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Politics of Scripture

Responding to Mary’s Willfulness

“Can’t the disadvantaged be advantaged without disadvantaging us? Does their uplift necessarily have to entail our own loss?”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him    from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

Imagine meeting Mary in first-century Palestine. Mary and her people are surrounded by the Roman army’s weapons of war—weapons that were wielded in order to maintain “the peace of Rome.” Even a preliminary glance at Luke 1:46–55, which calls for the leveling of unequal power, would lead us to guess that Mary sees right through pronouncements of peace from the mouths of those who held military power. Mary, in other words, is a woman who is socially and politically aware.

This same Mary is surrounded by news of expectation. She is waiting for her child to be born. Some of this expectation is frightening. After all, Mary is pregnant outside marriage, waiting for a child whose past is questionable and whose future is uncertain.

In the passage itself, however, we sense other less frightening and more exciting expectations about her pregnancy. It is the expectation of good things for those on the underside of society—but with a twist: the reversal of unequal power. This is a twist that may trouble modern readers in liberal democracies. Can Mary not expect good things without turning every good expectation into a binary where privileged subjects necessarily experience loss?

Binaries have a way of troubling us (me included), at least when it comes to our own loss. We might envy the 1% who have more—so much more—than us. We probably wouldn’t mind if their loss meant we get a little bit more. But when the binary highlights our privilege compared to severely disadvantaged others, that is a different story. Can’t the disadvantaged be advantaged without disadvantaging us? Does their uplift necessarily have to entail our own loss?

Mary—as encountered through her song—may be considered by some as a “killjoy,” a person who spoils the pleasure of others. I borrow this insight from Sara Ahmed’s book, Living a Feminist Life, where the term has a particular resonance that has to do with how powerful persons perceive those on the underside with strong wills. Mary might remind some of what Sara Ahmed calls a “willful girl” in her book. Ahmed cites a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales that we might use as lens to interpret Mary and her song in Luke 1:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

How might this story serve as a lens to interpret Mary and her song—and how might it help us understand our own context, as well?

Mary is certainly willful in her song’s pronouncements: the claims of the weak are justified, those that are arrogant in their powerful positions are judged, the lowly are lifted up and exalted, and the fortunes of the poor and rich are reversed.

How might Mary’s willful pronouncements play out in our twenty-first century world? This question would be a great one to pose to those in your circles, as an Advent practice. I might, for instance, ask my ten-year-old nephew and niece if they can think of an example in which those who are poor are exalted, or if they can describe an image in which the fortunes of the poor and rich are reversed. In addition to offering good food for thought, such an exercise might enable us to come to terms with the blunt, willful proclamation of Mary.

At the same time, scripturally speaking, Mary is not really saying anything new. The God of the oppressed that Mary describes in her song is the same God of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible. Mary thus stands in a long line of prophets and prophetesses who describe God in similar terms, pointing to God’s continuing fidelity to those who are oppressed.

As she prophesies, Mary also places herself in the position of actually playing a role in bringing about God’s salvation. In this sense, Mary is particularly “willful.”

As we read Ahmed’s story of the willful girl as interpreters today, we might benefit from asking the following questions: What destiny will those like Mary have in our own time? What place will Mary and those like her today have in our hearts and minds? What influence will they have in our sociopolitical processes, public policy, and nation states?

As readers and observers of stories and situations, we sometimes find ourselves in a position with the power to change the future. Voting, speaking up, writing, saying “no” to cruelty, coming to terms with privilege, embracing loss when easy privilege is challenged, treating others with kindness—these acts are political because they have implications for the body politic, especially for those on the underside of society.

As we come to terms with our own power to shape the present and future, will we brush off those like Mary—the ones on the underside, hoping for a better future—because they seem unpleasant? Will we, with our authority to strike down or let grow, choose to strike the willful arm of those who continue to persist despite the weight of injustice? The answers to these questions might be a reflexive, “No, we won’t!” But Mary’s song challenges us to pause for a moment, and consider things in the context of our time and place before offering easy responses.

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