Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 12, 1990, 1163, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christian loves demands that we become involved in the political processes and social movements advocating the elimination of poverty through the economic restructuring of our society? This means Christians working for and advocating the redistribution of goods and services so that poor people can experience a positive, productive quality of life.
The birth of Jesus calls our attention to God’s tradition of selecting representatives and partners from lowly places. During Advent we naturally focus upon Jesus as such a representative, and we sometimes forget that Jesus’ birth began with a humble woman. Mary was selected by God as a partner for producing the divine child that Christians believe redeemed humankind. This was strictly an affair between God and woman -- the decisive agent.
The 19th-century black feminist Sojourner Truth was one of the first to understand the significance for women of this intimate relation between God and Mary. At a women’s right’s convention she refuted a white clergyman who argued against women’s rights on the basis of what he saw as women’s biological weakness and their "need" to be cared for by men. In the course of her response, Truth biblically validated women’s autonomy: "Whar did your Jesus come from? From God and a woman. Man didn’t have nuthin’ to do with it." And Mary, this partner God chose, came from the ranks of the poor.
God also chose humble male representatives to participate in bringing the kingdom Jesus talked about. King David, Jesus’ noble ancestor, was not always so royal. When God tells the prophet Nathan to speak to David about building a house (temple) for God, the prophet is to say to David: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel . . ." (2 Sam. 7:8) And one of David’s posterity, Jesus, emerged from a manger to become the ultimate sovereign over a religious movement that has lasted for almost 2,000 years.
Reflecting upon God’s choice of poor people (female and male) to be God’s representatives and partners reminds me of the sense of the unexpected associated with Advent. Even though the birth of such a One had been prophesied among the Jews, they did not expect such a lowly person to be the One, the deliverer. His life on earth seemed not to reap all of what the angel gave Mary reason to expect. In Luke, Gabriel predicts that "he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever . . ." Jesus does not inherit a throne on earth. Nor does he rule over the house of Jacob forever. From the perspective of Mary, the "unexpected" is even more pronounced. Hearing the announcement of her unexpected pregnancy, she asks the angel, "How shall this be, since I am a virgin?"
God’s way of choosing the poor and humble as well as the element of the "unexpected" associated with Advent suggests several important questions for U.S. Christians today. First, if God showed such a preference for the poor, shouldn’t we demonstrate real care for the homeless, whose numbers are steadily increasing? We may easily conclude that our Christian responsibility in relation to the homeless and hungry can be met with food pantries, soup kitchens and temporary shelters. But does Christian love not also demand that we become involved in the political processes and social movements advocating the elimination of poverty through the economic restructuring of our society? This means Christians working for and advocating the redistribution of goods and services so that poor people can experience a positive, productive quality of life. The ultimate question is whether the church can really be Christian if it does not clearly demonstrate its preference for poor, humble and oppressed peoples.
The second challenge is in the area of the "unexpected." Too often at Christmas "the unexpected" refers to adults’ and children’s expectations of gifts and other material things. How do we liberate Christmas from the commercialization of "the unexpected"? How do we put the spiritual quality of "the unexpected" back into Advent so that the meaning extends beyond Christmas Day into the future?
If Advent were a time when Christians and the church reviewed the quality of their relation with the poor and oppressed, people could focus upon the true meaning of the coming of God’s kingdom. In a country in which money and capital are thought to be the greatest good, Advent should help Christians remember that charity is the greatest gift and the greatest good.
Such a review process would not mean that the advent season is not full of joy and celebration. It does mean that the joy and celebration would center on the happiness we Christians experience in practicing charity throughout the year. Perhaps the world would be a better place if at Christmas (and throughout the year) we Christians emphasized to our children God’s choice of poor people as God’s representatives and partners on earth. Maybe there would be more and better alliances between the homeless and the nonhomeless. Maybe our children would be able to hear honest faith rather than vacant words in our prayer that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.