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The Magnificat in the Headlines
distributed 12/15/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.
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This Advent, I'm discerning something new and powerful in Luke's story about the birth of Jesus.

When Mary accepts her startling pregnancy, she breaks into a remarkable song of praise and liberation, known as the Magnificat. It is clear that she -- far from being meek and mild -- will be a bold and prophetic mother to Jesus.

When I read over the text this year, I was not surprised by her familiar words, but by the realization that I'm seeing some evidence of the revolutionary change that she announced.

Assuming that you're familiar with the text (Luke 1:46-55), I'll quote just a few phrases, using the New Jerusalem translation. See if you, too, hear something contemporary from the mouth of a very young woman.

my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant. ... He has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.

Mary promises that God will turn the world upside down, upending wealth and privilege, bringing justice, sufficiency and respect. Recent events give us a taste of what that upending looks like.

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Within just the last couple of months, since October, a social movement has swept into US society, and spread around the world. Known best by the social media label of #MeToo, a rising tide of joined voices is "helping to de-stigmatize survivors by highlighting the breadth and impact sexual violence has on thousands of women." First emerging this year to denounce the outrageous behavior of a movie producer, the movement has empowered women (and some men) to name the abuse they have faced from men -- both famous and anonymous. (An earlier use of "me too" from 2006 had the same goals, but didn't "go viral" without social media.)

The #MeToo movement has created a setting of new-found credibility for women -- and of ethical disgust for their abusers. The sudden shift is so striking that these "silence breakers" were named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. In this week's political news, those factors of credibility and ethics were major factors in the non-election of Ray Moore to the US Senate. (The Hill also gives a lot of credit to the Washington Post for its impeccable investigative reporting of the Alabama women's stories.)

Other politicians have fallen -- princes pulled down from their thrones -- in Washington, and in state offices. Four Colorado politicians now are facing allegations of long-standing harassment that surfaced this fall because of #MeToo. Prominent media figures across the country have been fired.

In the British biblical translation, Mary speaks of her "humiliation", and that's an term appropriate for the countless women who have been offended, embarrassed, intimidated, groped, assaulted, violated, raped, brutalized, and abused. (A website for the Me Too Movement does put a count on it -- over 17 million women have reported a sexual assault since 1998. That's just the number reported.) These generally are crimes of power, where people in positions of authority are demonstrating their control over another. And some of what has been revealed are cases of clueless men who didn't understand common boundaries and their own implicit power.

What we've seen in the last few months give a hint -- just a hint -- of the radical promise in the Magnificat. Things will be turned upside down.

We're starting to see what happens when women who had been silent -- women who had been silenced -- speak out and are heard and are believed. A broad presumption of the way things are begins to crumble. The semi-secrets can no longer be denied. The well-known rumors about film directors and politicians now have names and faces and dates and details. We are repulsed by what we hear.

In a turn-around from business as usual, in the "he said / she said" world of accusations, the women are being taken more seriously. Over and over again in recent weeks, I've heard colleagues of the accused say, "the charges are credible." In surprising numbers, when the women are believed, it has led to firings and resignations from the positions of power. Mary's promise sounds contemporary: "he has routed the arrogant of heart."

We're just seeing a glimpse of a world turned upside down. As the Atlantic noted, current events still have "an implicit message that believability, sympathy, and public rage are reserved only for certain women. And those women are rarely women of color." If the "he said / she said" is between a wealthy businessman and an undocumented hotel maid, his power to silence still is strong, and credibility for her account still is rare.

But even this glimpse is startling. We're seeing a rapid shift from a world where harassment is accepted as an unpleasant part of normal, to a world where such abuse is condemned. One graphic floating around the 'net changes "boys will be boys" to "boys will be held accountable for their actions." That does turn the world upside down.

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The Virgin Mary 2,000 years ago wasn't making predictions about sexual misconduct in modern politics and entertainment. She was actually naming a far broader transformation of how the world works.

Mary wasn't suggesting that a few misbehaving princes would be pulled from their individual thrones. She was imagining a dismantling of systems of hierarchy, privilege and power. Her vision is not of an empire with polite rulers, it is a vision where the empire is no more.

The #MeToo movement gives us a taste of that transformation, in one small arena of our lives. In the spirit of the Magnificat, we also can try to imagine what it might look like if the transformative power of God breaks into other realms, empowering those on the margins, and revoking the privilege of the elite.

  • How would the world change if we empowered the voices of those who have no homes, no health insurance, and not enough food? What does it look like if God "has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty"?
  • How would the world change if the painful testimony of those who experience racism, discrimination and violence are believed and taken seriously? #BlackLivesMatter gives us a taste of that transformation of perspective.
  • How would the world change if the legitimate right of future generations to a livable climate were empowered? What if God's promises, "to Abraham and to his descendants forever" overturned this generation's exploitation and abuse of the planet? I've written about the "Our Children's Trust" lawsuit that is making that claim in federal court, and a hearing this week is taking the youth's claims seriously. Pastors: help give voice to future generations with a sermon (by you, or by youth in your congregation) in the next couple of months: "Justice for #EachGeneration".
  • How would the world change if we imagine Mary's promise of radical transformation from the perspective of the poor of the world, or from other species? Can we find good news in the Magnificat when we are the proud, the powerful and the wealthy?

The Magnificat is an important prologue to the Christmas story. Mary's song reminds us that the incarnation of God among us is powerful and transformative. When the word becomes flesh and embodies shalom, the world is turned upside down.

From that perspective, we dishonor Christmas when our celebration is quiet and comfortable. God's in-breaking realm scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and brings down the powerful from their thrones. It is anything but quiet and polite.

As we gather beside the manger this Christmas, remember who else is there at the birth -- a homeless couple, poor shepherds, and farm animals. As we gather in our congregations this year, let us hear the voices from the margins that are so valuable in God's realm, the voices of #MeToo, of #BlackLivesMatter, of #EachGeneration, and let us be part of the transformation that honors and empowers them.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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