Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent Two: A Song Reshaping the World

Luke’s Song of Mary, a canticle or song of praise, is a song of the Advent and Christmas season, but with an edge that goes beyond sentimental carol of babe in the manger, shepherds watching their flocks by night, and three kings reverently making their way by star light.

The Song of Mary presses us to sing a different tune during the holidays. Mary’s words imagine a world more in the style of a 1960s protest song than a quaint 19th-century English carol. Her words are raucous: the powerful are brought low, the greedy get sent away with nothing, and the Lord, not the rulers of the day, having the last word about what is just. Indeed, when we begin taking the Song of Mary to heart, one has to ponder carefully the question, “What song shall we sing?”

In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,

People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims.  (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)

Mary’s song becomes a challenge. What song does the Church sing? In my upbringing, the Baptist tradition sings of sin, salvation, and the sweet bye-and-bye. The music was in the key of atonement, singing of being washed in the blood, or marching to Zion. Of course, the church of my upbringing would say that it was your Christian duty to take care of your neighbor, yet talk of justice and peace was a distant third or fourth place to saving souls and keeping up with attendance records. Social justice, or at least talk of justice as a religious value, was not as commonly heard a theme of scripture.

This is not to trivialize the Church and the call to evangelism and mission, values highly impressed upon me early on. As one raised to read the Bible faithfully and reverence the Word, I must say that little was said about this part of the Bible, whether in Sunday school (which I attended faithfully: bible study on Wednesday evenings, and both services on Sunday, morning and evening alike). I lament that it was not until college and seminary studies that I encountered the Song of Mary and heard its haunting refrain as a call to follow Christ. I note that other Christians would find this reflection surprising, given the use of this text in other traditions, however, while speaking as a Baptist to other Baptists, I suspicion to most of us Baptists this Song of Mary is a lesser known text.

As part of the Bible, the Song of Mary harmonizes with the prophetic cry for a just world, the yearning for equitable ways of living embodied in the epistles, the calls to discipleship in the gospels, the radical witness of Christian community as practiced and recounted by the early Church in the book of Acts. The words of Mary resound through Luke’s gospel, sort of a prelude to the great symphony about to unfold as the adult Jesus lives into the vision Mary proclaims.

In her song, Mary uses verbs in a curious way. Mary speaks as if these things already have come about. Already, the proud have been scattered, already are the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted. Already the hungry are full and the exploitative left. That sounds so promising, yet so lofty. Mary’s words seem to sing a song with optimistic yet unfulfilled vision.

In 1907, a respected but somewhat unknown Northern Baptist seminary professor published a significant book calling for the Church to transform the world through social engagement. In 2007, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis was released again in celebration of the book’s centennial. When it first appeared in 1907, Rauschenbusch’s book was a surprise bestseller. Christianity and the Social Crisis dealt with the need for the Church to become engaged in the social issues and problems of the day. The centennial edition celebrates the legacy of Rauschenbusch’s challenges to the church; its book jacket claiming this is “the classic that woke up the Church”). Inside the new edition, Rauschenbusch’s original text is presented alongside essays by contemporary scholars, pastors, and activists who offer comment on what this book still teaches us, even if a few of the concepts are outmoded a century later.

The centennial edition features an introduction by Paul Rauschenbush, the great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a chaplain at Princeton. The great-grandson notes,

The 21st-century is a time of unprecedented capability and possibility, yet we too live in a time of social crisis and are in need of the power of God and the vision of Jesus….We are called to dedicate ourselves to the task of doing the work that Jesus set us here to do: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves in concrete and practical ways. (xiii)

Reading the 1907 text, I find myself stirred by the words of a century ago. I can appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation at mid-20th century that his own reading of the original book “left an indelible imprint on [his] thinking”. (xii) In this book, I see a strand of Baptist spiritual DNA emphasizing social justice as part of one’s Christian discipleship. Rauschenbusch’s book embodies what I cherish most about being a Christian and being a Baptist: speaking up for the minority, defending the freedoms of conscience and belief, and letting the witness of scripture, which includes salvation and social justice alike, be known and lived out to the ends of the earth.

It is appropriate to note that the social gospel movement started by Rauschenbusch and others did not come up all roses. Missed opportunities and ill-conceived notions abound just as in any other movement in history. Another of Rauschenbusch’s descendants writes a modern day commentary for the 2007 centennial edition: the philosopher and secular humanist Richard Rorty, Rauschenbusch’s grandson.

Rorty’s essay draws its focus from the last lines of the original 1907 book, which ends with this optimistic, almost heady, note that soon the Church will be bringing great things to flower. Watching fruit trees bud and bloom as he wrote the conclusion to his book in 1907, Rauschenbusch claims that something is on the cusp of blossoming with the Church and its social witness. He writes, “Perhaps these nineteen centuries of Christian influence have been a preliminary stage of growth, and now the flower and fruit are almost here”.

One hundred years later, Richard Rorty writes of “buds that never opened”. Rorty criticizes the expression of Christianity in the intervening decades as ill equipped and inattentive to bring about the change Rauschenbusch envisioned. Rorty writes, “By 1907, centuries of preaching had created a climate of opinion in which it was reasonable to anticipate flowers and fruit. Rauschenbusch and his contemporaries could not have foreseen the fierce, blighting storms that were to come” (p. 350).

As I read these words, I nodded in agreement with “grandpa” Rauschenbusch and the spiritually disinclined grandson alike. The giddy joy at the outset of an era hailed “the Christian Century” sounds off-key in what is surely a “post-Christendom” era. There have been buds that never opened, opportunities for a radical witness to the Gospel missed as parts of the Church failed to address racial issues, economic disparities, religious persecution, genocides, and two world wars. In the century separating both editions of Christianity and the Social Crisis, we have experienced perhaps the most violent and bloody era in human history. In 1907 and today, we are still dealing with the same sin-fractured world and a Church still unsure of its true Kingdom priorities.

Despite my respect of Rorty’s criticism, I do take issue with Rorty’s dismissive word that Christianity has missed all of its opportunities and is no longer of any intrinsic relevance. It is painful to admit that those pews will not be at capacity Christmas Eve. It is necessary to admit that the era of the Church at the center of U.S. civic life has evaporated, that golden era when white, middleclass mainline Protestants felt like they had all the power and relevance they could ask for. Despite the evidence around me, I still hear a song that says God will bring otherwise to pass, and indeed, already has done so.

If we listen to the Song of Mary and follow the Gospel that unfolds thereafter, the Song of Mary is sang not with overconfidence, but abiding hope. The vision of Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, already foresees what shall be God’s promised end. It is not a case of “will it happen?”, it is the sense that God will never fail, nor should we give over to inaction. As Clarence Jordan, another cranky Baptist now departed, was known for saying, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.

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