Week Four Day Three

 The Magnificat is a song of joy for being chosen to bear the Messiah. But it also expresses another sort of joy: ‘He Has Brought down the Powerful from their Thrones, and Lifted up the Lowly’. The hopes of the oppressed have, since ancient times, found expression in the dream of seeing the power of their oppressors overturned and they themselves being installed in the seat of power. It is often described as ‘The Great Reversal’.

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week Four – Labor, life, Love

Day Three – The Great Reversal

 

 

He hath put down the mighty from their seats,

and exalted them of low degree. He hath

filled the hungry with good things;… Luke 1:52

 

Mary’s response to the call to be the mother of the Messiah is followed in the Gospel of Luke, by her canticle, which we have come to call ‘The Magnificat’. Such canticles are literary devices, common in the Bible. There is the canticle of Moses, after the safe crossing of the Red Sea, followed immediately by the tambourine-playing, dancing and singing by the prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister (Exodus 15). And the song of the prophetess Deborah and Barak, following their successful freedom struggle against the Canaanites (Judges 5). Then the song of Judith the beautiful widow who, according to an apocryphal account, slew the Assyrian general Holofernes (Judith 13). And the song of Hannah, previously unable to bear a child but now having given birth to Samuel (I Samuel 2), so similar to the situation of Elizabeth who in her old age gave birth to John the Baptist.

 

The Magnificat is a song of joy for being chosen to bear the Messiah. But it also expresses another sort of joy: ‘He Has Brought down the Powerful from their Thrones, and Lifted up the Lowly’. The hopes of the oppressed have, since ancient times, found expression in the dream of seeing the power of their oppressors overturned and they themselves being installed in the seat of power. It is often described as ‘The Great Reversal’.

 

The theme appears in the prophet Ezekiel: ‘Put off your diadem, lay aside our crown. All is changed: lift up the low, bring down the high’(Ezekiel 21: 26). It is the repeated refrain in the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel: ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich. He brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust and raises the poor from the dung heap to give them a place among the great and set them in the seats of honour’ (I Samuel 2: 7-8). It finds resonance in the revolutionary movements of the English Civil War amongst groups like the Levellers and the Diggers, who felt God was calling them to ‘turn the world upside down’. We would be less than human if we did not feel a certain sense of satisfaction at seeing those who have lorded it over us, or who have reaped immense rewards at the cost of our sacrifices, finally getting their comeuppance.

 

We might even wish to see those who have caused and yet profited from the current economic crisis experiencing deprivation and those who have worked hard yet seen their incomes fall finally manage to be in the driver’s seat. But that is not quite the point that Ezekiel and Hannah and Mary are making. It is not a matter of revenge, of envy or resentment. It’s not about changing places and putting new occupants in the old structures of power, class and status. It’s about equality. The kind of change we need in our economic system is not about replacing bosses with workers. It’s about changing the structures which promote the wrong sort of relationships – both in the workplace and in society at large with its class system. It is the nature of the structural relationships that need to change – from exploitation to mutuality, from domination to partnership, from marginalization to participation.

 

Few people have articulated the case for equality more clearly and more wittily than R. H. Tawney. He was particularly sharp in his critique of the sham equality which is about a kind of mobility by which a person can ‘move up the social ladder’ and ‘escape’ from their situation: ‘The upper classes…were not seriously disturbed by the spectacle of Lazarus [the poor man] in the House of Lords’, he once wrote, ‘for they were confident that he would behave like a gentleman in his new surroundings…Their welcome to individuals was conditional, therefore, on the latter identifying themselves with the sphere which they entered, not with that which they left.’ Mary knew all that instinctively. Her role as mother of the Messiah was not a question of ‘rising above her station’. It was about expressing the voice and the hopes of the faithful poor.

 

There have been considerable movements in the direction of greater equality since Tawney’s time. A genuine commitment to equality has been evident in government policy and in the development of equalities policies by public and private sector firms. And in many cases, this has indeed been directed at the structures of inequality – against racism, sexism, ageism and sexual discrimination at both individual and institutional level. But much of this has meant an integration of certain excluded groups into a class structure rather than the right kind of change in the class structure itself.

 

In many ways the class structure has become more entrenched as persistent economic inequality has been stubbornly on the increase. Robert Reich, the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor has observed: ‘Half a century ago the prosperity of America’s middle class was one of democratic capitalism’s greatest triumphs… But starting three decades ago, these trends have been turned upside down… Job security is all but gone. And the nation is more unequal.’

 

So we have work to do. But the question is: how far do we want to go? How much and what kind of equality does justice demand? Of course we need fairer representation of minority groups and women on boards of directors, in legislative bodies and in the pulpit. And of course we need fairer access to good schools and good health care. But we need to be clear about basics. And Tawney was good on this as well. For him the central issue was not simply the advantages which follow from greater equality. It was the principle itself. It is not only that inequality contributed to poor health. It was the disease itself. Are we headed in the right direction? The blurb on the back cover of a 1979 edition of Tawney’s Equality, reads: ‘Do the English really prefer to be governed by Old Etonians?’ * The question, a favorite one of Tawney’s, remains as apt as ever.

 

*Products of Eton, the most prestigious of English private boys schools which has provided the U.K. with 19 prime ministers. It was founded in 1440 by Henry VI and is the school of choice for sons of the aristocracy and wealthy middle classes.

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