My friends Amy Moffitt and Elizabeth (Mary!) Weaver were planning a Common Table gathering around different perspectives on Mary (the mother of Jesus), and they asked me to speak from the perspective of ‘Mary as a Social Justice Radical’. I gladly agreed, and several folks asked me to post my notes here (I’m tempted to edit these words, but I’ll simply remind the reader of the old preacher’s dictum: “Write for the ears, and not for the eyes”.)
I am a middle class male. I am a suburbanite. I drive a German station wagon. I watch cable television. I buy music from iTunes and Amazon. I use a Macintosh computer. I spend hours on “Facebook”. I am a father. I have a Master’s degree. I am thoroughly entrenched in the system. I am ‘the man’.
I am also a part of the largest, most powerful, most pervasive Empire on the planet. What’s worse is that I take as my holy Scripture a collection of writings by and for an oppressed, marginalized people. And so I very naturally tend to read these Scriptures as my own story.
So I am a powerful and privileged person, who has been trained to see myself as marginalized and oppressed. Which is to say, I blind myself to my own complicity in oppression and marginalization while I insist that I am a victim.
I am a European white heterosexual male: I should not be allowed to read the Bible. Yet because of my awareness of all of this, I have a desire to be a radical. Still, my yearning for social justice is a kind of psychological affectation. A philosophical ideal. A theological construct. In short, I am a posseur.
Yet my American Dream for my kids is that they will not be so conventional. That they will have more courage. That they will get out where the wind blows. That they will pull away from The System.
This starts with their names. Part of the reason we call our first girl ‘Eleanor’ is that it reminds us of that great social justice hero Eleanor Roosevelt. Who did a lot of good, but who also thought it was a good idea to bulldoze slums to rescue people from poverty. So we remember to be humble about our great ideas, too.
After Eleanor, I started to tend towards ‘Mary’. Or more precisely, ‘Maria’, since that is closer to the Greek version of the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Because Mary is hardcore. Mary is strong. Mary shakes her fist at Rome, the biggest superpower the world had ever known at that time. Little Mary the Teenage Mother of the Messiah doesn’t cower– she pronounces the undoing of The Empire by the fruit of her womb. Mary is fearless.
So I love that name, but it just didn’t seem right. Partly because having your first and last name both have two syllables just feels a little flat. (Unless of course you are Amy Moffitt. Or Stacy Stavlund. Or Michael Croghan. Or Michael Stavlund.) So girl #2 was Lucia, that storied hero of early Christianity Saint Lucia. Who would not be dragged into debauchery, even with 1000 men and 50 oxen pulling. Who could not be set afire, and who would not cease her preaching even when a soldier sent a spear through her throat.
Girl number three came much closer to Mary. Miriam, after the sister of Moses (who I imagined was a kind of hero to Mary). Miriam, who pulled off one of the greatest and most delightful acts of civil disobedience, ever. When Pharaoh said “Throw all of the baby boys in the river!”, Miriam smiled sweetly and curtseyed and said, “Oh yes, oh almighty Pharaoh. But first let me surround that baby with a tiny basket, and then paint it with some pitch, and then toss him in the Nile.” Which she did, and guess where her baby brother drifted? He just so happened to meander up to Pharaoh’s daughter at the side of the river. Who, like any sensible person, thought it was inhuman to leave a little baby to die. (Well, like any sensible woman, anyway.) So guess where Moses grew up? In the friggen palace, yo! Boo-yah!!
The Bible is full of women like this. Fearless, principled, devout. But also devious, undermining, and calculating. But none who cast a longer shadow than Mary.
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary denounces the powers that be. She declares the powerful bankrupt. She claims mercy for herself and her people, while she calls down judgment on her oppressors.
She is not humble! I mean, yes, next to God, she is humble. But she is here serving as a literary and sociological stand-in for generations of oppressed people. And among those oppressed people, she is a member of a marginalized subset– a woman.
And– she is quickly realizing– she is about to be lumped in with the smaller and even less respected subset of oppressed females, the immoral. She will be called an adultress. People will whisper that she is a whore. She is about to bear the burden of this for the rest of her whole life. She will be ostracized: thoroughly, vigorously, and constantly, until she is dead. At which point her children will be called ‘bastard’.
So when she speaks up, she’s not clasping her hands in some kind of beatific display. She’s not cowering like she’s emotionally constipated. No, she is standing up. She is holding her head high. She is beating her chest a little. She is saying, “Yes, God chose me. God chooses the humble. God chooses the hungry. God chooses to topple thrones at the hands of teenaged girls. And this is not unusual– God has been doing this for generations. And generations, and generations.”
And the literary foreshadowing is clear: God is about to come to earth in human flesh. Not because God is posturing, or because God is a show-off, or because God is passive-aggressive, but because God is humble. God is meek. God has no need to be otherwise. God is God.
So Mary stands up, and says, “Synchonize your sundials, Rome. Your days are coming to an end. You push people around, but you are about to get a God-sized shove. The power you wield will collapse on itself. And crush you in the process.”
Mary looks at the temple, and says, “So step off, Sandedrin, with all of your religious plots and plans and rules about how things should be, and how exactly they will happen. Step off all of your assumption and presumption that all of God’s deliverance would issue from your vaunted places of power.
Mary speaks up, and says, “So listen here, you men with all of your bravado who pretend you have neither weakness nor need of any women. Who look at me like a piece of property that you might or might not acquire. Guess who chose me? Good God Almighty, that’s who. Does that surprise you? “
“And while we’re at it, kiss my ass, all you fancy ladies who have shoved your skeletons so far into the back of your closets that you forget how many are in there. Keep looking down your noses at me. Keep calling me names. Keep putting me down so you can feel good. Just don’t forget me, okay? Oh, wait, I don’t think you’ll be able to do that.”
Mary is not sitting down with her legs crossed and her hands folded. No, she’s standing up, standing with the prophets and the Judges. She’s standing up with all of the women in the line of Israel who got everything done, and who barely got noticed (much less written about in the Scriptures). All of the women who raised all of those families and who gave their frightened husbands and sons the courage to be called the “heroes of the faith”.
Mary is standing up with them, standing up for them, standing there to get the attention of all of the people who haven’t noticed all of them for all of these years and years and years… standing up and looking them all in the eye and saying,
“This is exactly how God always does it.”