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Making Space for Joy in Justice-Seeking

“Joy is not made to be a crumb”.  So ends Mary Oliver’s short poem ‘Don’t Hesitate’.  Oliver’s poem is a playful but fierce insistence that joy is integral to a full life – even in the face of despair, pain, and human suffering.  But implied in Oliver’s poem is the acknowledgement that joy can be hard; we do hesitate to live joyfully in the face of the world’s pain and so need reminding. 

In my work with university students, I am struck by how often students who are committed to the work of justice feel uneasy with joy.  Our campus social justice club is not known for its riotous parties, and our classes that focus on justice issues tend to have a sombre tone – whether that be a history class focusing on stories of health, disability and racial justice, a climate chemistry class, or a theology class exploring the call of Micah 6:8.  How can we embrace joy when hundreds of millions of children continue to go to bed hungry?  How can we dive headfirst into delight when our common future is imperilled by a climate crisis that is growing more uncertain and more serious by the day?  

Joy opens us up to our deep longing for a better world

I share my students’ questions.  How do we make space for joy in this moment in history?  Should we practice joy at all – is it moral to delight when despair seems so much more appropriate?  

It should be said, first, that if we are to make space for joy then we must also make space for lament.  This is particularly true in our common worship.  So many North American churches are tragically uncomfortable with lament.  Perhaps we don’t lament in our worship because it forces us to grapple with the discomfort of our mortality and the real presence of evil and the world’s brokenness, or perhaps we are scared that it may scare newcomers away.  Either way, we need to lament together in worship, not only because it follows the model for worship given to us by Jesus and the psalms, but because it is one way that we tell the truth about us and our world.  

But we must also make space for joy.  Why?  A lot of reasons, I think, but for starters: because joy opens us up to our deep longing for a better world and can open us up to the suffering of our neighbours.  Here’s how Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian and WWII prisoner of war survivor, puts it in a quote that I return to often:  

“Joy in life’s happiness motivates us to revolt against the life that is destroyed and against those who destroy life.  And grief over life that is destroyed is nothing other than an ardent longing for life’s liberation to happiness and joy.  Otherwise we would accept innocent suffering and destroyed life as our fate and destiny.  Compassion is the other side of the living joy.  We don’t accuse God because there is suffering in the world.  Rather, we protest in the name of God against suffering and those who cause it.”

Our delight in them can motivate us to join the Holy Spirit

As Moltmann puts it, joy should not be a way to avoid the realities of injustice and oppression.  Rather, joy motivates us to resist injustice and oppression and those who inflict it because it gives us a lived experience of how life is supposed to be.  A great dance session with our family, a delicious meal with our friends, an afternoon enjoying beautiful paintings or a stunning ocean-side beach . . . these things are deeply good, and our delight in them can motivate us to join the Holy Spirit in building a world where all can experience joy without the ache of an empty belly or the fear of violence or war.

Of course, we can distort God’s gifts of joy into small pleasures that we horde for ourselves or turn into tools to numb us from the pain of the world.  But it need not be so.  Through God’s grace and our faithful intention, practicing joy in our justice-seeking can slowly transform us into more loving people.

I also wonder whether we need joy simply of its power to sustain us in dark times.  Rebecca Solnit, in a helpful essay on hoping for the impossible in the era of climate change, says that ‘We see no farther than the little halo of our lanterns, but we can travel all night by that light.’  Solnit is referring to hope, but I think the same can be said for joy: our joys can seem small when set against the immensity of the challenges before us, but they may also be what sustain us for the uncertain journey God has set before us.  

So my prayer for my students, for you, and for me is this: that our justice-seeking be fiercely joyful in the face of despair.  


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