This is a guest post by Josiah Callaghan of the Minneapolis area on George Floyd’s death and the riots. Josiah reflects on injustice and is inspired by the Mary Magnificat in Luke. This blog is thankful for Josiah’s thoughts.
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-3 ESV
The Rodney King beating which led to the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
When the Minneapolis riots were ongoing I reached out to Josiah Callaghan who is interested in social justice and who lives in Brooklyn Park, which is one of the neighborhoods affected by the riots; and asked if he wanted to write a post and reflect on the death of George Floyd. Josiah attended Bethel and went on to Luther Theological Seminary in Saint Paul. Josiah reflects on injustice and does so in the context of Mary’s Magnificat. This blog appreciates the ability to publish this post, and with that I will turn this over to Josiah.
The following passage from Luke’s gospel has lingered with me this week:
51 God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
52 The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
53 The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands (Luke 1:51-53, The Voice).
This excerpt from Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 as well as other hymns and prophetic passages in the Hebrew Bible which often dignify the downtrodden while humbling the haughty. The Song of Mary is unique to the gospel of Luke and while drawing upon Jewish tradition, is also profoundly distinct in composition and represents one of the few female authorial voices in the New Testament and the Bible. Here, Mary the mother of Jesus is speaking and not Luke. Still, Mary’s hymn follows one of the prevailing themes of Luke’s gospel, the theme of the “upside-down kingdom” or the “great reversal.”
The significance of a woman, let alone a Jew, making such a proclamation, in an ancient patriarchal and imperial context is somewhat lost on us, since we are so far removed from 1st century Palestine. Suffice it to say it would’ve been a brave and even defiant act. The hymn is deeply political in the sense of its rejection of Roman authority and more strikingly, of hierarchical power and material wealth. Mary is foreseeing a God who will humble the proud and powerful, while honoring those who have been trampled on and cast aside by the world. In this manner, the Magnificat foreshadows Christ’s proclamation that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16).
Some amount of time had likely passed after the angel Gabriel visited Mary and prophesied of her virgin conception and the birth of the Christ. During the time prior to her stay with Elizabeth, Mary may have reflected on the meaning and implications of the Son of God coming into the world through her. While it is impossible for us to know what was going through her mind, the Magnificat gives us a small sliver of what she may have been thinking and yearning for. Beginning with words of praise and joy, Mary prophecies of the blessings that God will bestow upon all generations through her, a mere humble servant. She unabashedly underscores how God’s power will humble and scatter the proud and powerful while exalting and honoring the lowly. She concludes by praising God’s faithfulness and righteousness in not forgetting his covenant people.
As I reflect on this passage today, it is impossible not to think of how this passage relates to the power dynamics at play in the world and in America. This week in particular, society and the Church have been wrestling with their relationship to systems, institutions and ideologies that are proud in mind and heart. These “principalities and powers” are corrupted by an arrogant assumption of their own goodness; unwilling – perhaps even unable – to come to terms with how they crush and tread upon the “lowly,” the forgotten and the unseen. This was evidenced most horrifically last week in the killing of yet another African-American by the police here in Minneapolis. George Floyd. The callous suffocation of another black man as an officer cut off air to his lungs by pressing a knee to his neck for almost nine minutes.
We hope and pray that justice and reform will come. But for too long, the killings of black and brown men and women have escaped proper reckoning. The system is broken, or perhaps even fundamentally flawed at its core. The system is proud at mind and heart, assured of its infallibility and function. Impervious to its faults and to the bodies it continues to crush. Ignorant of its maintenance of the status quo.
In Mary’s day, Rome had its knee on the necks of numerous peoples and cultures, not to mention its estimated 25-40% slave population (slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world differed in many respects from the chattel slavery of America). Citizens of the Roman Empire enjoyed privileges and rights that many within the Empire did not. Those who dared to challenge the systems, institutions and ideologies of the Empire were tortured, crushed and brutally killed. Roman citizens and subjects enjoyed the benefits of certain forms of recourse and justice, but many within the Empire did not have such an advantage. Specific measures were often implemented against various cultures, regions and religions to limit their autonomy and identity. The Jews were one such people, particularly due to their general refusal to worship Roman gods, an expectation of those living in Roman occupied territory. Typically, “Rome granted religious toleration” if and only if any given cult or religion venerated the Roman deities. Judaism and Christianity would be the two primary religions (due to their monotheism) which would refuse to do so. The individuals and communities who refused to participate or actively resisted Roman religion and practice were crushed.
Mary’s own son, Jesus, would become one such victim. Ironically, it was largely due to his rejection of a violent revolution against the Romans. For this was the expectation of many Jews for the true Messiah. Some 30+ years later, Jews would initiate a final uprising against their Roman occupiers. It resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Second Temple and the death’s of countless Jews. Many of those who survived were subsequently enslaved and scattered across the world in a diaspora. Judaism was forever changed as as result.
In Mary’s day, the lower classes were voiceless and powerless. There was no democracy. No voting. No universal citizenship, which meant many had no legal rights. In fact, something like 1% of the Jewish population in Palestine had full Roman citizenship. This meant they could be arrested and beaten and jailed without charges or any form of due process. Consider the treatment of Paul and Silas by the locals in Philippi as described in Acts 16. After arousing the anger of the locals, the magistrates called for the beating and flogging of Paul and Silas. When Paul finally reveals that he and Silas are Romans citizens the magistrates are deeply alarmed and allow them to safely leave the city, indicating the power and privilege that citizenship conferred upon an individual. The system of citizenship had great power in the Roman world. But most did not have such power. And even those who did were not guaranteed safety. According to tradition and extra-biblical texts, Paul would later be put to death by Roman authorities.
There are many parallels in American society. Disparities between ethnic and racial groups exist in many of America’s socio-economic dynamics. For example, roughly 20% of blacks fall below the poverty line and anywhere from 32-40% of black children have grown up in poverty over the last 11 years. Today, African Americans, who are full citizens, are often de facto denied citizen-rights by default through the police-system, which can exercise its power even lethally and legally before and without due process, or solid evidence, and arbitrarily (through personal judgement). Innocent men are harassed, beaten, arrested, convicted and sometimes killed. And minor crimes (such as forgery or traffic violations done by blacks are treated much more seriously than those done by whites. Far too often, the agents of the system involved are shielded from any real consequences or are allowed to continue working in different departments if they are released from duty.
The majority of the verbs in the Magnificat occur in the aorist tense (i.e. the simple past) and the indicative mood (indicating reality). This leads one to wonder why Mary spoke in the past tense, saying that the Lord has already reversed all these kinds of injustices? How can this be the case? Where do we see this? Why did she not say what we would expect. That the Lord will (someday) reverse all these earthly patterns and systems?
So is Mary’s song merely just another religious “pie in the sky” dream. A form of escapism that can be used to pacify and quell the masses who continue to be oppressed through the ages, baited by the promise of a never to be realized reality in this life?
Perhaps there is both a poetic and a prophetic meaning and import to Mary’s declaration. Perhaps she is speaking to the faithful acts of God in the past, to the Exodus and to the end of the Babylonian exile and the restoration of the Second Temple. And perhaps she is speaking of God’s promises to establish a new covenant and to bring a Messiah to his people. She anticipates the fruition of these promises and is already living into them as if they are true. Of course this is merely speculation on the part of what Mary herself thought. But those of us who now live in a post-resurrection era, can and should read Mary’s hymn in such a way. For we live in a reality (not fully realized) in which Christ truly has accomplished these things. Christ has inaugurated a new covenant and a new age. Christ has humbled the proud and powerful.
But how? How does a great reversal result from the subsequent birth, ministry, death-resurrection-enthronement of King Jesus? Why must the list of African-American’s killed unjustly continue grow. How many more Eric Garner’s and George Floyd’s will there be? was MLK Jr. mistaken and will humanity be subject to an endless and starless midnight of racism and war?
It certainly feels that way sometimes. Especially for our black and brown sisters and brothers. And it’s okay to sit in the lament and sorrow and even hopelessness. For a time.
But I believe like MLK Jr. that racism and white supremacy will not have the last word. I refuse to believe that. Yes, our trust in human ability and the notion of progress should be tempered and cautioned, for we are deeply broken and flawed creatures. Our pride and our egos all too often get in the way of confronting that which benefits us and harms others. But I cannot let cynicism have the final say. My belief in a Christ-like God won’t let me surrender to the apparent inevitability of evil and suffering. No! Love will have its day. Bit by bit until heaven and earth are united in totality. For, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will [and must] have the final word.”
There is an apocalypticism to Mary’s Magnificat. Remember that an apocalypse is a revelation, a revealing of something. A vision. In the Magnificat, Mary sees behind the veil of history to the reality of the future. The future breaks into the past and begins to seep into each passing moment in the present. This allows a new reality to begin to break-into the present. This already-not-yet eschatology has been the reality of the Christian Church now for two-thousand years. We must continue to live in that tension until we reach the shores of eternity.
In may often seem impossible for a future reality to affect the now, especially when systemic injustice is so rampant. It is a step of faith no doubt, to believe that future promises can make a difference in a world that doesn’t ever seem to truly change. But Mary’s hymn, like Luke’s gospel and the New Testament at large, somehow invites us in to a movement, which Christ began. The early Christians called it the “Way.” While this way of life, this movement may not eradicate or abolish systemic (and certainly not individual) evil immediately (for that would require eradicating humanity), it can and has empowered communities to live into this future reality in the midst of present actualities. It invites us to live as-if evil and suffering is no longer the only option nor the last word nor the ultimate destiny.
This does not mean we passively accept unjust systems. Quite the opposite. We live against them as Christ did and like Christ did. We speak out, advocate for change and disentangle ourselves as much as possible from participation and accommodation. We do this in the manner in which Christ demonstrated; prophetically, steadfastly and non-violently, but never passively. Like Christ we subvert the proud and powerful, not through violence or worldly systems but through unconditional love for others, even those who call themselves our enemies. That how the great reversal is enacted.
Christendom and cultural Christian has broadly failed to emulate Christ in this regard. But sprinkled across two thousand years of history, one will find countless examples of cruciform counter-culture challenging and resisting the status quo. From the Early Church to St. Francis. From the Hussites and the Waldensians to the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformers. From the Quaker abolitionists to the Catholic workers. From Tolstoy to Dorothy Day.