It’s that time of the year. Cartons of eggnog tempt or terrify shoppers in the refrigerated section of grocery stores. Sentimental holiday rom coms strain bandwidth capacities across the country. And Mariah Carey’s song “All I Want for Christmas is You” is at the top of Billboard’s charts. Again. Which is fine. Totally fine. I’m completely fine with that, I swear.
It’s an ancient tune, an oldie and a goodie, but it doesn’t have quite the same charm as Mariah’s omnipresent hit. It is far more controversial. So much so, in fact, that it has earned a top spot on several nations’ list of banned songs over the years.
According to the story, the angel Gabriel visits Mary, a poor teenage girl in chariot-pass-through country within the Roman Empire, and announces to her that she will give birth to the son of God. A rather awkward conversation ensues between the divine messenger and the embarrassed girl, for she must disclose that she’s never had sex. Perhaps she wonders if the heavenly host doesn’t quite understand how babies are made. Thankfully, Gabriel needs no instruction on such matters, and he provides details on how this divine-human offspring will work. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” says Gabriel to Mary, “and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”
This explanation satisfies Mary, if not our modern sensibilities, and she consents to the divine proposal. She conceives. Later she visits her much older cousin Elizabeth who is likewise carrying a miraculous child. At their meeting, Mary breaks out into song, her Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
— Luke 1:46-53 NRSV
(By the way, the Bible is a musical; its characters often sing, especially during and following the most important events.)
Mary imagines and sings of a god who intervenes in human affairs by reversing everyone’s fortunes: the powerful are brought down while the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty.
Mary rejoices in her god, and she heralds her god’s economic justice as good news of great joy for all people. Though admittedly it wouldn’t feel like good news to the rich and powerful even though in the end it would be better for them too. But it certainly feels good to Mary and to all the poor and lowly who celebrate Mary’s vision of a just Christmas.
Which brings me to why I’ve been contemplating Mary’s song.
Since the pandemic began, 40 million Americans filed for unemployment while 80 percent of food banks are serving more people now than they were a year ago.
Meanwhile, the world’s billionaires have seen their wealth increase by over $1,000,000,000,000. If you don’t want to count the zeros, that’s $1 trillion, an increase of 34 percent of their wealth. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has gained $69 billion since March. Mr. Bezos could give $150,000 to all 500,000 Amazon employees, and he would still have more wealth than he had before the pandemic began.
They shrug their shoulders while calmly insisting that every economic system has winners and losers, and this is the best we can do. Besides, they say, we should be grateful for how the markets have graced us with unparalleled access to modern goods and services.
To me, that judgment—”this is the best we can do”—feels like a toxic mix of Leibniz’ lazy “best of all possible worlds” logic along with the alluring fantasy that maybe I will make it rich. Yes, I love my Pixel phone, Instacart grocery pickup, and my new Schitt’s Creek themed “Ew, 2020” ornament, but I refuse to believe that their existence depends on the filthy rich getting even filthier while the poor line up and wait for handouts.
And if there were some causal connection, let us all compete to be first in line at the sacrificial altar where we could give up some of our conveniences for the sake of our neighbors’ dignity and well-being.
I blame us. All of us. Together we continue to sustain and tolerate this absurd financial arrangement. Daily we consent to abide by the norms, rules, and laws that make billionaires possible. There must be a better way.
Mary’s song is that better way.
Where capitalism’s invisible hand increasingly concentrates wealth into the pockets of the rich and powerful, Mary calls forth the invisible divine hand that does the opposite. She believes in the god narrated in the Bible: the god who created a world not of scarcity but of abundance, the god who liberated an enslaved people out of Egypt, the god who enacted progressive legislation in the Torah including the cancellation of debts every seventh year. (Yes, college debts too.)
We all can make the divine invisible hand visible, taking up the reality of abundance and fair distribution rather than the cruel, manufactured scarcity in which we currently live. We are not stuck with this system, and this is not the best we can do. We can—we must—do better.
This holiday season, as we hear Mariah Carey’s song a thousand times, I suggest we use it to remember her namesake’s Magnificat. There is some resonance in the two songs after all. As Mariah so joyfully sings her anti-consumerist “I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree,” let us take that spirit a step further. Let us commit ourselves to reversing wealth inequality, to advancing economic justice, and to furthering reparations to those who have been wronged.
Here are two ways to practice economic justice: