By Matthew L. Skinner.
Author and activist Shane Claiborne champions a program that turn weapons of death into instruments of hope.
National Geographic magazine recently named Mary, the mother of Jesus, “the most powerful woman in the world” as an appraisal of her ongoing influence and popularity. But do Mary’s words and example have a prayer of being heard and effecting change in this time of war?
Life during Wartime
Indeed, this is war. America has effectively been engaged in continuous warfare since the weeks after September 11, 2001. In a few decades we’ll learn what happens when whole generations of people grow up and take charge of a society that has waged war their entire lives.
Attempts to tone down the descriptions we use for warfare or the way we conceptualize the present conflict don’t change anything. No end is in sight. Others turn up the rhetoric: after the San Bernardino shooting, at least one presidential candidate insisted the USA now finds itself in “the next world war.” Another one puffed up his chest and boasted of his resolve to “carpet bomb” people. We hear this stuff so often, we’ve become numb to its magnitude.
Politicians are loath to calculate the psychological, social, and monetary costs of war. Historian Andrew Bacevich, however, in a sobering analysis, estimates that the massive escalation some hawks now advocate against the Islamic State, a permanent “generational war” using overwhelming strength to pacify Syria and Iraq, would require quintupling the size of the US Army and tripling the Defense Department’s budget. Permanently.
Wars are fought with calculators as well as guns. War’s victims lie in alleyways and public-health clinics at home as well as on faraway battlefields. Who do you think will pay all the costs, if those with the power to decide determine the price of more and more war to be worth it?
Along Comes Mary
Hold onto that thought, and now consider Mary.
The Gospel according to Luke recognizes the mother of Jesus was a person living in an occupied land. She needed to watch what she said in public settings. But when Mary, after learning she would give birth to God’s Son designated to assume the long-vacant throne of Israel’s celebrated King David, retreated to a secluded space with her relative Elizabeth, Luke says she made a revolutionary declaration.
This declaration, presented in Luke 1:39-55 and ready to resound in churches this coming Sunday, makes Mary the voice behind some of the most powerful claims in the Bible.
Her declaration sings about revolution. Its imagery remembers, celebrates, and anticipates events that are revolutionary in the purest sense of the word. Kings are removed from their thrones. The lowly are elevated and dignified. The hungry eat. The rich lose their purchasing power.
An urban legend surfaces occasionally in church circles, claiming that the military junta in 1980s Guatemala banned the public recitation of Mary’s words. Not likely. But if it did happen, it would have indicated that the political bosses understood what she was saying.
Mary isn’t an agitator. She’s not supernaturally brave. Her words indicate she’s just fed up with the way things are. And so she holds God to account, singing about revolution.
What sets her apart, along with other characters who appear in Luke’s first two chapters, is her vision of a world God has not forgotten. In Mary’s time, most people thought history was guided by divine beings or other invisible forces. Calling people to march in the streets or writing letters to officials couldn’t do much to influence history or change the course of nations. Mary believed only God did that.
Mary, bearing the people’s Savior in her womb, considers her condition and surveys her religious convictions. Then she utters the conclusions she has reached: God must be on the verge of doing something. God will again be the source of change. Her pregnancy and hope provide all the evidence her conclusions need: no way will God’s Messiah leave the current state of affairs as they are, where the powerful humiliate and coerce the powerless. If Jesus is indeed coming, something’s gotta give.
In her world, she’s a bit player in a Jewish and Roman political drama starring gods, emperors, elites, and generals. Why should her vision matter? She could be just another idealistic teenager dreaming of a future that sounds entirely out of touch with the real world. But Mary doesn’t just imagine a changed reality; she demands it.
Learning from the Most Powerful Woman in the World
Some people in our current time of war will hear Mary’s words and clumsily apply them to their own circumstances. They will hoard her rhetoric about a victorious God to protect their privileges. That’s ironic, given what she says about the world’s rich and powerful.
Do not hear Mary telling you in Luke 1:39-55 simply to ask God for victory in the wars we willingly and unwillingly wage. Most of us should understand God’s ways and the trajectories charted by history very differently than Mary did.
Keep your ears attuned, instead, to Mary’s understanding of who God is and what God is committed to accomplish. Most voices in the Bible lack a perspective that lets them articulate how God’s power might be exercised in ways that differ from the coercive techniques of human hands, policies, and weaponry. After all, Mary’s revolution essentially imagines God will make the losers and winners trade places, which probably perpetuates problems in the end.
Notice how Mary’s view of God won’t let her resign to the current state of affairs. She refuses to view long-term suffering and the proliferation of victims as the sacrifices a society must offer to the guardians of the status quo in exchange for security.
Therein lies her power.
This young woman’s restlessness beautifully characterizes Advent—not a season of slowing down or shopping, but a time when Christians should survey the world and shout to God, “Enough already!” Her revolutionary song embarrasses those of us who prefer to count our blessings. Its lyrics expose how docile and faltering we are in comparison to Mary. About her, poet Thomas John Carlisle wrote:
An offense against our apathy
this pathetic refugee mother.
Contending for a revolution that puts the human flourishing God desires as the top priority, Mary still sings her song today. Watch flickering Advent candles echo her stubborn confidence by refusing to let the night win. Listen for defiant hope spoken around peaceful campfires by protesters seeking racial justice. Pause for a moment by silent makeshift vigils whose auras mourn the dead along roadsides and outside buildings where people used their guns to mow down coworkers or relatives. Gather people you know and ask how the long and lengthening war has affected them.
Ask yourself: How will you use the power you have to declare and enact the future God promises, now in this time?
Bible Study Questions
- How has warfare affected your life, both in obvious or tangible ways and also in war’s hidden effects?
- How can praising God be considered a defiant or restless act? What does it mean to you to think about praise and worship in such a way?
- The story in Luke 1:39-55 is full of strong emotions and claims. Which ones most resonate with you or catch your attention? What does this biblical text tell you about God?
For Further Reading
Andrew Bacevich, “Beyond ISIS: The Folly of World War IV,” Huffington Post, 3 December 2015.
Cindy Cushman, “Mary, the Magnificat, and Race,” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 4 December 2015.
Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby (editors), Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pages 33-36.
Matthew L. Skinner, “Rise Up, It’s Advent,” Working Preacher, 1 December 2009 .
F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), pages 55-100.
Matthew L. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. His books include Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts (Brazos Press, 2015) and The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (WJK Press, 2010). Motivated by an interest in helping people explore the Bible’s connections to faith and life, he has contributed to a number of commentaries, encyclopedias, and other resources to assist pastors, teachers, and students in their study of Christian scripture. Every week he co-hosts the Sermon Brainwave podcast on Working Preacher. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and can be found online at www.matthewskinner.org.
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