ARTICLES BY RUBY SALES< Back
A Christmas Message
I bring greetings to you from Columbus, Georgia, where I moved to expand the work of SpiritHouse into the Black Belt South, and to accompany my aging mother on this part of her journey.
Being at home in the South, where southern apartheid and white violence were extreme and unrelenting, reminds me of what the coming of Jesus meant for Mary’s community. This is one of the most hijacked stories by the Empire and its Christian agents. They uproot Mary’s story and the coming of Jesus from their historical, economic and social roots. They do not tell us that Mary was a Jew, who was part of a subject people that lived under the heel print of the Roman Empire. Nor do they tell us that a culture of violence and domination fuels the Roman Empire’s corroded engine. Instead, the revisionists of Mary’s and Jesus’ stories present an abstract, warm and fuzzy ahistorical story that obscures the real meaning of Mary’s freedom song and its meaning for this season.
Mary sings her heart out in Luke 1:45-55, The Magnificat. She praises the magnificence of God. She thanks God for the gift of pregnancy. She even has the gumption to believe that she and her illegitimate child are not mere objects of Caesar. She believes that she and the baby that grows in her can play a role in bringing into being Isaiah’s prophecy of a new world coming for Jews.
What’s up with Mary? What does she, a poor adolescent unwed mother, whom the Roman Empire and her community press down to the lowest rung on the social ladder, have to sing about?
Why would she thank God and celebrate the coming of a new child in a colonized world, where the Roman Empire, the most brutal and egregious of Empires, will close doors in an attempt to reduce her child’s life to the barest bones of possibilities and options?
Surely, Mary knows as a devout Jew that throughout her people’s history, tyrannical governments have murdered their male children and men because they see them as threats to the longevity of their reigns.
Why then does she see the coming of Jesus as a gift, rather than a burden, in a society that casts aside and slanders unwed mothers and their children? Even when Joseph marries her, her story as an unwed pregnant adolescent will remain a part of her community’s oral history.
We expect Mary to sing a blues song with all of this happening. Instead, she sings a freedom song that comes out of her community’s struggles and aspirations for economic, social and political freedom, from the bloody, dehumanizing and oppressive chains of the Roman Empire. Her song is a resistance song that represents her community’s refusal to bow down at the altar of Caesar, or to turn over their future to him.
Mary’s song reaffirms that the people’s thirst for righteousness is a long train that runs throughout human history. Despite the generations that separate Victoria Gray Adams, Fannie Lou Hammer or Ann Braden from Mary, they sing the same freedom song.
Mary’s song is a faith song that reminds her of her community’s long-standing and unshakeable belief that God is on the side of human liberation, rather than oppression.
Mary is more than a young girl with unrealistic expectations and fantasies. She is a prophet and witness who sees the fertile land of freedom in the arid desert of Roman imperialism. And she is willing to work to bring this freedom land into being, even when there is very little evidence, except for God’s promise that it will come. In this spirit, she sees her pregnancy not as an occasion for despair, but as a grace-filled moment to co-create with God a new world.
Mary is in harmony with many women in her community, who see children as gifts and assets that the community can depend on to push forward their struggle. Hers is a common belief that steadies her community for their long and constant struggle to be free and to outlast the Roman Empire.
Mary’s stance reminds me of our spiritually-gifted African-American ancestors who, in the torrid heat of southern apartheid and violence, created alternative and hospitable communities for themselves and their children. Like Mary and her community, they envisioned their children as essential players, rather than afterthoughts, in their community’s freedom agenda.
Their positions, like Mary’s, remind us that God gives us the courage and faith to raise liberators, rather than statistics. With God on our side, we can raise our children up from the dust of invisibility and the ash piles of marginality to become major change agents in history. We can use our power as parents and communities to prepare each generation for God’s project of a “new world coming”.
This is why Mary shouts. Her song sets a clear socio-spiritual framework and vision that allows dispossessed communities everywhere to understand the social and spiritual symbolic meaning of the birth narrative of Jesus and Mary’s story.
God intends for the coming of Jesus to also send a powerful and non-negotiable warning to the state. God’s message is clear. They do not hold the reins of history. Nor will their Empires last forever. In the long run, God’s people will be free!
Every year, as Christians extol and celebrate the birth of Jesus, I sit on the edge of my seat waiting to hear why the birth narrative of Jesus is good news to people around the globe who suffer from state violence and oppression. Instead, merchants and our friends, families and churches hold us in a grip of commercialism and greed that begins in November and ends on January 6th.
They make the coming of Jesus a season of uninterrupted and bombarding advertisements and parties that anesthetize us to the chronic and intense violence and oppression that American rulers unleash at home and around the globe. In the midst of iPods, fancy cell phones, lavish cars, state-of-the-art computers, and other gifts with fancy names from fancy stores, we participate in drowning out Mary’s freedom song.
Empires and their representatives want us to forget the promise and hope that the birth narrative offer us. They want us to forget that the birth narrative is not for them. It is for us. Christmas is our season to be jolly, because the birth of Jesus refutes the prevailing public and official discourse that “nothing good comes out of Nazareth” - those communities that the rulers and their agents dismiss as slums, ghettoes or at-risk communities.
Sadly, many of us believe them. We believe the official story, rather than our own stories. Without critique, we give up our culture and become one with an Empire culture that oppresses us and thrives off of our labor and resources. We believe that they are the personification of nobility, creativity and civility. Believing this, we violently turn against each other, or we submit ourselves and our children to their undignified and subhuman depictions of us. We become the characters that they create.
Mary and many of her people refused to see themselves through the eyes of the Empire. Instead, they saw themselves through the eyes of their common history and their connection to God.
Richard Horsley, a scholar of the Gospels, reminds us that, "during the Christmas season, Christians will read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels. But, unless we read them shrewdly, we will fail to grasp a central thrust of the stories. They are crafted in such a way as to challenge imperial propaganda. As subversive narratives, they speak to people oppressed by, and subjected to, imperial power. It isn’t enough to put Christ back in Christmas. The real challenge is to grasp how the stories of Jesus’ birth challenge our understanding of society and our fundamental allegiances."
"Which side are you on?" - this was a relevant question in Jesus’ day, and it is an important question today for Christians and all freedom-loving peoples. It is an especially relevant question for Christian churches all around the globe that use the birth narrative of Jesus to work hand-in-hand with the oppressive and terrorist governments to spread propaganda about peace on earth and good will to all, while carrying out ideological and cultural wars, as well as military campaigns against God’s people.
How can there be peace on earth and good will when more than a billion people around the world live on less than a $1.50 a day, while 2% of white men own 88% of the world’s resources?
How can American churches speak about peace and good will to poor people and people from colored communities when the government is the largest exporter of weapons to their communities?
Where was the peace on earth and good will when, in 2006, the U.S. government reaped $40 billion from selling “massive weapons of destruction” to colored countries to use against each other, or those who look like them?
Where is the peace on earth and good will when tyrannical and imperialistic governments ferment war and discord, rather than democracy and human rights?
Where is peace on earth and good will when men rape millions of women around the globe and claim our bodies as the spoils of war or their private territories to invade or terrorize through violence or economic power?
Far too many churches subvert God’s meaning of “unto us a child is born”. They give us the child in one breath and take him away in the next. They do not tell us that “unto us”, the people, “a child is given” underscores God’s continuous commitment to our present and future. They do not ask essential historical and contemporary questions: Who was this child Jesus? Why did his birth have great meaning to his people? Why did the Roman Empire want to kill him at birth? Why does Jesus’ family flee with him to become political exiles in Egypt? Why did the Roman Empire succeed in executing him at age thirty-three?
Why do we tell Jesus’ and his community’s story more than two-thousand years later? What is in it for us?
When we ask these questions, we soon realize that the birth narrative about Jesus is more than a story about one family and one child. Luke’s narrative tells a story of a community that is terrorized and oppressed by an unbending and unjust Empire. This narrative is a timeless story of a community’s hope, courage, victories, and their will to overcome and thrive as citizens of the world.
If we carefully read the story as Horsley suggests, we know that Mary did not have her baby by herself. The gospel of Luke tells us that, from the very beginning of her pregnancy, women play central roles. Elizabeth, upon hearing Mary’s news, celebrated and rejoiced in it. She celebrated the role that her relative would play in the liberation of their people, as well as bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise to make straight the crooked lines in life.
A careful reading of Luke tells us that both Elizabeth and Mary are sisters in struggle, united in their common vision of freedom for their people. They are bold and audacious prophets who dare to speak out in a terrorist state. They speak, knowing that their words can get them killed. From the very beginning, Mary and Elizabeth alert us to the fact that they are subversives who refuse to use their bodies as breeding machines for the state.
Rather, they stand up and say, “Our bodies and our children belong to us.” How many of us know stories of women who say "my body is my own"? Or who refuse to allow their children to be agents of the state’s agenda? How many of us will make this claim to the U.S. government that wants to use our children as foot soldiers in unjust wars against colored communities?
During Mary’s and Joseph’s time, a manger was located in the community — either in a cave, or in the lower part of the house. This signals that the community was in on the birth of Jesus. They harbor Mary, Joseph and Jesus at great risk to themselves and the entire community. Going against the official mandate, they provide a safe place for Mary, Joseph and Jesus. In today’s social justice vernacular, they help birth a Movement.
Now that we know what was up with Mary, I want to know what’s up with us. Why do we sing “Away in a Manger” without realizing that a manger in a cave or the lower part of a house is a hard and smelly place to give birth? Why aren’t we appalled that far too many women give birth to children in manger-like circumstances, without medicine, doctors or nurses to attend to them?
Do we not recognize that this is not a cozy story? Rather, it’s a story that reeks of poverty, displacement and the status of poor women in the Roman colonies and throughout the world today.
What do we think when we repeat that innkeepers tell Mary and Joseph, despite Mary’s obvious condition and urgent need, that they do not have room in their inns? I do not know about you, but I listen to this statement with a great deal of suspicion that is shaped by my membership in a community that had to sleep in cars and on roadsides, because the white ruling class, upon seeing our faces, said that they had no rooms.
What’s up with our rote repetition that shepherd boys saw the star at night? Why wouldn’t they? Does it not click that they see the star because they are at work that night in the cold, watching the sheep? They are working-class men and boys who work through the night, while rich people sleep in their beds.
I will tell you what’s up. The cat’s got our tongues, and the Empire’s got our minds.