By Bill Leonard
When Jim Crow segregation laws ruled the American South, their classic defense lay in the phrase, “Separate but Equal,” meaning that while the races were divided, their facilities and services were supposedly the same. Of course everybody knew that was not true and ultimately congressional legislation, Supreme Court rulings, non-violent action, fire hoses and German Shepherds ended that form of legal discrimination.
Recently new evidence of implicit economic and educational inequality descended upon the country through various statistical reports that reflect 1.) increases in the number of people living below the poverty line; 2.) disparity between college-educated and non-college educated segments of the population in terms of income, family stability, social networks, and hope for the future; and 3.) the ever-expanding gap between the very wealthy and the rest of the population.
While the reports are the object of significant debate, the overall profile is staggering. They document a culture that is increasingly separate and unequal on many levels.
Christians, as usual, seem divided over how to interpret these social trends and accompanying responses. On the whole, churches across the theological and denominational spectrum continue to confront social and economic inequality with direct action against hunger, homelessness, poverty, sickness and brokenness.
These days, however, faith-based individuals and communities seem to gravitate toward specific explanations and reactions represented by the two major political parties. Some advocate greater government action to alleviate massive economic and educational separatism, while others insist that these issues are better served by the private sector including extended church efforts. Still others debate the nature of the Christian gospel itself, differing as to the clearest “biblical” approach to social and political engagement.
Indeed, the Christian community appears as divided as ever over the classic question, “What would Jesus do?” about the separate and unequal fragmentation of 21st century America. Are we to “save souls” or “Christianize the social order,” or both? Are we failing to do a decent job either way? Truth is, neither church nor state seem capable of developing adequate immediate or long-term responses to rising inequities.
With the Advent season fast upon us, I wonder if the radical nature of the gospel, and perhaps an important biblical reflection on social inequality, was first introduced, not by Jesus, but by his mother. In Luke’s gospel, when Mary discovers that she is to bear a son in a most mysterious way, she sings what we call the Magnificat, a wonderful chant, half praise chorus, half socio-economic manifesto, paralleling Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10. It is a daring and dangerous carol:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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 1:46-53 NRSV)
In this passage the intensity of Mary’s spirituality is laced with prophetic insight into power, privilege and economics, economics, economics. We often sing the first verse at the top of our lungs, but ignore or spiritualize away Mary’s sense of (dare we say it) “class warfare.” The words offer hope to “the lowly” and warning to “the rich,” a direct reaction to the inequalities of her world and ours.
Did Mary’s insights inform those of her Son? Is that one reason why so many of Jesus’ parables have to do with economics?
The references are considerable: lost coins (Luke 15: 8-10); squandered inheritance (Luke 15: 11-24); stock market speculators (Matthew 25:14-30); Samaritan health-care providers (Luke 10:34-35), a creepy deal-cutting financial manager (Luke 16:1-9); kamikaze pigs and their economically deprived herders (Mark 5:11-14); caterers whose wine ran out when the party was just getting started (John 2: 8-11); landowners who pay the same wages to those who work all day or just a little (Matthew 20:1-15); and all those broke/broken people who get invited to the feast when the comfortable crowd won’t come (Luke 14:15-24).
And don’t forget tree-climbing Zacchaeus, the tax-collector-“sinner” who, after dinner with Jesus, says: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Should we text that text to Wall Street and D.C.? Jesus even encourages one rich guy to “sell all you have, and give to the poor,” (Matthew 19: 28) but let’s not even go there.
In our increasingly separate and unequal society, what would Jesus do? After reading the Gospels, if you still think he’s unclear, just ask his mama.