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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Memory and Hope—Luke 1:46b-55 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

Mary’s Magnificat challenges us to bend our sight, to look both forward and backward. For without a vision of the future, without a messianic hope, we can only ever mourn the past—we can never envision its regeneration, a new heaven and a new earth.

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

It is perhaps clichéd to note that our contemporary political situation reads like a litany of injustice. From the most intimate sexual assaults, to the most public acts of state violence, injustice appears at every level of society. There is simply no escape from the unbearable weight of injustice.

However, in every such moment we hear the quiet call of justice. We hear this call in the trembling voice of victims of police violence—“please do not shoot me.… I’m trying to just do what you say.” We hear this call in the voice of Gazan victims of colonial repression. And, perhaps surprisingly, we hear this call in a two-thousand-year-old hymn, attributed to Mary the mother of Jesus: the Magnificat.

In the first book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates interrogates Glaucon: “but as concerning justice, what is it?” Mary’s Magnificat offers a response, powerful in its very simplicity. To enact justice is, on the one hand, to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty; on the other, it is to lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, and remember mercy.

While Socrates would certainly criticize Mary for failing to get to the essence of justice—“remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples” (Plato, Euthyphro)—Mary remains unconcerned with such matters. Like the prophetic tradition before her, Mary speaks from the position of the marginalized, for whom Socrates’ question is not the question that imposes itself as tragically imperative. Instead, the urgency of injustice demands a different question, a simple question: but as concerning justice, when is it?

When is justice? Why not simply now? The temporality of justice is complicated. The time of justice always moves simultaneously forwards and backwards. This is the complex lessen that Mary’s Magnificat teaches us: that justice—here the justice of God—is always a remembering and an anticipating. It is the “remembrance of his mercy” and a hope that someday all people “will call me blessed.” It is the fulfillment of “the promise he made to our ancestors” and a promise still to be fulfilled, a messianic promise, encapsulated in a child who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:34).

No one saw the complex temporality of justice as clearly as the 20th century critical theorist Walter Benjamin. For Benjamin, justice is history, and history is Klee’s Angelus Novus, “his face turned toward the past. Where … he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX). History, for the one who demands justice, is an “oppressed past” (ibid. XVII), one whose victims lay claim to the present. This grants us both a power and a responsibility—a demand for justice that Benjamin names a “weak messianic force” (ibid. II).

Mary too, like the Angelus Novus, faces backwards, but hers is not a vision of catastrophe, but a vision of deliverance “from generation to generation.” Like the prophetic chroniclers from whom she borrows, Mary reads history theologically, as a history of reconciliation and liberation. Yet this liberation is never disfigured into a triumphalism—our responsibility to the past remains, the victims of injustice maintain their claim.

Thus the memory of deliverance is simultaneously the promise for the future: a weak messianic force. God “has filled the hungry,” so will God continue to fill the hungry; God “has lifted up the lowly,” so will God continue to lift up the lowly—“to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Or as Benjamin writes, “every second of time [is] the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter” (ibid. XVIIIb).

As we stand under the unbearable weight of injustice, Mary’s Magnificat challenges us to bend our sight, to look both forward and backward. For without a vision of the future, without a messianic hope, we can only ever mourn the past—we can never envision its regeneration, a new heaven and a new earth. At the same time, this hope is not empty. Christian hope is empowered by the past—by the rightful claim of those who have been lost, and by the recognition of a history of deliverance.

In this season of waiting—this anticipation of the advent of the Lord—we must retain the properly Christian posture: we must remember the Lord who came, and the Lord who will come; the justice which came, and the justice which may someday come: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22.20). So, let us remember together the words of an old Catholic Missal, whose preface to Advent affirms:

Now that the time draws near for the coming of Him Whom you are sending and the day of our liberation is dawning with faith in your promises, we rejoice with holy exultation. Therefore with the Angels and Archangels, the Thrones and Dominations, and all the militant hosts of heaven, we continuously praise Your glory in song, and say: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.

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