#22: Mary's Magnificat

On living in times like these

It feels sometimes like the secret subject of this newsletter is how to stay alive and trying to avoid despair, here, at the bitter and strange end of the world. It is the end of May, and the end of a long, hard week under Shelter in Place and under white nationalism.

This week saw video footage of a white woman, Amy Cooper, her voice ragged as she told the 911 dispatcher that her life was being threatened by Chris Cooper, a Black birdwatcher who had asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. This week also saw the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the dramatic escalation of violent tactics by these same police against citizens protesting his unlawful death, and the usual political handwringing and mealymouthed requests for peace from our elected officials. This comes at a time when Black people across the country are facing elevated mortality rates from COVID-19, as we watch the slow, slow bringing to justice of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery. It is again, a time of grief and mourning, a time of renewed confrontation with this country’s original sin.

There are other writers who have written on this much more and much better and from their own experiences in a way that I cannot. I would recommend Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, The New York Times’ 1619 Project, How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, reading our foremothers Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, if you haven’t already.

If, like me, you’re from a tradition that doesn’t place much emphasis on the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55, take a moment to read it now. Here is an excerpt:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

This is Mary’s song after she finds out she is pregnant. She sings this song in a Palestine occupied by the Roman Empire, she sings this song some months before she’s forced to flee into Egypt to avoid her infant son being slaughtered, some years before this same Empire succeeds in killing her son. Nowhere in Mary’s world does it seem like the rulers have been brought down from their thrones or filled up the hungry with good things. Nowhere in our world does it feel like this either.

Mary’s prayer is a promise, a foretelling of things to come, a revelation that springs from her own lowly status as a young woman—if God will lift her up in this way, then the order of the world as it has been is on the cusp of change as well.

I don’t know much about what to do with the fact that it hasn’t, or if it has, only slightly, don’t know what to do about the fact that people die all the time of inequality while we wait. If I had to point to a single tripping block that is an obstacle to my belief, it’s this one. Why does a God that inspires such song, that pays such gorgeous tribute to ideas of equality and justice at the very heart of God’s story just not follow through? How, if God is just, can injustice exist?

These aren’t particularly revolutionary questions, but it feels like with every year that’s ticked by, as the rich appear to get richer and the poor increasingly impoverished, with the more I understand the immense energy, effort, emotion, prayer and hope put into making the world a better, more just place by so many people, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we are still bound up by the very same strictures that Mary called down more than 2000 years ago.

I woke up this morning to the news that protesters in Minneapolis had set the city’s 3rd Precinct on fire, to a line of protesters, linking arms outside. I also awoke to the President suggesting that any looters be shot. This at a time when capital is valued over human life, when many people have lost their jobs in a pandemic and the government seems disinclined to help, at a moment when other protests, have ceased to have any meaningful effect for a whole long generation.

What I see when I see a burning building where injustice has been housed under the name of law is the mighty being cast down. In Benjamin Wildflower’s woodcut of Mary, above, she is crushing the snake beneath her feet, her usually-placid presentation turned active and violent against injustice.

Make Mary’s song your own—consider what it looks like to actively decry injustice, to rejoice in the toppling of power structures, to consider the ways in which you yourself are implicated in them and what giving away your own power might look like. Listen to the contemporary magnificats rising around us—the words and voices of those most directly affected by the bodily violence of the police and the more insidious violence of structural, medical, social, and class racism.



  • Donate some money to George Floyd’s family or the Minnesota Freedom Fund, to get those incarcerated for protesting an unlawful death out of jail.

  • Ashley Reese, “This is What You Get,” Jezebel.

  • J. Drew Lanham, “Birding While Black,” Lit Hub.

  • I also want to provide a tiny bit of a Black theology reading list for folks who are interested in more readings on the intersection of racial justice and faith: James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. This is just a primer, and all of these authors have deep bibliographies, and co-writers and students and teachers and references it’s possible to get lost in: Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornell West, Delores Williams.

  • I can’t find a good link to it, but the essay “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” and the essay that follows it, “Letter to a Bystander,” feel deeply important to this discussion. You can find both in Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable.

  • You can buy a print of the incredible Magnificat woodcut I’ve used direct from the artist, Benjamin Wildflower, along with many other very cool leftist-religious art-objects

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    This month, I translated Jazmina Barrera’s essay, “Dear Eula Biss,” in advance of her appearance with Eula Biss through Pilsen Community Books and Two Lines Press. I love doing translations like this, and this essay spoke to so many things I’ve been thinking about during the pandemic.

    The launch of A is for Asylum//A de Asilo got pushed back to August for pandemic reasons, and I wrote a mini-essay alongside Rachel Buff, the author, about pandemics and translation. You can read that, and preorder the book, here.