Mary as Agent of Liberation, Holy Spirit in Unexpected Places

This is an artist’s rendering of Emmett Till’s death and funeral which artist Sandra Hansen credits with inaugurating the Civil Rights movement. For more information, click here to see the piece and the artist.

Karen Baker-Fletcher’s article, “More than Suffering: The Healing and Resurrecting Spirit of God,” presents an understanding of the Holy Spirit that our group found surprising and unexpected. Baker-Fletcher presents Mary, mother of Jesus, as an agent of liberation, active in resistance to oppression. In the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, she is co-creator with God in bringing about the one who will bring liberation into the world. Baker-Fletcher argues for us to take Mary more seriously, not only as the bearer of the Messiah, but as witness and agent of liberation as she mourns the death of a son murdered by unjust violence. Baker-Fletcher links this role of Mary to the many mothers who have lost sons to violence. Our group was struck by the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, a young black man who was dragged to his death by a group of white men in ­­­1955. Like Mary, she lost a son to the unjust violence of an oppressive system, and like Mary, she called out to the world to witness the tragedy, the injustice, her mourning, and to repent. Though she was counseled against it, she held an open casket funeral for her son, which lasted days as thousands of people came to see and to mourn.

In this way, both Mary and Mamie Till-Mobley “took up the cross,” which our group interpreted not as a self-defeating, self-deprecating move, but an inherently liberative move in which they confront the cross (the instrument of injustice) head on in order to defeat it. I (Jessica) was shocked by this radically different understanding of the cross. I had always seen the symbol of the cross only as a religious symbol, symbolizing Jesus’ love for us, obedience to God, and the salvation of the world. Thus I understood the cross as a positive symbol and in this way, the centerpiece of Christianity. However, the liberation understanding of the cross — from which Baker-Fletcher seems to be working — is that the cross was the symbol and instrument of oppression and that Jesus’ death on the cross was not entirely the goal of his life, but the consequence of him remaining faithful to his mission of liberation, even if it resulted in death. (My understanding of a “liberation” view of the cross draws much from the South and Central American Liberation Theologians I read in Theology I, especially Jon Sobrino.) Thus the call to Jesus’ disciples to “take up your cross” is not a call to blind obedience to suffering, or to empty one’s self of all will and desire. Rather the call, as Baker-Fletcher sees it, is to confront evil and oppression however it manifests in your life and situation and fight it, even if it may lead to death.

Our group pondered how the work of the Holy Spirit, as Baker-Fletcher was presenting it, appeared in the most unexpected of places, the last places where you would expect God to be. She writes, “Even in the seeming absence of goodness and divinity, God is there” (p.147). The Holy Spirit works in the call of Mamie Mobley-Till to witness her son’s death, “‘Look, world, don’t you see?’ ‘Look at my son’s face! Look at his body!’ ‘World, get delivered of your demons and Look!’” The Holy Spirit is present sustaining life and supplying sufficient grace even when much supplicated healing does not come. The Holy Spirit can bring healing and resurrection and joy, but is no less present and powerful in mourning, death, and suffering.

We shared some of our experiences with the Holy Spirit. Though we have experienced personal liberation and healing, we had never thought how the Holy Spirit’s liberative work in our lives connects to the work of the Spirit confronting oppression in the world and bringing liberation about for oppressed peoples. Perhaps instead of being categorically different, the Holy Spirit’s work of bringing liberation in our lives is inherently tied up with and indeed, the same work of bringing liberation to the world. However, as a white, middle class North American woman, I dare not equate my personal liberation with the liberation of the world in a way that would personalize what indeed is a real systemic presence of oppression and thus absolve me of responsibility. The reality — which Baker-Fletcher alludes to — is that mothers continue to lose sons to unjust violence, which is only one manifestation of the systemic oppression of millions of people just in our country. This drives me to ask, “Holy Spirit, as you liberate me from my own internal and external oppression, to what do you liberate me? If my liberation is bound up with the liberation you are working in the world, what am I to do with my liberation? Holy Spirit, if you are indeed present amongst the death and suffering in the world, what are you speaking to us, and to what are you calling us?”