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