Glynn Cardy 13th November
The Bible is a book full of dreams and dreamers; and those trying to keep the lid on dreams and dreamers.
Whether it be a song, a so-called prophesy, a baptismal credo, or a rule-breaking egalitarian meal, the Bible is a depository of dreams of how life might be different, how society and politics might be different, indeed how the known world might be different. And such dreams of course are a threat to those who are heavily invested in the continuance of the status quo.
Consider the song put on a pregnant Mary’s lips – the song we call the Magnificat – in Luke 1. The Gospel of Luke-Acts (a one volume that was split in two due to its length) was written and compiled around 130 CE, much later than originally thought. But the author/editor, commonly called Luke, spliced into his work passages, songs, from much earlier times. The Magnificat being one.
This seditious little song dates from the earliest days of the post-Easter Jesus groups, and may well be from the community called “The Poor” (or the anawim) who were one of the Jesus groups in Jerusalem. The Poor were notable in that they shared property in common (referenced, with flourishes, in Acts 2). It is thought that James, Jesus’ biological brother, led this group.
The Magnificat is a song that sings of a divine reversal: Of the poor being fed with good things, and the rich sent away empty. Of the humble (read poor) being lifted up, and the mighty (read powerful) being cast down. Of Israel (beaten down by Roman colonisation) being freed, restored.
And over the centuries since its debut, particularly in places where the powerful and Christianity were hand in hand, the political potency of the song has been watered down by the likes of Luke in the 2nd century and other later religious leaders. In Luke the poor might be fed, but its through the generosity of the rich. The humble might be lifted up, but it will be through cultivating the good beneficent graces of the Mighty. And Israel will be restored and freed, but Israel is now the Messianic Judaism (later called Christianity) aligned with the empire. Rome is the new Jerusalem.
You might also wish to compare the Magnificat with the Book of Psalms, also made for song. The Psalms were written and compiled by a number of authors under the watchful, royal, all-powerful eye, accrediting their composition to King David. You will find little in the Psalms about a divine reversal. Kings do not do divine reversals. Kings like things mostly the way they are. Kings like to be in charge and don’t take kindly to seditious songs.
The Psalms are all about sheltering in the wings of the Almighty (Ps 91), and while others might fall, you – with your faith – won’t. Even walking through the valley of the shadow of death, the Almighty will protect you (Ps 23). The Psalms are all about praising a saving God, who will rescue you, not because you are poor and destitute, but because you as a good supplicant cry out for mercy. You are meant to take comfort in the knowledge that God is watching out for you. For God is like a king, benevolent and in control. Funny that.
The political agenda of the Magnificat is subversion. The political agenda of the Psalms is submission.
The Book of Psalms is not alone in this. The so-called Wisdom literature of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes follow this royalty sanctioned endorsement of the status quo. You won’t find anything here either about the poor being lifted up and the rich being tossed down.
Ecclesiastes, for example, with its non-theist twist (there’s no God in the book), promotes the acceptance of life as it is – ‘there is a time for everything’. But not for the rich to be thrown down! And not for the cries of justice to be heard! ‘A time to tear down and a time to build’ is to be taken personally, not politically. Or maybe it’s mandating the construction industry?
Interestingly, Shirley Murray’s hymn, “Our Life Has It’s Seasons”, while seemingly accepting that there is a time for everything under heaven, subverts it with the refrain that there’s never a time to stop believing, never a time for hope to die, and never a time to stop loving. And we might want to be explicit about those beliefs, hopes, and loves – tying them into a vision of justice, mutuality, and peace.
Is there ever a time, for those who follow Jesus, when one shouldn’t be offering good news to the poor (with the poor being the judge of what’s “good”), when captives shouldn’t be released, when the blind shouldn’t be receiving medical aid, when the oppressed shouldn’t have their freedom? And let’s not fall, as many have, into the mistaken belief that Jesus, and Isaiah before him, aren’t being political.
Isaiah and many of the prophets offer us a different dream than that of compliance and submission to the powerful. And Isaiah 65 is a case in point. Here is a picture painted of good health care for all (socialized medicine?!). A picture of housing, work, and income for all – and not a division of resources where some are systemically privileged and others systemically impoverished. And a picture where difference, whether created by enmity, wealth, race, or species(!), is not a chasmic divide but part of a peaceful whole.
(Note though the serpent gets excluded. Even prophets have their blind spots!)
Isaiah’s vision, while not singing a reversal, infers a huge structural readjustment of the economy and political apparatus in order to make this egalitarian peaceful society happen. He was preaching to his leaders – political and religious – after the return from the Babylonian exile, around 538 BCE. As those leaders set about a huge rebuild of cities and towns and infrastructure, dominated no doubt by their equivalent of planners, engineers, and economists, there was the voice of that gadfly, that pain in the proverbial, Isaiah:
“It’s not good enough to just create jobs, create buildings, and create businesses. It’s not good enough that we are once again on our land, practicing our faith, in our own way. It’s not good enough to let the so-called ‘natural’ distinctions between rich and poor, healthy and sick, homed and homeless re-emerge. It’s not good enough to treat our fellow Jews who didn’t go into captivity differently, or treat those with foreign wives differently, or treat those who aren’t Jewish differently. No, to build a new society we need a new big vision with room for all, resources for all, and hope for all.”
Some who came back from Babylon wanted to express their faith by making rules. Particularly about inter-marriage with non-Jews. Others like Isaiah wanted to express their faith by painting a big dream on a big canvas with lots of room for everything and everyone. (Except snakes).
One of the more well-known dream speeches is that of the Revd Martin Luther King Jr at Washington in 1963. You will hear in it the echoes of Isaiah, calling his people to a big vision. Every valley, every obstacle, will be overcome.
You will hear in it the echo of St Paul that there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, black or white… we are all one. One humanity. One family under God.
You will hear in it the radical egalitarianism of Jesus that we re-enact at every communion service – that all can sit down together, whatever the differences we were born with or society layered on us, whatever our age, race, sexual orientation, colour, or creed.
You will hear the hope in it, and you will know from our history books and newsreels the cost of that hope.
Hope, faith (courage) – these things are not a strategy but the inspiration for coming up with a strategy. The injustice calls out to us, insisting, haunting, challenging us to respond.
So, King tells us to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that (all) will be free one day… one day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
A big dream. Big dreamers. This is our faith.