Mary the Marxist

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

–Luke 1:52-53

These famous words are uttered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. They make me want to ask the question… “Mary – are you a Marxist?” 

Karl Marx was an economic philosopher from the 19th century who believed that human history has been a recurrent battle between those who have power and possessions with those who do not. Things change, yet for Marx even in the changes this pattern of class struggle remain. In one era those in power were emperors and their entourage and those without were slaves. In another era those with the power were kings and lords and those without were peasants. In yet another era, those with power were the rich businessmen and those without populated the factories. 

Through it all there were those who had more than they needed, and they got it by claiming the profits of those who did the hard work. You work and someone else takes the fruit of that labor and gets rich leaving you to struggle to survive. Marx thought the only way to make things better was revolution. Ultimately Marx thought power should be shared equally among all – more or less. 

His vision still haunts us as a possible better way – a better way that has never quite been tried. Every time someone tries it, it seems to go astray. It keeps failing sometime after the revolution and new forms of inequality emerge. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba… their dreams of a fair society without owners never quite happened. Yet, Marx’s vision remains …

If we listen to Mary’s speech with new ears, we will find that she, like Marx, is a revolutionary. God brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the “nobodies.” This is a complete overturning of the social order. Revolution!

It says to the ones in power – beware! –God’s eye is on you to bring you down. It says to the “nobodies” of the land– be of good courage! –God’s eye is on you to exalt you to the heavens. Those who have, will lose everything, while those who have nothing – those who are hungry, will find good things – and will eat to their fill.[1]

Christianity has often been understood as an agent of the powerful to keep those without power in line. Marx himself thought religion was the opiate of the masses. He believed it dulled peoples lived here and now experience. His inevitable revolution was delayed because the masses did not feel the injustice as they would have without the influence of religion. Religion helped people to accept that which is not acceptable. 

Marx has a point I think, but this outrage about injustice is certainly not missing from Mary’s prayer of outrage. Her prayer looks out on the world and sees the atrocity of a handful of people hoarding the planet’s wealth while the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants struggle through another day. It sees the hungry and the homeless and then sees the decadent palaces and outrageous banquets of the rich. In outrage it imagines God doing the only thing appropriate to this situation – turning the tables upside down. Turning the world on its end. It imagines God being the prime mover in revolution! 

Mary’s prayer suggests to us that the Lord of history – the lord of all reality – is a revolutionary force. Christianity is not a force to mollify the masses, but rather a way towards the revolution at the heart of existence. If God is a revolutionary, like Mary’s prayer imagines, then this radical wild force is at the heart of reality – it is the very essence of being. To follow Christ is to become a revolutionary.  

The prayer says, “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Pride in this context is easy to misunderstand. Pride as an evil is regularly misunderstood. In some circles, feeling good about something you have done and something you’ve become is thought to be sinful pride. If you feel special about something you have done or some talent you have, this is wrong. But this is not what is meant by pride in Mary’s prayer. 

Our family attended the pride parade in Vancouver in the summer of 2019. It was a super fun event and the whole family had a blast. I remember posting on Facebook something about our time there. One of my conservative Christian friends responded to my Facebook post by referring to Proverb 16:18, which say that that “Pride goes before destruction.” Being stuck in a homophobic ideology, this friend had trouble with the whole idea of celebrating gay, lesbian, or trans identity – but the point he targeted was the specific notion of pride. But this friend misunderstands what is meant by the idea of pride in proverbs.

Pride that bolsters a healthy self-esteem is not wrong – it is not sinful. It is essential to good mental health and wellbeing. When Mary – or Proverbs – speaks of pride, they are not speaking about feeling good about yourself, or about having a good self-esteem. No, what they are speaking about something that is essentially comparative. It is not saying that I am great – it is in saying that I am greater than you. When I compare myself with you and weigh my fundamental worth as being more than yours – that is the sort of pride that Mary’s prayer condemns. 

But Mary’s prayer is not primarily interested in personal piety. It is a social prayer – it is a prayer that sees the rich losing everything and the poor coming into the possession of good things. So how does something like pride – which seems rather individual and personal, how does it relate to the social evils Mary speaks of?

This is where Mary’s radical revolutionary prayer gets interesting. The personal and the social and intimately connected – one always comes with the other. How does the slave owner justify to himself that it is okay to own slaves? How does the Lord or Lady justify to themselves that it is okay to exploit the peasants? How does we justify to ourselves that it is okay to drink water while so many indigenous communities do not have clean water to drink? How do we do this? Sinful pride – of the comparative destructive variety. The slave owners look at the slaves and think to themselves that they are better and more important than the slaves. The Lords and Lady’s look at the peasants and think to themselves that they are better and more important than they are. And, dare I say it, those of us who are settlers look at indigenous communities and somewhere within ourselves we must say to ourselves that we too are better and more important than they are. How else could we accept the injustice?

How could we accept the injustice on the other side of the world – in the sweat shops and dark factories where our clothing is produced – how could we accept this in our hearts unless we somehow believed that their lives are simply not as important as ours? 

This is pride –that says we are more important than they – and it is this sort of pride that Mary considers when she say God “… has shown strength with his arm [to] scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

You see this is the danger of revolutionary visions like that in Mary’s prayer – we might just find ourselves on the wrong side of the revolution when it comes. 

Now that’s something to be terrified about![2]

[1] While history is littered with interpretation that try to spiritualize poverty and wealth, these interpretations miss the mark. Luke’s Gospel is very interested in material realities – food and hunger – wealth and poverty – these speak to real physical reality as real in Luke’s world as they are in ours.

[2] A sermon preached at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt on August 15, 2021. 

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