Last year, during Advent, Father Tim Jones, an Anglican priest in the Church of England made headline news here in Britain—and not for the first time—for the audacity of translating his faith into political direction. “‘It’s okay to shoplift’ says Father Tim Jones, parish priest of St Lawrence and St Hilda” read the headline and the debate took wings.
The inspiration for Jones’s position was the Magnificat—the Song of Mary—a text from Luke’s gospel read daily around the world as part of the evening prayer liturgy.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. (Luke 1:46–55 KJV)
Tim Jones writes:
For in Mary’s song of praise is the explicit recognition that the poor are extremely close to the heart of God. The church, the community of people who keep the Magnificat alive, have long recognized that it is permissible to steal food in order to live. For ours is a God, Mary tells us, who has “lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” [Luke chapter 1 verses 52&53]. The mother of Christ reminds us what Jesus shows us: that God’s love for the poor and despised—and who in our society is despised more than a newly released prisoner?—outweighs the property rights of the rich.
Jones and Wal-Mart were not the first to discover the explosive potential of the Magnificat. The East Indian Trading Company, working in Bangladesh had the text removed from Evening Prayer, lest the call to “put down the mighty from their seats” be taken literally by the colonised masses. There is a wonderful re-rendering of the Magnificat by the hymnist Fred Kaan, to the tune of ‘O Tannenbaum’, music made face by the protest song, ‘The Red Flag’.
Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.
By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat
It is worth noting that Mary did not thank the God who directs the paths of the might, or sends the rich away with instructions about how to use their wealth philanthropically. Mary gives thanks to the God who turns the world upside down; the God who rights the economic wrongs of the world so that the poor and oppressed might have all they need and be free.
Keith Hebden is an Affirming Catholic Anglican Pioneer minister and Seeking Justice Deanery Adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. Keith teaches and writes on Dalit theology, Christian anarchism, Green spirituality, and spiritual activism. His latest book Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas.net. Keith is also an Associate of Ekklesia.co.uk, a think-tank in the UK, on Post-Christendom faith and justice.