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Politics of Scripture

The World Turned Upside Down

Mary, an unmarried peasant girl, is pregnant. Though scarcely an intimidating figure, her words in the song ascribed to her in Luke’s Gospel—known as “The Magnificat”—ought to make those of us who are privileged people stop to think, if not to fear.

“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 1:46b-55 (NRSV)

Servant Girl and Servant People

Mary, an unmarried peasant girl, is pregnant. Though scarcely an intimidating figure, her words in the song ascribed to her in Luke’s Gospel—known as “The Magnificat”—ought to make those of us who are privileged people stop to think, if not to fear.

Mary greets her unplanned pregnancy not as a disaster but as a divine blessing. The angel Gabriel has informed her that the child she now carries is to be called “the Son of the Most High,” and that God will give him David’s throne (Luke 1:32). Calling herself a “servant of the Lord,” she declares that God has looked on her in her humble state with care and that generations henceforth will call her blessed (1:38, 48).

Mary opens her song of praise with reflection on her personal history (Luke 1:46-49), and then turns to look back at the experience of the people of Israel (Luke 1:50-55). Her language echoes her ancestors’ tributes to God for acts of divine rescue or intervention (as in Exodus 6:2-8 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10) and expressions of thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love (as in Psalm 103:11-18). God has shown strength and favor not only to God’s servant Mary, but also to the servant people, Israel—and both will be vindicated in the world’s eyes.

Mary is praising God for ancient acts, but her words also point prophetically to what will one day be. God will again show mercy to God’s people by lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry! God will again act with an uplifted arm by scattering the haughty, throwing down the powerful from their thrones, and disgracing the wealthy!

As portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus likewise celebrates God as one who reverses social fortunes (Luke 4:18-19; 6:20-26; see also Luke 16:19-31). As in Mary’s song, Jesus’ vision looks beyond the immediate horizon for its most complete fulfillment: his prophecies of opened prison gates, sated bellies, and overturned social hierarchies will not be realized during his own ministry, at least not in a literal way. By including Mary’s song as backdrop to Jesus’ inauguration of his mission in Nazareth, Luke reminds his readers that Jesus’ vision is not a new one. Rather, God has always acted in ways that disrupt the social order—and will do so again.  

The Powers’ Protection of Hierarchy

The divine deeds and attributes celebrated by Mary and embodied in Jesus’ ministry flip the social order upside down and are therefore often opposed by the principalities and powers. The authority figures of the world have, since time immemorial, tended to normalize enforced hierarchy, because hierarchy is essential to their own flourishing and retention of control. Thus, the devil offered authority to Jesus, but only if Jesus would show subservience to Satan by worshiping him (Luke 4:6).

In Christian contexts down through the ages, Scripture has often been used (selectively) to legitimate unjust hierarchical control. By way of examples, our minds may conjure up American colonists casting themselves as (new) Israelites settling a (new) Canaan to rationalize their conquest of its native inhabitants. Or we may think of slaveholders quoting Genesis 9:24-27 and Titus 2:9-10 to enforce obedience. Or perhaps we envision church leaders reciting 1 Corinthians 14:34 to keep women silent and submissive in churches.

Influenced as much by Plato and Aristotle as by the Bible, medieval and Renaissance thinkers conceived of a hierarchy often called “the great chain of being” (Bucholz and Key, Early Modern England, 22-31), which they imagined encompassing the entire created order. Humans ranked below angels on the “chain” or “ladder,” but humankind was itself subdivided according to various markers of wealth, power, and status. As King James I of England declared in a speech to Parliament in 1610, “Kings are not only God’s Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself [i.e., in Scripture] they are called Gods.” Hence, the monarch’s position must be inviolate and everyone from the king on down to the lowliest beggar ought to stay in their assigned place.

Radical Resistance in the 1600s

Such views of the great chain of being and the divine right of kings did not persist unchallenged. In England in the 1640s, religious overreach and usurpation of Parliamentary authority by King Charles I (son of James I) precipitated a series of devastating civil wars, in which the King and his forces faced off against Parliament’s army. To make a long and very complicated story short, the royalists lost, and on January 30, 1649, a remnant of Parliament (known as the “Rump Parliament”) executed King Charles I by beheading him.

The tumultuous 1640s had seen not just battles but also failed crops, economic collapse, and the shakeup of key institutions, including the Church of England and the court system. Censorship fell by the wayside, and the Parliamentary army thrust soldiers drawn from the middling and lower classes into new contexts and startling conversations. In this social upheaval, radical ideas—many of them anti-hierarchical—spread like wildfire. In 1647, for example, Col. Thomas Rainborowe argued before members of the Parliamentary army (including Oliver Cromwell) that the franchise ought to be expanded. Rainborowe declared, “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he,” and ought not to be subjected to a government to which he had not consented through his vote.

In the religious arena, a wide array of new sects emerged, proclaiming dissent against traditional Puritan or Anglican theology and rejection of church order. Some of the sectarians refused to pay the mandatory tithes that supported clergy members’ salaries, proclaiming that access to God and Christ was open to all without any need for “hireling ministers.” The Quakers became the best known such sect, but they were far from alone in their democratizing ideas about access to divine revelation and presence.

Nor were the Quakers unique in the ways they undermined social status and hierarchies. For instance, beginning in 1648 a commoner named Gerrard Winstanley published pamphlets condemning society’s systemic oppression of the poor. Winstanley was a brilliant and biblically literate writer even though he apparently had little formal education. In 1649 he began organizing popular resistance to exclusive property laws, proclaiming that God had created the earth as “a common treasury” and that historic patterns of land distribution were sinful. Winstanley led a group who called themselves the “Diggers” or “True Levellers” in cultivating fallow land that they did not not own so as to produce food and income to survive. The group was broken up by the authorities, but Winstanley endures as an exemplar of those who—like Mary and Jesus—have critiqued the powers and declared God to be on the side of the oppressed.

Reforming the Powers

Today among social and political liberals who live in wealthy and privileged lands—and I count myself in this group—one often perceives resentment not just of enforced or unjust hierarchies but of all hierarchies and all unequal assignments of status and power. The word “hierarchy” leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths. Progressives are inclined to think that everyone ought to have a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making; they may have trouble seeing how human equality can be compatible with hierarchical structures. But rather than despising and rejecting all hierarchy, Christians living and working within hierarchical systems might do better to engage in constructive criticism, seeking to discern how a given system inhibits the flourishing of those in its lower echelons and to work for needed change. 

Such an approach coheres with the work of Reformed theologians who conceive of the “principalities and powers” as humanly created social entities and norms of behavior, whose original purposes were in many cases to benefit society. Hierarchical structuring is a central feature of some such systems, enabling them to function effectively over decades or generations. One may think here of institutions such as the military establishment, state university systems, or codes of law together with the courts that interpret and apply them. It is hard to envision how such systems could function without some kind of tiered distribution of authority and power.

Yet, in a Reformed (Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be is a concise introduction to such an understanding) understanding even systems created for good purposes are prone to sin. Authorities within a system may exploit its processes to hold onto power, or practice willful blindness to the harmful consequences of their actions. Those lower down may fall into apathy or otherwise fail to exercise agency to protect the vulnerable. Because such systemic sin is so pervasive, there is ongoing need to work to reform “the powers that be”–up to and including eradicating systems that are exploitative, destructive, or devoted to evil purposes. 

Striving for a more nuanced approach to hierarchies may also help us recognize that we are part of the systems that need to be reformed. When privileged people claim to disdain all hierarchy and to side consistently with the oppressed, hypocrisy lies close at hand. To put matters in the terms of the Magnificat, Mary’s portrayal of God as the over-turner of hierarchies is a sword that cuts both ways. From a global perspective we ourselves are the wealthy and the powerful. We are the ones who live on protected estates with hedges and fences and walls that the poor cannot transgress. What if they want to dig on our land? How will we react? Will we remember what Mary said? Will it affect how we respond to the pleas of the poor? Mary’s song is a word of assurance for some, but a promise of judgment and reversal for others. Are we ready to hear it?

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