Who wrote the best protest song ever? There’s no right answer, of course. Bob Dylan, maybe. At least that’s the generation we usually identify with protest songs — the 1960s. For many of us, protest songs conjure up images of sit-ins on college campuses or hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock and elsewhere; Bob Dylan singing Blowin’ in the wind or Pete Seeger asking Where have all the flowers gone?
For a genuine protest song, you really need just two things: a righteous cause and an identified injustice. Protest songs have addressed many issues over the years, and spanned every generation and every sort of musical style, but the recurring themes have been war, civil rights, and economic injustice. Some of these songs have been direct and others much more subtle. John Lennon’s Give peace a chance was an obvious anti-war song. There’s nothing understated about singing, “All we are saying is, give peace a chance.”
But many of the well-known ‘spirituals’ worked on two levels, with a harmless or even spiritual veneer deliberately fashioned to hide a deeper cry for freedom and protest against oppression. Swing low, sweet chariot, for instance, was full of code pertaining to stops along the ‘underground railroad’; the references were lost on slave owners, but signalled hope to their oppressed slaves.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings a protest song. This song of Mary’s isn’t in the same vein as The times they are a-changin’ or even those classic spirituals, but there’s a subversive quality to what we call the Magnificat that often gets overlooked. Mary’s song isn’t just a harmless manifestation of grateful spirituality, it’s a radical statement of bold, hope-filled faith.
Mary’s political experience
Mary’s words were shaped by the political situation in first century Palestine. The days immediately before Jesus’ birth were fraught with political strife and uncertainty. The pressure on, and the oppression of, the Jewish community were at a high level. The power of Rome had ruthlessly crushed minor rebellions that had bubbled up against the Empire. Between harsh taxes, treatment as second-class citizens and human rights violations, life was not easy for Jews. One of their major complaints, besides the economic oppression and day-to-day cruelty, was that the Roman emperor was held up as a divine being. This of course went against everything Jews stood for, believing in the sole authority of a single God. To be coerced into proclaiming the emperor as divine was a sort of religious abuse; and it was a relatively new-fangled sort of blasphemy, maybe only thirty or forty years old.
At one level, Jewish people’s choice was simple: collaborate or resist; accept oppression and survive, or fight back and court death. But hardships did much to drive out hope. And living without hope, without any sense that things will ever change, feeling emotionally and physically trapped and imprisoned by circumstances beyond your control, is to be in a very dark place.
One of the most ruthless displays of imperial power led to the burning of a town near Nazareth named Sepphoris. Ancient Christian tradition suggests that this was the home town of Mary’s parents, and may even have been where the future mother of Jesus was born. The town was sacked and deliberately held up as an example of what happens when you rise up against the Empire. Its citizens were brutally raped, killed, and enslaved in a very public display. Mary and her cousin Elizabeth most likely saw first-hand the violent destruction of Sepphoris; they were well acquainted with the price of resistance.
Rather than renewing her despair, these events in a surprising way created Mary’s understanding of hope. It wasn’t forged in theory, but in the reality that only God alone could emancipate her people. Painful real-life experiences caused her to put all hope of deliverance in God, rather than in man. Mary stands for a people hoping that God will side with the righteous in scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty.
As the God-bearer, Mary is playing her part in bringing salvation to the world. She’s an active participant in God’s unfolding plan. And part of that plan involves a total reversal. The political impact is part of it, but it’s more about what’s valued in the coming kingdom of heaven. Mary is helping to usher in a reign where might doesn’t make right, where the vulnerable are lifted up, where peacemakers are more valued than warriors, and where the only question that matters is how your soul magnifies the Lord.
So for those on the margins, from the people of Israel living under Roman rule to those who are marginalized and ignored in our own day, the Magnificat offers powerful words of hope. For those who struggle, for the exploited, for the abused and the abandoned, for asylum seekers, and for those whose dignity has been trampled down again and again, this is good news. This is the great reversal.
Ghandi chose the Magnificat, dictators banned it
And if you still don’t quite see the Magnificat as a protest song, remember that during British rule in India the singing of the Magnificat in some churches was forbidden because it was deemed subversive. To highlight this, on the very last day of British rule in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi (who was obviously not a Christian) requested these words to be read wherever the British flag was publicly lowered. The governments of more than one South American dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s found Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor so revolutionary and such a threat to authority, that they also banned any public recitation of the Magnificat. These are radical words; words that still have the potential to topple governments and bring down the powerful from their thrones.
A song of solidarity
Of course these actions and situations can feel distant, even remote, if you’re not being persecuted for your faith or belittled for who you are or subjected to acts of violent oppression. But if there’s anything Jesus teaches us, it’s that when one group is being ill-treated, when one part of the body of Christ is being injured, we all suffer. And so we have a duty to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalised in our midst and in our world, whenever we sing the Magnificat. In a very real sense, the Magnificat is the We shall overcome of the Scriptural world. It’s the promise that ultimate justice will enter the world in the form of this child Mary carries; that the arrival of Jesus will give birth to hope and salvation. Mary, this humble, Jewish girl says yes to God, and the world is transformed and turned upside down. She’s got a song to sing, all over this land; it’s the hammer of justice; it’s the bell of freedom; and ultimately it’s a song about love between her brothers and her sisters all over the world.