By J. Mark Bowers
I sat in an Advent Bible study, listening for the rest of the song.
The passage was the Magnificat in Luke 1. We opened the Scriptures and read Mary’s familiar words: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
The leader unpacked the need for personal piety and humility: He has looked on the humble estate of His servant… Like Mary who hid these ancient promises in her heart, he praised the importance of knowing the Bible: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His offspring forever…
All true enough—Mary might not have recognized the Messiah had she not meekly soaked herself in the recorded Scriptural promises for Yahweh’s people.
But like a guitar out of tune, something was off. As the lesson progressed, every passage from Mary’s song was revisited in exegesis, except for these few, crucial lines: He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.
As Christians in North America today, why is it so easy for us to skip these lines of the song?
Much of our theology rightly focuses on personal relationships with God and on individual sin, but leaves little room for the reality that principalities and powers oppress our world.
Much of our theology rightly focuses on personal relationships with God and on individual sin, but leaves little room for the reality that principalities and powers oppress our world. Raised in a hyper-individualistic culture, the personal accomplishments or shortcomings of the individual quickly become our primary gauge of spiritual well-being. Because the systems of power in our culture work relatively well for the average middle-class Christian, we struggle to recognize when these structures are broken. Sometimes, we barely notice them at all.
Living on the margins of society as a poor peasant woman, Mary didn’t have this luxury. You can almost see her in your mind—the humble, Jewish adolescent, bewildered and pregnant, her family heavily taxed by Caesar Augustus, the self-declared son of god. Her song celebrates the true King’s coming, telling the entire story: He has come to save us from our personal sin and struggle, but also to defeat the systems and powers that oppress us. Her voice cries out: At last! The clear, long-awaited sign to the powers of the world that Yahweh is Lord, and they aren’t. In a word, Israel’s ancient dream of salvation and justice is coming true.
Segregated by Salary
In today’s world, sin has certainly marred our personal relationship with God and with others. It has also damaged the systems in which we live—even in nations with robust institutions like the United States. Nowhere is this clearer than in the new American neighborhood, where our citizens are increasingly segregated by wealth. Just walk outside your house on a typical day. Cross the street, knock on the neighbor’s door, and ask to borrow a cup of sugar. Now more than ever in the US, chances are, that neighbor shares your income level.
Since 1970, class segregation has been growing across the United States. Middle-income neighborhoods are disappearing, while wealthy and poor neighborhoods are becoming much more common. Class segregation makes Americans across the country more likely to interact, build relationships, and form alliances with people who are economically most similar to them. Over time, the wealthy and poor have become increasingly estranged from one another, sharing less stake in public resources and amenities. For low-income communities, this has devastating implications: failing schools, crumbling public services, and the disappearance of stable vendors and jobs. This year, economic frustrations have boiled to the surface, igniting class tensions that call us to take a deeper look at the realities facing our culture.
Our nation is divided, and the church, again, finds herself at a crossroads. As mainstream America conforms to these patterns of growing class segregation, how should the people of God respond to this neighborhood landscape? What does meeting Jesus as our personal Savior bring to bear on the broken systems of our nation?
Join the Margins
When the newborn King arrived on the margins, economically and physically on the wrong side of power, His agenda was larger than just rescuing me or you. He had the entire cosmos in mind. While Jesus came to save us from our personal sins, His work on the cross put all things right again, including the systems of the world (Colossians 1:19-20). When He made peace with all things in heaven and earth by His blood, He redeemed both broken individuals and unjust systems. Our King’s birth promises healing for sinful individuals like you and me, and for broken systems like economic segregation.
How do we begin to work against these broken systems? The community of Jesus can start by taking baby steps toward fusing our lives and resources with people who are socioeconomically different than us.
How do we begin to work against these broken systems? The community of Jesus can start by taking baby steps toward fusing our lives and resources with people who are socioeconomically different than us. There’s no magic formula—pray for guidance and start small. Begin by learning. Find a mentor of a different race or lower income level than you; glean wisdom from diverse life experience. Alongside your church plant or small group, buy a home or rental property in a struggling neighborhood and learn to share stake with low-income neighbors. Or lead your church in walking alongside low-income friends through empowering, culturally appropriate financial education or jobs training in a way that recognizes both personal brokenness and systemic injustice.
Like Christ, we must be in proximity to and relationship with people who are poor. Voting in our candidate, writing checks to charity, or participating in mission trips or conferences about poverty aren’t enough to bear witness to the world that Christ is putting all things right. This Advent, may He be born in us again—calling the church together across the lines of class. Let us wed our economic stake to one another, longing together for His new creation. Let us throw in our lot with the lowly Baby who redefined power by joining the margins. Let us learn to sing Mary’s entire song again.
Mark Bowers writes and trains for the Chalmers Center, a church-equipping organization that spawned the When Helping Hurts series. After hours, he spends his time ideating, creating community in the neighborhood, and pretending adolescence doesn’t end until you’re 40.
Bischoff, Kendra (Cornell University) and Reardon, Sean (Stanford University); More Unequal and More Separate: Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, 2013.
Corbett, Steve, and Fikkert, Brian; When Helping Hurts, Moody Publishers, 2009.
RSF Review; New U.S. 2010 Report: Residential Income Segregation in America, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.
Willems, Kurt; Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus, 2009.
Wright, N. T.; Gospel and Empire, In Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Fortress Press, 2005.