Mary, the Magnificat, and race

A mother asks, this Advent, what Mary's song of hope means for her African American sons (and for all of us) in these turbulent times.

December 4, 2015

Cindy Cushman with her husband, Kerry Rice, and their six children

Cindy Cushman with her husband, Kerry Rice, and their six children

LOUISVILLE

The following article was originally printed in the November/December 2015 issue, "Hope in a child," of Presbyterians Today.

The Magnificat has always been one of my favorite passages in the Bible. I love that Scripture includes women’s voices, even though it arose out of an era where women held little, if any, power in their society. I am drawn to the message in Mary’s song, trumpeting God’s promise that the lowly will be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things. I especially love Mary’s joy in proclaiming that she—a lowly woman in a vulnerable situation—has found God’s favor. Even though difficulties may lie ahead, she is filled with conviction that God’s blessing and mercy are present in her life. Mostly, when I read Mary’s song, I find myself thinking, “Right on! Sing it, Mary!”

However, this past Advent season, when I was preparing to preach on the Magnificat, I found myself kind of dreading it. I had felt increasingly weighed down by the events happening in our country. On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland. Tamir was 12 years old, the same age as my adopted African American twin sons. Two days later, a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown was 18 years old, a year older than my adopted biracial son. A week later, a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner, causing his death. I kept thinking, “How can I preach on Mary’s song of joy about God bringing justice to the world when I’m feeling so depressed about injustice in our country?”

I know that people across the country and in my own congregation have vastly different viewpoints about the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner and the subsequent upheaval. As a white parent of African American and biracial sons, this issue is deeply personal to me. So I continued to think about those issues and about the congregation I care for as I considered the preaching task before me.

Ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t preach on the Magnificat without addressing those events, even as I wondered how I could do so without sucking all the joy out of the season.

I began in the only place it made sense, with my own thoughts and feelings about our current events. I affirmed the words of Bill de Blasio (the mayor of New York, who like me is a white parent of an African American son) when he said after the Eric Garner decision that nothing would be helped by “accusing either the community or the police of having bad intention or not doing their job. In fact, I think everyone is trying to do their job.”

I don’t believe the police are evil any more than I believe black men are evil. My goal is not to lay a guilt trip on the white community. But I do believe that we have a deep problem with racism in our country and that the current issues around police and the criminalization of black men are a symptom.

‘How did we get here?’

I cannot help but ask, “How did we get here?” After the strides this country has made in civil rights in the last 60 years, after electing an African American president, how is it that my sons are still three times more likely to be suspended from school than my sister’s son is? How is it that my sons are still 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than my sister’s son is? How is it that more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, successes and struggles of blacks and whites in the United States remain starkly uneven?

As I followed news stories on Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I felt many things. I was frustrated by people hurting their own cause by reacting violently and destructively. I was infuriated by the media for coverage slanted toward the divisive and destructive acts instead of the thousands of peaceful protesters who behaved impeccably in numerous protests. And I was deeply hurt by the hateful comments I saw on social media from people who couldn’t seem to find any empathy for others who are in deep pain over how they feel their lives are being devalued. How can we not have more respect for one another’s feelings whether we agree with them or not?

Struggling with all those feelings, I kept thinking: How could I stand up there and say, “Sing it, Mary!” when I hadn’t felt very hopeful? But something happened as I dove into my sermon preparation.

While studying the passage, I was reminded that Mary’s situation also wasn’t very hopeful. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he would have been expected to break off the engagement, and he would have been within the law to have her stoned to death. However much we have elevated Mary, she was a poor, vulnerable woman living under oppression; the people of her day lived under the rule of the Roman Empire in a climate of barely suppressed violence. There was great injustice in her world: against women, against the poor, against Jews—all categories under which she fell.

And yet, Mary received God’s news with joy so great that it could not be contained. How was she able to respond with joy to news that vastly complicated and even could have endangered her life?

Mary and the baby JesusA role in redemption

Mary is filled with joy because she believes that God is doing a new thing in the world and that she is an active part of it. Her song rings with prophetic speech. It is a rallying cry for the lowly and the downtrodden to overcome evil and violence. She is a young woman without power, but she has been called to participate in the redemption of God’s people.

I realized that Mary’s song is precisely the right word for what is happening today. I grieve for the parents of Michael Brown and the children of Eric Garner. And I grieve for the officers who took their lives—for I believe that taking another life, whether you think it is justified or not, does something to your soul, particularly when you are in an occupation dedicated to serving others. But perhaps something good is arising from all this pain and conflict.

For every act of violence, there are many more peaceful protests. And while some police officers have forcibly resisted even the peaceful protests, others like the Nashville Police Department have kept order while allowing the demonstrations and even serving protesters water, hot chocolate, and coffee. The day after the protests in Nashville, local clergy gathered at the police station to express gratitude for how the police had handled the situation.

“We wanted to show our appreciation for the way that the police department conducted themselves and allowed us the opportunity to express ourselves without incident,” said pastor Michael Joyner of Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church. In the back of my mind, I’m hearing Mary sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Sing it, Mary!

Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, writes that the protesting and unrest aren’t necessarily a bad thing. He talks about young adults who are experiencing these life-threatening conditions and trying to figure out what to do about them. He writes, “This is a moment of civic awakening and moral maturing for a generation, and they are stepping boldly into their moment. Yes, they are struggling to divine the most effective way forward, but they will not accept being dragged backward. It is a profound moment to which we should gladly bear witness.”

I read this and I recall Mary’s words: “God’s 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 thoughts of their hearts.”

Sing it, Mary!

Other voices of hope

The song “Canticle of the Turning” is based on Mary’s song. The words to the refrain sing of God’s new day coming, when justice blazes forth, tears are wiped away, and dawn approaches with the promise of the world turning to a new day. As I reflected on Mary’s song and the recent events and listened to “Canticle of the Turning,” I found my depression slowly turning to joy with the sense that maybe, just maybe, the world is about to turn. Something important is happening—something good, something that God is behind.

About a year has passed since I preached that sermon. I have continued to see signs of hope and to hear Mary’s song in others.

Hip-hop artist Common, in his Oscar acceptance speech for the song “Glory,” spoke of a bridge in Selma, Alabama, that used to be a symbol of a divided nation, now becoming a symbol for change. He said:

The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the south side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated by love for all human beings.

And I heard Mary’s song again, from 18-year-old Disney star Zendaya Coleman, reacting to a racist, hurtful comment by Giuliana Rancic, about her dreadlocks on Oscar night making her look as if she “smelled like patchouli oil and weed.” When Rancic later apologized, Coleman responded with a thoughtful and grace-filled statement. She added:

It is important in this journey to remember that just because someone has inflicted hurt upon us, it does not give us the right to do the same. . . . As hard as it was to stop myself from being ignorant and from posting the first mean words that came to my mind because I was hurt, I had to think about the bigger picture.

Coleman then accepted Rancic’s apology and said she hoped others would accept it too. She concluded by lifting up Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that only light can drive out darkness and only love can drive out hate and by encouraging everyone to “be that light and spread that love.”

And I hear Mary singing: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”

I found a way to preach faithfully on Mary’s song and in fact rediscovered the Magnificat speaking to the struggle for justice in our world today. Months later, the hope her song instills has stayed with me as I continue to work and wait for a time when God’s justice will burn, when tears will be wiped away. As we struggle to find a way forward in this critical time in our country, let us hear Mary’s song and keep our hearts full of hope that the world is indeed about to turn. Sing it, Mary. Keep singing it, until we start living it.

Cindy Cushman is coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Small Church Residency Program.

Announcing new Theological Conversations series

This article was adapted from Cindy Cushman’s original article “Mary, the Magnificat, and Race,” part of the new Theological Conversations series sponsored by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship. Each conversation provides a reading and set of questions that can be distributed in advance or read when a group gathers.

Discussion Questions

By Barry Ensign-George

(1) Mary sings the Magnificat in a world of hurt and threat. This article points to racism as part of the hurt and threat in our world. What recent stories in the news show the continuing impact of racism? How does it show up where your congregation lives?

(2) Mary’s song, the Magnificat, expresses hope that gives courage (encouragement). What gives Mary that hope and courage? What does Mary know about God that inspires hope and courage? What do you know about Jesus Christ that inspires hope and courage?

(3) The article names specific instances of hope amid pain and threat. What are those embodiments of hope? What embodiments of hope in the face of racism do you see?

(4) Mary relates what is happening to her personally to what God is doing in the world. What are the connections between what God is doing in you, in your congregation, and in the world?

(5) What does Mary’s song teach us about how to be part of God’s redeeming work even as we live entangled in the realities of racism that work against God’s good purposes?

(6) How can you and your congregation be an embodiment of hope and encouragement in the face of racism’s continuing power? How does your knowledge of Jesus Christ empower you and your congregation?

(7) God’s love and justice shape Mary’s imagination of a world made whole for her, her people, and all people. Mary’s song inspires Cindy Cushman to look again through news reports and public conversations to see God working wholeness even amid today’s hurt, anger, injustice, and fear. How do the Magnificat and Cushman’s article help you see places where God is at work and imagine wholeness in the face of brokenness?

Barry Ensign-George serves as associate for theology in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

  1. Creative exegesis, contemporary applications, provocative and stimulating ideas for further thought and discussion. Good stuff and not simply an effort to see the Gospel through the lens of modern left-wing political rhetoric.

    by Louis S. Lunardini

    December 5, 2015