Category Archives: Justice
“WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM OF PRIMITIVE RELIGIONS! Step this way and now look at the peculiar display on the subject of idolatry. We modern people cannot comprehend how superstitious were the ancients, such that the Hebrews prohibited carving little statues and bowing down to them…”
Since we religious folk have a 3,000 year old tradition and an ancient story crossing several cultures of the ancient world, I thought I would try to explain a word that seems so outdated and dull: idolatry. The prohibition of it is one of the Ten Commandments, and so it would seem rather quaint for our time. After all, we have a show called “American Idol” and we talk about “idolizing” someone. The ancients would have been terrified at such casual talk, but since we’re fairly casual about everything, maybe a museum lecture would be interesting.
In the ancient world, people represented their faith all sorts of ways–they worshiped trees, poles, statues, images, rocks, and projected divinities upon all of nature. Generally, they created these images with the understanding toat there might be a little sympathetic magic possible–to guarantee a good crop, success in life, or victory in war, by appeasing the god with offerings.
The Hebrews were forbidden this luxury. Only the mysterious God of Moses, a God who would not even reveal his name except as another mystery, was the true God. They could not control this God, manipulate the Lord for their own purposes or take God for granted as a national plaything or prop for the king. This God demaned justice, brought them to judgment when they failed and humbled kings when they became too haughty.
Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is, essentially, confusing Creator and creation. When we elevate anything created into the place only rightly for God, it becomes idolatrous. Thus, Paul in Colossians, moves from concern about greed to idolatry (NRSV Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
It is idolatrous precisely because it rules over our life. Addictions are the idolatry of that which was created good–but not ultimate! Thus, food, sex, work, even family, patriotism, religion, can all be “idolatrous” if we do not live loosely attached to them–that is, understanding our right relationship to them. They and we will pass away. It is not worth ruining one’s spiritual life, for example, simply to feed the bottomless need for affirmation, fame, money or stuff. Food, sex, work, family, country and religion are all also good. But they are not ultimate.
It is equally idolatrous to want to be the most spiritual person in the world, to identify one’s own interpretations of God’s word and will with God’s word and will. This is the most dangerous of all. Idolatry is twofold–to lift up the earthly to the place of God and forget God. It is equally and also the desire to bring “god” down to earth, to create a manageable god who doesn’t ask too much of us, who is always just what we want God to be, our “buddy,” and never our judge or mystery. To understand God truly is to never forget that only God is God, and that our attempts to know God are never all that God is. To remember this is the beginning of wisdom.
The only way, then, to rightly live in this world is with contentment regarding what we have and humility with regards to our self-understanding, and for that to be enough. It is to be humble with regards to who we are, and to accept ourselves as God made us, and accept and care for others as they are, not imposing ourselves on them. To demand the impossible of oneself or others is also to stand at the border of idolatry. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and what is right is the aim of life. It is enough to see what God has made and simply say, “It is good. This is enough.”
Healthy self-regard means accurate, balanced, true self-understanding and to accept oneself. Period. It is the delusional need to project ourselves upon the world to deny our limits that can lead to wars, violence, self-hatred and hate of others. And it is precisely here that we understand why both politics and religion are so often destructive. We elevate our own views, demands and needs beyond criticism, discussion and conversation with God’s other creatures. Rather than listening to one another and figuring out the best way, we engage in the most expensive and nefarious games to avoid ever telling or admitting another’s truth. ”Spin” is simply another word for deceit, even if it is oneself who is deceived. The motive for the deceit is the real culprit, and both religion and politicians should spend much more time and energy there, for the good of themselves and the rest of us. When one is more consumed with preserving ones own position, power or advantage than the good of our neighbor, an idol is nearly complete.
“Thanks for your patience, folks. I hope you found this interesting. That ends our museum lecture from these primitive people so long ago. Quaint, isn’t it? Well, back to our progressive, technologically superior world. Fortunately, we are more evolved. Our politics more humane. Someday, we’ll live together in peace and everyone will have what they need. Humankind never had it so good. There is no problem we cannot solve, is there? And if we can just get our people elected, the sky’s the limit…”
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry
I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess. I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.
Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around. They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote. Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of
diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion. We have to run for election every year. It’s called “the budget.” A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long. Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.
So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before. He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?” And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”
A little unsolicited advice:
- You have to learn how to build consensus. Winning 51-49 is not winning. You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
- You will learn humility willingly or eventually. Willingly is much less painful.
- Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one: “Learn to tell a story. Keep it simple. Tell the truth. Truth doesn’t need help.”
- The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end. They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
- It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement. Even if you and your mother think so. God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
- Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
- You have to trust others to make real changes. Nobody does it by themselves.
- Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
- Forgive and move on. It’s just that simple. Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
- Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall. There are worse things than losing your job.
- Believe in Someone or Something larger than you. Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
- It’s not your church. It’s not their church. It’s God’s church. Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
- If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it. It’s not rocket science.
- Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
- A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
- Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular. Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
- No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
- Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
- Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
- As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
- Love really is the great truth of life. Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry
When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything.
By Gary Furr
The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates. The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us. The gulf between the races is painfully obvious. It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases. And we are.
In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work. As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror. He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.
In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal. Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.
It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth. It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too. We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups. Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.
If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring. We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”
At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side. I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over. In a little while, they were released and we were on our way. At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.
It was obvious to me that they were pained about this. They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor. Their integrity is as high as I know. I would trust my life to them. But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.
Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life. They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color. They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street. As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection. A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.
Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.” It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong. It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts. It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.
The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality. There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us. If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”
In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment. Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.
Understanding is hard, hard work. So is justice. Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.” If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another. We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.
In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened. Without it, no way to work through it would have existed. That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect. Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.
The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense. When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things. For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react. The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love. Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care. It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.
I have not been surprised at the diverse and passionate reaction to the Joseph Kony 2012 video, viewed by more than 80 million people as of last night, with accusations of everything from overreaction to his being a “CIA contractor.” I can comprehend the anguish. When I went to Kenya in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the sight of tens of thousands of people living in the slums of Nairobi, and the complexities of a country whose history I only began to understand. I chose a humble approach, assuming I knew nothing and had few answers. I also know that only the people of a place can finally discover the answers for their nation. Read the rest of this entry
Ten Commandments for Working for Change (Kingdom of God Version)
I am not sure why I started this. I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are. And yet, I hope. I still think things can be better. This is mysterious. I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.
- First Things First. The ministry of healing requires clear priorities. The First Commandment is always the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” “Let God be God,” is redundant. God IS
God. The only question is, “Will we rail against God and the universe and the Way It REALLY Is or not?” All of our spiritual traditions say God doesn’t care for human deities running around lording themselves over the rest of us. This keeps motives clear, priorities arranged and a healthy dose of humility in all of our efforts.
- Caring IS change. We are changed the moment we care. The poor are my neighbors, friends, or estranged kin, not problems to be eliminated or solved. Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, once said that sin entered the world when God was first spoken of in the third person by Satan: “Did God REALLY say?” Maybe the same is true of our neighbors—when we talk about them in place of “I-Thou,” as Martin Buber called it, we get, well, what we have. Listening, being present, loving our neighbors has already changed the conversation. Until you care, nothing changes. Not caring is a tempting way of protecting from the hurt, but it is ultimately impossible for being really alive.
- Politics alone cannot heal. It can facilitate genuine healing or get in its way. The same can be said of all the “principalities and powers”—economy, power, business, civic life, and even religion. They are instruments to occasionally use but never of eternal value for themselves. Sometimes it is the obstacle to go around, sometimes the opposition to ignore but never a god in whom we trust wholly. Politics is pretty important, which is why it is always overestimating itself
- Epiphanies are doorways! Real change begins with ideas, relationships, and genuine connection. Money, power and importance can only follow them if the change is genuine and the commitment unwaivering. Money, fame, and power are not usually agents of change so much as instruments of resistance. They get on board when it suits them, and left to themselves tend to prefer comfort, control and micromanaging (i.e., spiritual anesthesia). Because change will always bring the Unholy Trio into question, they become anxious because they will decrease if things do change. They do not like this, but sometimes the numbers just aren’t with them any more. Epiphanies are fast track connections.
- The Power of the Question. Before transformation was the question and it must be asked by right person at the right time. “Questioning” can be a somewhat self-righteous exercise, however, even a delusional self-perception (this was franchised in the United States in the 1970s, causing the number of people who were at Woodstock to quadruple). Real questions, like real change, have the element of self-involved investment/caring/suffering.
Part Two tomorrow…
I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff. Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting. It’s just all so predictable and often pompous. When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always. You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:
TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS
AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”
NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)
GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND
MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH
COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.
CURE FOUND FOR CANCER (see G17)
As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is. But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years. Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.
Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations. It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common. First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety. As I heard people
say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.” Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one? We did when I was in the sixth grade. Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.
Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly. Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.
If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader. Aretha Franklin? Started in church. I could go on but why? The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.
I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night. A way of life is disappearing. Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me. But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot. I am glad for it.
The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg. While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor. He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals. He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.” Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.
It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them. When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession? I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists. But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing. Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.
Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone. But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space. It matters.
NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor 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 forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing. This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.
Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day. The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness. It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.
Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.
Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.
Who is right? Mary or Nietsche? Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts? Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition: “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.” “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”
Mary’s song bears some study for us. We sing things that come from the deepest places in us. Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing. To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.
The question is, “Which song?”
I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.” It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple. It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round. It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him. It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.
One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.” It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen. If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”
The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them. In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them. It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.
The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God. Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.” Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:
NRS Exodus 15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over. They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.
That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition. One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s. Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.
That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary. It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.
Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one. Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway. Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.
Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture. But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world. The nobodies are somebodies to God. The forgotten are remembered. The lost are found.
Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.” One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either. For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar. If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.
Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship! One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–
- We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
- We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values. If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus? Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
- True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.
Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?” And the answer is, “No.” What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know. Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”
But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination. To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche. He said, “Yes, you are right. Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.” Niebuhr wrote:
The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.
I tell you this: it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion. Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest. A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself. Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption. Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us. Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.
We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world. We seek security by power and it eludes us even more. We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.
We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster. The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness. The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.
The church is not exempt from this way, either. We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.
If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way. I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life. It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.
But the alternative is worse. If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus. I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others. I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.
Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on. When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings. We might change the patterns of the past. We might find healing and health. We might make a difference in the world.
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary, don’t you weep
Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
One of these days about twelve o clock,
This old world’s going to reel and rock
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary don’t you weep
Do we have any idea what we’re singing?
- Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
- Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
- Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
- Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
- Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
- Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.