The visual images of Saddam Hussein after his capture contrast sharply with the carefully controlled images we had all seen prior to the war. Before the war, we saw Saddam amble regally among his people, larger than life, the very picture of power and control. Now the images are of a bearded and scruffy Saddam, a vagabond refugee, stripped of power and reduced to the status of mere mortal.
There is great hope that with his capture the daily bloodshed will finally begin to subside. Also, with his capture, there is optimism that the Iraqi people will begin to have confidence that the bloody and brutal reign is finally over—he is not coming back to power. There is hope that now some sense of normalcy and peace may begin to dawn.
For those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, the capture of Saddam comes at an interesting time. The Gospel reading for this week is the narrative of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, we know, has recently learned she is to give birth to the Messiah. Elizabeth and her elderly husband Zechariah are struggling with their own birth miracle as she is pregnant with a son who will become John the Baptist.
As Mary and Elizabeth meet and the significance of what is happening to the two of them begin to sink in, Mary suddenly bursts forth in song. The song has come to be known as The Magnificat from the Latin of the opening phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The song has become one of our most treasured images for understanding God’s purpose in sending Jesus into the world.
As we listen to the song there is one phrase in particular that seems to immediately connect with the recent events in Iraq. Mary sings: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.”
This great reversal is present in many forms throughout the Gospel, and in the prophetic tradition which preceded it. And it’s perfectly understandable why. Israel had been a minor player on the stage of world events almost from its very beginning. They were never a match for the great armies of Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome. All these, and more, tramped their way across Israel. Almost all of them stopped and looted and generally exerted power for a while. The people of Israel had in their historical DNA a long memory of being ruled over by others.
And so it makes sense that in their deepest longing for the coming Messiah one of their hopes would be a reversal of power. It was believed, and hoped that one day the mighty would be thrown down. The victims of tyranny longed for the day when those who had gained wealth and influence at the expense of the poor would become poor themselves.
The people of Iraq are certainly in a position to understand the longings for such a great reversal. After many years of deprivation and cruelty, seeing Saddam in custody must surely kindle in the hearts of many of them the hope that a better day is coming. They may have some concerns, certainly, that they have passed from the hands of one powerful regime into the hands of another. But if the United States and Britain keep their word, the Iraqi people will eventually have a chance to govern themselves.
But what about us? Where should we find ourselves in the song? As we watch Saddam tumble from power, and as we hear Mary sing, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” where are we? We are certainly not among the millions who have felt the iron heel of Saddam’s oppression. We have not tasted the stale bread of the poverty his cruelty made. And even if he was a threat to us, which is now debatable, and had some role in the terrorist attacks on our country, which also is not at all clear, none of that would raise him to the level of having any real power over us.
Consequently, it may not be appropriate for us to sing Mary’s song. We are not in a place to put her words on our lips. We are not oppressed, we are not powerless. We sent an army half-way round the world and ended a regime. We have sustained that army of several hundred thousand for many months while building a new regime. These are not the activities of a powerless people. These are the actions of the powerful. If we are not careful we will distort Mary’s song by substituting “we,” for “he”–“We have brought down the powerful from their thrones.”
Robert Horsely in his provocative book Jesus and Empire struggles with this problem extensively. How can North American Christians, endowed with so much wealth and power, give proper expression to a message of good news that was aimed at the poor and disenfranchised? In fact, because the language of the Gospel does not speak to our actual situation, we have changed the meaning of the language so that it addresses what we do see as our need. The effect of this, Horsley argues, is that we “depoliticize” Jesus. We have taken what was basically political and economic language (e.g. “forgive our debts”) and turned it into exclusively religious language. Debts are spiritual debts. Oppression is the oppressing power of sin. Forgiveness (liberation) is freedom from that sin and the conferring of a blessed state of being with God (righteousness.)
If we read the Gospel in its stark political reality we would be embarrassed to discover that much of it condemns our way of life. We are the wealthy who hoard treasures on earth. We are the powerful who exploit (or allow exploitation) so that we may continue to enjoy prosperity.
If all of this is true, what is our response to the Gospel? Horsely, and others, believe that the Gospel can have a liberating force for North Americans. Understanding the stance God has taken for the poor and the disenfranchised challenges us to also stand with them. The Gospel can free us from a spirit of consumerism that drives us to buy and have more and more things. The Gospel challenges us to adopt a simpler and less costly style of life so that we can have more money to use to help others.
The Gospel can do what Mary’s song says it can do: It can remove the powerful from their thrones. We can choose to relinquish our place of power and privilege so that others who share the planet with us may share more fully in its bounty: “He has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
The debate over the legitimacy of the Iraq war notwithstanding, it is a good thing that Saddam is out of power. His cruelty and savagery will be put to an end once for all. What we must be careful to avoid is the belief that power and virtue are the same—that because our power has removed an evil power that our power is good. We cannot always be sure that will be true. If we allow our power to be used to exploit the weak, then our days are numbered. We may very well find ourselves in Mary’s song after all.