Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 20, 2020
“Mary's Radical Magnificat”
Luke 1: 46-55 New Revised Standard Version
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This is one of my favorite texts in the Bible. It is so hopeful. It’s how I got through the Trump administration. God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Mary the Revolutionary. In fact, some governments know that Mary wasn’t meek and mild. In the past century, in three separate instances, India, Guatemala, and Argentina all banned the public recitation of the Magnificat. Its message, they feared, was too subversive. Others of course ignore it completely. A poll of white evangelicals revealed only 8% percent had ever heard it read in worship. How many people take this passage from the Gospel of Luke seriously?
The one “benefit” of having Covid is that after my Covid brain fog lifted, I had time to read some good books. Among them, I read Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis. We all know Lewis’ story – or at least two major parts: one) how he was beaten and his skull cracked as he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and two) his long tenure as a Congressman from Georgia. John’s activism as a young person was through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as Snick, of which he was a founding member.
We are much more familiar with the men of the Civil Rights Movement than the women. Uniquely, Snick was one of the most egalitarian organizations, but even so, while John and Hosea Williams are known for their bravery at the front of the line in Selma, it was actually Diane Nash, another founding Snick member, and her husband who implemented it. After reading John Lewis, I realized I needed to know more about Diane Nash. I found a book called Hands on the Freedom Plow. It contains 55 personal accounts by women in Snick. It’s fascinating, inspiring – and I highly recommend it. And one piece of Diane’s story really spoke to me when thinking about Mary, the mother Jesus, today.
It was the summer of 1961. Diane and her husband Rev. James Bevell were providing workshops for young people in Mississippi to prepare them to join the Freedom Rides. She was 23 and five of her students were under 21 years of age. She was arrested and charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors by encouraging them to break the law to desegregate interstate buses. She was found guilty of five counts, each carrying a sentence of 6 months – a combined total sentence of 2 ½ years.
She appealed and the NAACP sent a $2,500 bond, but the appeals court deliberately didn’t inform her of the court date. So, when she didn’t appear, there was now a warrant out for her arrest. That warrant provided quite a dilemma – she could either leave the state and abandon the work she felt passionately called to do or go to jail. She and her husband planned to spend their lives in Mississippi working for the liberation of Black people. She said, “I didn’t want Mississippi white men or anyone else deciding for me where we could live and work. I didn’t want anybody to run me anywhere I did not want to go.” Furthermore, if she left the state, the NAACP would lose $2,500, which is worth over $20,000 today.
But even more complicated, or rather, much more complicated, she was six months pregnant, which would mean her child would be born in jail and she would lose out on the first two years of his life.
She wrote: “It was a dreadful, dreadful position, so I retreated to my bedroom. [I told Bevel I didn’t want to be disturbed by anyone.] I did nothing but eat, sleep, think, and pray. After three days I made the decision to surrender and serve the term. With intense meditation, I had tapped into a very powerful force that I can’t totally explain. I thought over every eventuality and was prepared to face anything. I knew I could handle it. There was really nothing anybody could do to hurt me. And if they killed me, I was ready. I had come to a place of strength and peace.” Bevel was very supportive, but faced a lot of criticism. “Oh, Rev. Bevel, you shouldn’t make your wife do that. That’s too much.” They only thought of me as “the Reverend’s wife,” and as a woman, incapable of making a decision like that on her own.
But part of why Diane wanted to serve her term was an issue Snick often highlighted: “jail-no-bail.” “Staying in jail focuses attention on the injustice. It puts the financial burden on the state, making the state pay the cost of enforcing unjust laws. Posting bond puts the financial burden on our community of supporters and takes the authorities off the hook, defeating much of the purpose for going to jail.”
So, she presented herself to the sheriff, ready to serve her sentence. He was clearly amused at her bulging midsection and told her to appear in Judge Moore’s court, the same Judge Moore who, by the way, found Byron De La Beckwith not guilty of killing Medgar Evers – with a gun Judge Moore kept hidden in his home.
Diane entered the court but wasn’t going to sit in the “colored section” so she walked right down to the front, along with two fellow Snick workers who accompanied her for moral support. For their “protest” of sitting in the front row, she was charged with defiance of local segregation laws and sentenced to 10 days in jail. The other two were sent to a prison farm for 40 days of repeated beating by prison guards.
The jail provided absolutely no accommodation for her advanced pregnancy, clearly wanting to make her stay as miserable as possible. No vitamin pills allowed, no change of clothes or even a toothbrush. She was kept isolated from other prisoners so as not to corrupt them with her talk of civil rights. Only one guard was willing to engage her in conversation and, one day, seemed genuinely interested when Diane told her about the discrepancy in public school funding. For example, in Holly Bluff they spent $191.77 per white child and $1.26 per black child. But the worst of her jail experience, she said, was the cockroaches, masses of them crawling up the walls at night, the clicking of their feet, and then falling from the ceiling right over her concrete slab of a bed.
After 10 days she appeared before Judge Moore. He proclaimed her sentence was complete and she was free to go. She asked, “aren’t you going to hear the case of my contributing to the delinquency of minors?” He said no. But she didn’t want to discover later that another warrant was out for her arrest on those charges. She told the judge very clearly that she was going to go right back to teaching young people how to do non-violent civil disobedience. She told him her full home address for the court records so they couldn’t say they couldn’t find her. “I want you to know I’m not hiding from you.” But that was it. What had happened?
Because their home phone had been tapped, fortunately, the Mississippi authorities were aware that every civil rights organization in the nation knew her case. She had been quoted in Jet Magazine saying, “This will be a Negro child born in Mississippi, and so wherever he is born, he will be in jail.” Therefore, the authorities decided that keeping her in jail was more of a public relations liability than they wanted.
Diane said, “I came away from the whole experience much strengthened. I grew spiritually through tapping into the power of an extraordinary force through meditation. In jail I learned that I could live with very little. The oppressive authorities imprisoned me and withheld basic necessities to frighten and control me, but it backfired. They are the ones who got scared. In the end, I was freer, more determined, and stronger than ever.” Doesn’t that sound like the Magnificat?
Today, Diane Nash is 82 and living in Chicago, still engaged in critical issues. The peacefulness which Diane brought to her revolutionary cause, her resolve to lift up the lowly and topple the powerful from their thrones reminds me of the time when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a son, the Son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David. She asked how. And then, full of the Spirit of God, fully aware of the consequences, Mary responded, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Despite the heartache and pain that she knew would come her way, this child would save the world. For God, through her willingness, so loved the world that God scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Yes, God loves the world that much.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor executed by the Nazi’s, realized the power of the Magnificat. He said, “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, most revolutionary hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary seen in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God…”
The power of God lived through people like Mary and Diane Nash who understood the meaning of these words and took them seriously.
May it be so in your spirit too.
I love being the