This is a first in a series of posts about Christian hymns in relation to poverty and human suffering.
By Joe Morris Doss
Christians sing what we claim to believe, and our song is offered as prayer and praise. This makes it a call to action for the church. The act of singing, in any context, is an action that joins and reintegrates thought and feeling. Things mean differently because we sing them and we mean them differently because we sing them repeatedly over time. These axioms are as true for a community as they are for individuals. Christian song shapes and forms us as Christians and as a church.
In light of the effect of singing on Christian belief, prayer, and action, the question regarding why the church sings little about poverty is important, deep and reaching. Indeed, the question must come to grips with the way our paucity of singing about it has shaped the church – how we think, feel, believe and act in the face of poverty.
Basically, we ignore poverty as one of the great problems of human society and limit ourselves to offerings of succor to individuals or specified groups.
Of course, we could turn the question-and-answer around to say that we don’t sing about poverty because we don’t believe it is a moral failure of our society – and thus of the church. If poverty is something that happens to particular individuals, the church’s role is to offer help to the poor to whom our members can reach out at a personal level – often part of a programmatic ministry that congregations term “outreach.” Most likely, the interplay between the effect of failing to sing about the reality and the limited Christian response to poverty is a dialectical dynamic of cause and effect.
Wait a minute! The most famous of all Christian songs is aimed straight at what God would have us do about human society and especially about poverty. The annunciation “Song of Mary” proclaims the reason for the coming of the Christ in no uncertain terms. Mary’s song declares that the nature of God and the will of God for human society have become apparent, and in her song she paints the picture.
First the creator of heaven and earth has chosen the “lowly” – not of the “high-born” possessing wealth, power, privilege, or social standing: “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Then,
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
imagination 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 come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our forebears,
to Abraham and to his children forever.
The truth is that while this is our most famous songs, and certainly one of our most often uttered, the words regarding social justice are ignored or trivialized. The song is employed for a piety that is narrowly individualistic and targeted at a certain appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “God-bearer.”
Notice that it has usually been called “The Magnificat” – a title that focuses the entire song on Mary, instead of on the mission of her son on behalf of creation, human society, and kingdom. It is not used by Christians as a hymn but as a canticle within a liturgical context (e.g. the season of Advent) that defines it within the particular context and which does not point to its call to action within human society. When the words that address the grand issues are sung, they seem to be taken metaphorically in some unexamined and simplistically pietistic sense.
Wait another minute! There is an earlier song that stands among the most famous and telling within the Jewish, and, therefore, the Christian, tradition. Like Mary, the mother of Samuel raised her voice to sing in thanksgiving for the promise of an unexpected son. He became the last judge and the first prophet. The declarations of Hannah and Mary are obviously connected.
Hannah’s song defined the mission of Samuel, and Mary seemed to know that, in many ways subtle and blatant, Hannah’s was a song in preparation for her own. The Christian understanding of scripture recognizes that Samuel’s role and his mission was directly connected to, and in preparation for, that of Jesus. In this way it can be said that the Song of Hannah anticipates and is completed by the Song of Mary.
On just cursory examination, Hannah’s and Mary’s seem to be the same song – at least fundamentally. With this observation, it becomes apparent that the coming of the child to Mary is to complete the most profound hopes of the Jewish vision for shalom and for God’s action in history. Note the similarities and parallels between the visions regarding God’s plan for human society within the two songs:
Hannah: “My heart exults in the Lord!”
Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord”
Hannah: “My triumph song is lifted by my God.”
Mary: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”
Hannah: “My mouth is stretched over my enemies because I rejoice in my victory.”
Mary: “…my Savior …has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from this day all generations will call me blessed”
Hannah: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, nor any rock to be compared to our God.”
Mary: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Hannah: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is knowing and weighs all actions.”
Mary: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
Hannah: “The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered”
Mary: “He has shown strength with his arm”
Hannah: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the weak are armored in strength….He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap to give them a seat with noblemen, bequeathing them a place of honor.”
Mary: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”
Hannah: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry now are well fed”
Mary: “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Hannah: “…the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world. He guards the way of his faithful ones”
Mary: “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forebears, to Abraham and to his children forever.”
If we grasp the connection between these two songs we will better understand the failure of the church to sing them as demands for justice and, in particular, for overcoming the inequities and suffering caused by poverty. In their songs we hear the message of the prophets and of the Christ together: if there is no justice there is no God, but only idols of the illusory wealth, status, privilege and power people think will satisfy their humanity, but which leads only to sin.
Mary and Hannah sing praise for God’s favor to the humble and lowly. Unexpectedly, God has sided with the poor and the weak; unexpectedly God has overthrown the rich and hushed the proud; unexpectedly, protection and mercy is in store for the faithful who “fear” God, while the wicked will be cut off; unexpectedly, the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty.
In other words, Hannah and then Mary conclude, the world will be treated the way God treated Israel in the exodus experience and as God called it to be his servant community. In other words, Mary is saying, the prophets were right after all: the future shall accord with promises made to the first ancestors and there shall be justice at last.
Luke most intentionally begins his Gospel with a pattern of surprising reversals by God. As has been demonstrated in Hannah’s Song this is not a new pattern. It calls for a new order of society under God’s reign and that new order will be a reversal of the familiar pattern. This pattern of reversals which is established will continue through the cross and resurrection, a pattern of dying and rising which borders on tragedy and on comedy – a divine play transcending ordinary human wisdom and power.
Joe Morris Doss is the President of At the Threshold, an international and ecumenical organization fostering the transformation of the Christian Church. Bishop Doss served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. An attorney with a background in civil rights, he enjoys a national reputation in and out of the church, primarily as an advocate for justice, and in particular as a champion of minorities, women, and children.