The AP released a story some years back announcing that the rate of people considered “low income” has risen to almost one in two Americans. In other words, there are about 150 million Americans who, if not ensnared by the rapacious talons of poverty, are barely scraping by. That is a troubling statistic, especially given the fact, as has been widely reported, that the income disparity between the rich and the poor continues to widen at an alarming rate. The starkness of the contrast is stunning. A few “job creators” get almost exponentially richer, while the rest stand on the sidelines and watch.
It’s Advent, so I can’t get the Magnificat out of my head–especially verses 52–3: “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.”
There will, of course, be those readers who dismiss this as just another “liberal rant” from Penwell. And while I’m not above a good “liberal rant,” I find this juxtaposition of Mary’s Advent cry of anticipation and the current state of our economic dissolution an important contrast in theological assumptions.
On the one hand, a common theological assumption most closely associated with a popular expression of Evangelical Christianity, centers on personal morality. On the other hand, another theological assumption, less popular, but, I think, closer to the heart of the Gospels, centers not only on personal morality, but on the morality that attaches to the public way we organize our private selves.
The first way of construing Christianity concludes that the primary responsibility one assumes as a follower of Jesus is largely a personal one, the extent of which commitment can be determined by a kind of Ignatian moral inventory: Did I kill? Steal? Swear? Commit adultery? Drink? Remember to oppose the homosexual agenda? More positively: Did I pray? Read my bible? Go to church? Do my devotions? Support American values?
And to the extent to which this popular form of Evangelicalism is social, its fundamental concern is evangelistic: How can I get people who don’t view God the way I do to change their minds and agree that my understanding of God is right? Of course, there are other social concerns; it’s just that they tend to revolve around issues of personal piety on a larger scale—abortion, homosexuality, or the placement of the Ten Commandments on public property.
And for all the talk of the crass commercialization of Christmas, it strikes me that Evangelicalism is especially vulnerable to the commodification of the yuletide season, since the seasonal mass-marketing of Christmas is but a secular appeal to the needs and desires of the individual that the individual is taught to cultivate by popular Christianity as a matter of course.
That is not to say that there is no awareness of the potential problems with the commercial nature of Christmas, however. By way of admission that not everything is comme il faut in our private consumerist universes we are reminded with a form of phony severity to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The authenticity of such an admonition is questionable, however, just to the extent that you can find it marketed as a slogan for purchase on a t-shirt, a coffee mug, or a neck tie—the intellectual seriousness of a proposition being inversely proportional to the number of bumper-stickers that announce its verisimilitude.
The second theological assumption suggests that not only are we responsible for our individual moral failings, but that those individual failings often pale in comparison to the larger failings we participate in by the way we organize our common life. Are the systems we erect and maintain geared toward justice or toward preserving current power arrangements?
In the Magnificat, the problem that Mary articulates has to do with God’s relationship to power. Mary’s at the wrong end of the economic spectrum. She’s from Nazareth, for crying out loud. I mean, that’s the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of being from Harlan County. And with the annunciation—the news that she’s soon going to be a single mother—Mary takes a swan-dive off the socio-economic cliff.
As far as the powers and principalities, it’s almost impossible to go too much lower than Mary, the pregnant teen-aged mother from the wrong side of the tracks. Any leverage she had vanished, any power she might have had took the red-eye to Tupelo.
And power’s still the coin of the realm, isn’t it? Those who don’t have it want it, and those who have it—if politics in Washington is any indication (I'm looking at you Citigroup)—want to keep those who don’t have it from getting it (which is the maddening thing to me about the healthcare debate, immigration reform, and the arguments over labor and entitlements).
Mary’s singing about reversal. Mary’s singing the song about where God is—and where God is, apparently, is where the poor and the powerless are being raised up, and the rich and the powerful are being sent empty away. God isn’t interested in co-opting the corridors of power, of gaining credibility with those in charge. God doesn’t need U.S. Senators to dispense justice, doesn’t need bankers and CEOs to establish the kingdom of heaven; all God needs are the hungry and the poor—and those who are willing to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Because, to be honest with you, as Terry Eagleton has noted, “The poor and exploited are a sign of failure of the governing powers, since they illustrate what misery those powers must wreak in order to secure their sway” (The Gospels, xix).
Mary knows. God is where justice breaks through the self-interest of the rich and the powerful, where the poor and the forgotten finally get a place at the table.
Is the Magnificat good news? Well, if you’re trying to hang onto your position in this world, maybe not so much. If you’ve got something to lose when God turns the world on its head, this could be a tough word to hear. On the other hand, if you’ve lived your life with the anawim (Hebrew. Literally, something like “the crapped on.”), if Mary seems like somebody from your neighborhood, if you’re used to bringing up the rear because of where you were born, or what job your dad didn’t have, or whom you love, or what color of skin you were born with, then Mary’s song’s got to sound like the Hallelujah Chorus.
The question posed by Christmas on the near horizon, and the coming of Christ in glory on the distant horizon is: How do we who live at the front of the line make it our song?
It would seem that even here in America, the land of promise, there are an ever increasing number of people who will be watching to see if our faith is informed by the devastating poetry of the Magnificat or by bumper-stickers.
- “Low income” is defined as 100%–199% of the poverty level—which for 2014 is set at $23,850 for a family of four. ↩
- At first blush, it would appear that I am merely constructing a convenient straw man with a dismissive recounting of a time-honored understanding of Christian faithfulness. I am keenly aware of the virtues of Evangelical Christianity, having grown up in it, and will gladly admit that in its truest form it is much more nuanced than my thin description of it here. Put more simply, there are Evangelicals who take their commitments extremely seriously, and who, though I might disagree on various ways of approaching discipleship, I would gladly consider sincere, and who can make a compelling case for their understanding of the Christian faith. I think, however, that on the whole I am not being unfair to a certain kind of public Evangelicalism that understands itself as principally concerned with the individual as the locus of theological meaning and the key playing field for moral achievement. Liberal Christians have their own lenses, which are often just as indebted to Enlightenment understandings about the priority of the individual, but I don’t have space to line that one out at the moment. ↩
- Someone might rightly point out here that I am not immune from the need to persuade people that my position is the correct one. What is a blog like this for, after all, but to argue a particular position with the hope of convincing others that the author is something like right. The difference, as I see it, is that I’m not prepared to go the extra step of suggesting that a failure to agree with me is a choice to spend eternity separated from God. ↩
- I lived for almost ten years next door to Harlan County. My two oldest children were born at Appalachian Regional Hospital in neighboring Bell County, Kentucky. I love that part of the country. It’s shorthand. Lighten up. ↩