And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Exodus 15:21, NRSV
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” –James Baldwin, from “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker
I’m just a girl
I’m just a girl in the world
That’s all that you’ll let me be
Oh, I’m just a girl, living in captivity
Your rule of thumb makes me worrisome
“Just a Girl” by Gwen Stefani and No Doubt
There’s a legendary story about St. Teresa of Ávila. It is said that this nun, famous for her devotion and ecstatic visions of God, once remarked after falling off a horse into the mud and injuring her leg, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few.”
It is a thought I come back to over and over again, when I think about God’s own preferential option for the poor and powerless. Liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez taught us that God is a friend to the poor and oppressed; God, he says, is on their side; Jesus himself announced at the inauguration of his ministry that he had been anointed to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free (Lk. 4:18, 19). Later on, Luke the gospel-writer tells us that the poor are blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (6:20).
So where is the blessing and liberation of the poor and oppressed? Hard as I try, I don’t see it. What I do see is their continued poverty and oppression. None more so than the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus herself.
Throughout Luke 1, the messenger of God tells Mary twice that she has favor with God. Her cousin Elizabeth twice announces that Mary is blessed—she is blessed among women and she is blessed because she believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her. Mary herself says that from now on all generations will call her blessed.
I find myself very annoyed about the way that people use the word blessing. I remember when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. At my Tampa church the following Sunday everyone remarked how “blessed” we were because the hurricane had changed course and not destroyed our own bay area. It made me wonder: are the people of New Orleans who were too poor to evacuate not blessed? Because that would go against every biblical teaching about God’s blessing and preference for the poor and oppressed. We seem to always think of blessing in terms of good things coming into our lives.
But is that how Mary understood the word blessing in her own life?
Did Mary feel blessed living in a conquered and subjugated land? Did she feel blessed when she felt her unmarried, pregnant belly growing? Did she feel blessed when she labored and gave birth in destitute poverty? Did she feel blessed when she and Joseph had to flee to Egypt as refugees to protect the life of their child? Did she feel blessed when her firstborn was arrested and tortured? Did she feel blessed when he was executed by the state, and she wept in grief?
“Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth said.
Mary’s understanding of blessing and favor are nothing like our own. She understood blessing as believing God and trusting God was at work even in things she could not see or understand.
Imagine a blessing that is not an expectation of rescue. Or of relief from pain. Or of food, water, and warmth. Or of close relationships. Or of security and great opportunities. Don’t get me wrong—it’s human and right to hope for those kinds of things—but it may be that an even deeper experience of blessing comes to those like Mary, who open their hands to emptiness and find a place in their hearts from which to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38)
Mary didn’t accept this blessing because she thought by doing so God was only going only to give her good things and usher in a new kingdom where she and her people would be free. She accepted that she was blessed and favored not based on the expectation of things being easy and perfect for her, but based on her knowledge of the God who is close to those who are poor and oppressed, like she was.
Liberation theologians do not just believe that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed; they emphasize that our awareness of sinful structures that harm them require our active participation in changing those structures in order to free them and ourselves. Mary was not liberated in the political and societal ways we would have liked to see, but in the fact that she was a follower of the God who enables such societal transformation. And she was right: it has been generations and we still call her blessed!
Karen González is a native of Guatemala. She is a speaker, writer, and public theologian. Her first book is The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong (Herald Press 2019). You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram: @_karenjgonzalez and on her website karen-gonzalez.com