Ponder and Protest (Like Mother Mary)

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I received my favorite Christmas card this year from D.L. Mayfield. A simple image in black ink on white cardstock of Mother Mary mid-step, skirt hiked up and fist in the air. She looks fierce. The words of the Magnificat encircle her: “Cast down the mighty. Lift up the lowly. Send the rich away. Fill the hungry.” I adore this depiction of Mary, not so meek or mild.

Last week my family traveled from the U.S. to Burundi. We had a lengthy layover and took advantage of one of the in-terminal sit-down restaurants to eat, relax and recharge our devices. While reading, the card slipped out of my book jacket. My daughter asked who that lady was. “You don’t recognize her?” She nodded in the negative. “It’s Mother Mary,” I said. “No, that’s not her,” she quickly retorted.

I put my book down. I clasped my hands together in prayer, tilting my head slightly to the side. The instant smile crossing her face revealed this to be the Mary she knew. But when I then put my fist in the air, she shook her head in disapproval. Sunday School taught her about the young girl who pondered all these things in her heart. It was my turn to introduce her to Mary’s song.

When Mary learned that she, a lowly unmarried woman living under occupation, would carry the Christ in her womb, she pondered. The onset of incarnation sparked something inside her. What if the Christ coming into the world through her and her beleaguered community, not the imperial house, meant something? It seemed to her a significant development. So she pondered some more.

By the time she arrived at Elizabeth’s house, both of them heavy with sons, her pondering birthed a song. The first fruit of her womb was a song of grand reversals. Her holy imagination lit with the very real possibility that God was turning the tables in favor of the hungry, the poor and the lowly of the land. So she sang ridiculously loud about the God who blessed her and her child who would bless others like her the world over. She might have even raised her fist as she reached the climax, singing those who exploit us now will go away empty and dethroned at last!

I told my wide-eyed daughter how Mary’s pondering lead to her magnificent protest song. Hands clasped in prayer and fist raised high both represent Mother Mary. Christ growing in her birthed both a prayerful and powerful woman. Both gestures suit her. These days I think we need a fierce Mary more than ever.

So much injustice plagues the world and I hunger for more of God’s shalom to be revealed, for things to be set right before our very eyes. I join those who struggle with an appropriate response to the wounds of the world.

Many of us were taught to be objective, to listen to all sides of an issue and to learn from all sides of a conflict. Consider a situation fully. Maybe pray—yes, pray! But do so objectively, don’t take sides or show any partiality.

But God takes sides. Time and time again we witness God siding with the orphan, widow and immigrants. God sides with the poor, the sick, and the hungry. The Psalms and the Gospels proclaim that the meek will inherit the land. The pattern is undeniable. It is what liberation theologians call God’s preferential option for the poor. God stands with those who suffer injustice in this world. God takes sides for the sake of justice.

This might be hard to square with our understanding of God,  the one who loves everyone and is quite equitable. This is how I see the dynamic played out in my own life. I have two children, a son and daughter. She is my favorite daughter and he is, after all, my favorite son. But imagine that I catch my girl in an act of unkindness toward her brother or see her take something from him. I will stand with my boy, listening to him and comforting him. I will demand that my sweet girl hand over the stolen item or apologize for the mean words. I will work to see that she makes things right and reconciles with him. During this entire ordeal, I love them both fiercely – they are my favorites. But I love them both so much that I stand firm, expecting them to work toward reconciliation. So as a mother, I take sides. Forgive the anthropomorphic example, but it is how I understand God’s preferential option for the poor.

So I take time to reflect. I take time to listen and time to discern. I take time to ponder and pray. Then I take sides with those suffering injustice in whatever way I can. For me this means I stand with my Palestinian brothers and sisters, even as I love my Israeli friends as deeply. I stand with black men and women against white supremacy in all its individual and institutional forms. I stand with immigrants (and Dreamers). I stand with victims of abuse, especially women who have suffered abuse within the church.

I take sides because God takes sides for the sake of justice. I can no longer pretend otherwise.

As we finished our meal between flights I flashed the card of Mother Mary. The first time my girl raised a fist close to her chest. The next time she raised it above her shoulder, cracking a smile. She thought I was being a bit silly but I was more serious than I let on. As a black girl from Africa, she’ll need to know that she can ponder and protest like Mother Mary. She’ll need to know that both are faithful gestures as we follow Jesus toward justice.

What makes Mary so magnificent is her capacity to ponder and protest, be both prayerful and powerful in turn. She took sides with the hungry and the lowly. Her liberating practice, implanted through the Incarnation, inspires and instructs us all.

My daughter and I finally swung our tote bags over our shoulders and headed for our next gate. As she walked past me in the crowded terminal she pumped her first in the air. She’s with her!

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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