to assert their identity and humanity in a segregated and racist culture that discounted and diminished  them by calling them “boy.”  Suddenly that philosophical question has sharp edges.

Many people have a fondness for This Land is Your Land as an almost patriotic song, a piece of classic Americana.  They forget that Woody Guthrie, who wrote that song, was regarded as a radical leftist and blacklisted by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities.  One of the verses of that beloved song that gets overlooked and is almost never actually sung is about poverty and hunger:  In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/ By the relief office I seen my people/ As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/ Is this land made for you and me?

Some protest songs try to awaken awareness.  Some name and describe social situations and injustices.  Some are simply songs of lament for the way things are.  Some remind us of the ways we are failing to live up to our ideals.  And some invite us to imagine how things could be better. 

All of these protest songs moved people to one degree or another and made them think.  But none of them hold a candle to the Magnificat by Mary, Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

This song that Mary sings in chapter one of Luke is a radical protest song.  In an Advent sermon in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero prayed the words of Mary’s song every day.  He drew inspiration from her song to continue preaching for justice and economic opportunity for the poor of El Salvador.  He heard Mary singing as one of the poor and, in a country where only 14 families controlled all the wealth, he proclaimed, “You have to be poor to really know the power of the good news.”

Poor and oppressed people throughout the world have been uplifted and empowered by Mary’s song, so much so that oppressive governments have banned it at various times.  In India, during the time of British rule, singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited for fear it would encourage rebellion.  In Guatemala in the 1980s, the Magnificat became a favorite song among the impoverished masses, inspiring them to believe that God was on their side and change was possible, so the Guatemalan government banned any public singing or recitation of Mary’s song.  In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose children had been disappeared during the Dirty War, placed the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital.  In response, the military junta banned any public display, recitation, or performance of the Magnificat.  They saw how it gave the people courage and reminded them that God was on their side.

The poor and oppressed identify with Mary.  They don’t just see her as “holy Mary, Mother of God,” they see her as one of their own, a peasant girl, in difficult circumstances, but defiant and empowered.   Carolyn Sharp of Yale Divinity put it this way: “Don’t envision Mary as a radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.  Instead, see her as a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.”  Dr. Sharp goes on to say that if we can see her this way, “Mary’s courageous song of praise [becomes] a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of life.”

God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;

and has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Mary’s song makes it clear that God is initiating a new social order, that the world is about to turn.  Her song announces that Christ’s coming is a world-transforming event.  Her song proclaims that Christ is coming to challenge the structures of sin and death, evil and oppression.  

Her song echoes the song of Isaiah 61 which her son, Jesus, will someday read in the synagogue to initiate his ministry:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

                  because the Holy One has anointed me;

         God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

                  to bind up the brokenhearted,

         to proclaim liberty to the captives,

                  and release to the prisoners;

         to proclaim the year of the God’s favor,

                  and the day of vengeance of our God;

                  to comfort all who mourn;

         to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

                  to give them a garland instead of ashes,

         the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

                  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Mary’s song resonates with the songs of God’s liberation throughout the ages.  In Exodus 15, Miriam sings of God’s mighty acts in saving the people from Pharoah’s pursuing army.  In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prophesies about God turning the tables on behalf of the poor when she sings, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”  

Mary’s song rings with the prophetic reminder that God is at work in every age to rebalance the scales.  She reminds us that God will not allow oppression, injustice, negligence and inequity to go on forever.  The reign of God has been announced.  The vision proclaimed and described.  In a world where things have not been operating according to God’s plan, Mary has told us that change is underway and invited us to be on the right side of it.  And just so we know which side that is, she has given us a song.

*Image by Linda Donlin

Make a Wish

Make a wish—

If you could make one wish, not for yourself, but for the world, what would it be? If you could make one wish for your significant other, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids, all your friends and neighbors and family, for your town, for your state, for your country, for the world—what would it be? What would you wish for?

How many of you would wish for Peace? That’s a pretty good wish. I think that’s what most people in the world want. Almost everybody wants to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about violence erupting around us at any moment. There aren’t too many people who actually enjoy conflict, and those who do usually end up getting some kind of professional help or incarceration, whichever comes first—although some seem to go into politics. A good debate is okay. Fighting not so much. Sometimes opposition can help us sharpen and clarify what we’re thinking or planning, but opposition can be friendly. It doesn’t have to disintegrate into aggression. Competition has it’s benefits. It can bring out the best in us, it can even be fun when you know it’s part of a game. But it’s pretty destructive as a lifestyle. Debate, opposition, competition, they all have their place but they can all too easily degenerate into conflict if we don’t learn how to rein them in. And we have to rein them in if we’re going to have peace.

What does it take to make peace? What does it take to remove the seeds of conflict? If you’re going to wish for peace, aren’t there other things you need to wish for first?

If you want peace, wouldn’t you first have to wish away greed? Wouldn’t you have to eliminate coveting? Wouldn’t you have to find a way to short-circuit the human tendency to always want more, even if it means that someone else gets less? Wouldn’t we have to find a way to fill that endlessly hungry place in the human heart that never feels like it has enough? Wouldn’t you have to remove the desire to keep score by means of money and possessions and status symbols? Wouldn’t you, in fact, have to eliminate the desire to keep score at all? And wouldn’t you need to find a way to take away the fear of running out of money before you run out of life?

And what about Tribalism? Wouldn’t we need to wish that away if we’re going to have peace? How about our tendency to be fiercely territorial? Wouldn’t we have to tone down nationalism? Wouldn’t we need to develop a healthier kind of patriotism, pride in our country that’s rooted in a deep respect for all that’s good and reveres the price that others have paid to create and sustain and maintain that goodness but at the same time a patriotism that isn’t blind to our faults and defensive about our shortcomings? And wouldn’t we need to open our eyes to what’s good and worth celebrating in other countries and cultures, in other histories? Shouldn’t we wish for all that if we’re going to wish for peace?

For peace to happen, what would we have to do with religion? Wouldn’t every religion have to dial back their tendency to insist that they’re the only ones—that we’re the only ones—who get it right, who understand God, who really get Jesus? Wouldn’t we have to learn to find some peace in our own ranks with the idea that our voice is a valuable and important instrument in the symphony, but it’s not the only instrument playing the music of heaven? Wouldn’t we all, for the love of God in whom we live and move and have our being, for the love of God who is among us and within us and beyond us, for the love of God who transcends all knowing and yet is more intimate with us than our most dearly beloved fellow passengers on this earth—shouldn’t we learn, for the love of God, to practice some sincere humility in our God talk? Shouldn’t we wish for understanding and cooperation between religions if we’re going to wish for peace?

To have peace, wouldn’t we have to first get rid of every last vestige of racism so that nobody feels put upon simply because of their color? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the existence of our own latent or not-so-latent bigotries?  Wouldn’t we all have to purge ourselves of all those lingering internal voices and habits and conditioning that want to assert that some people are better or even more human than others simply by virtue of the color of their skin?  Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that some of us have blithely and blindly lived lives of privilege simply because of the color of our skin while others have had to develop stringent habits of caution for the same reason in another color?  Wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at the painful history of racism and not simply suppress it deep in our collective psyche if we want to be healed of it? If you want to have peace, wouldn’t you have to wish away all those ugly words we have used to describe each other when the other doesn’t look like us? To have peace, wouldn’t we have to wish for something the opposite of color blindness—a what?—a celebration of color? a gratitude for color? a love of color in every shade of humanity? Shouldn’t we wish for that if we’re going to wish for peace?

If we really want peace, if that’s our deepest, truest wish, wouldn’t we have to first wish away sexism and paternalism and patriarchy and every other ism and archy that wants to maintain systems in which half the human race has more value, more power, more rights, more freedom than the other half simply because of gender, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment? If we really want peace, doesn’t it mean that we have to discard archaic and primitive structures of our societies and cultures and religions that not only have outlived their usefulness, but that were, in fact, never really useful at all, structures that evolved simply because one half of humanity was generally more capable of physically dominating and subduing and forcing its will on the other half? Isn’t it time, for the sake of peace, for us to take a step above our cousins the chimpanzees in this particular matter? If we really want peace, should we not wish first for real parity between the sexes?

And doesn’t our endless focus on differing sexualities undermine our quest for peace? Doesn’t the fact that someone is always ready to hate or censure or exclude or diminish someone else because of who they are attracted to or who they love or even because they are still trying to understand who they are kind of get in the way of peaceful coexistence? Aren’t we all children of God even if some have different love interests? Just because some men wandering through Judea 4000 year ago found certain things distasteful, are we bound to their prejudices forever? They also didn’t care for shrimp, barbequed ribs and pulled pork and we seem to have got past that okay. So wouldn’t it be a step toward peace if we could all just stop worrying about sexuality and realize that in God’s creation it seems to come in a variety of flavors?

If we’re going to wish for peace, wouldn’t it make sense to also wish that there would not be so many weapons at large in the world and that they were not so readily at hand?

If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish away hunger and homelessness? Don’t people fight for food and shelter?  Wouldn’t you be tempted to if you didn’t have it? If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish for health and healthcare? And should we not wish for equal access to systems and medicines and technologies that heal and sustain life? If we’re going to have peace, shouldn’t we eliminate the possibility of people ruining their financial health just to maintain their physical health?

If we’re going to wish for peace, shouldn’t we first wish for justice? When the people are chanting “no justice, no peace” in the streets, isn’t it more than a slogan?  Isn’t it a prophetic voice calling us to make the rough places plain and the crooked straight so that peace has a straight and easy pathway to our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation and our world?  If we’re going to wish for peace, don’t we first have to wish for equity and fairness and level playing fields? If we’re going to have peace, don’t we first need to eliminate injustice and replace it with restorative justice? In fact, isn’t justice the one word that encompasses everything we need to have peace?

Of course, there is another way. You can simply eliminate everyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. You can eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or worship like you or vote like you or love like you or contribute as much to society as you think you do, or isn’t the same sex as you, everyone who you think is competing with you simply because they want the same basic necessities that you want. In the end, if you’re really diligent, you would, in fact, eliminate everyone who is not you.

How peaceful would that be?